The presence or absence of a racecar’s fenders can mean quite a lot these days. It can mean whether or not the car is legal to drive on the street. Or they can mean the difference between Sports Car racing or Formula. But things weren’t always so complicated, and the fender question didn’t matter as much, or so the old drivers thought.
As long as there have been automobiles, there has been automobile racing. Ransom Olds, the first American automaker and the founder of Oldsmobile was racing his Olds Pirate car circa 1897. The earliest cars, like the 95 ci, 7 hp Pirate, had no fenders, but by the time cars hit the mainstream, many models did. The ubiquitous Model T, for example, is almost identified by its large, swooping fenders. They caught mud and water, and many governments counted them safer, enacting fender laws.
In the 1920s, however, auto racing became popular in America, especially on the salt flats of California and Utah. And on those cars, the earliest of hot rods, there was nary a fender to be seen. Why did the early salt racers eschew fenders? Was it simply to save weight, or was there a perception of greater aerodynamic ability?
One reason might be that hot rods, even from their inception, were often entirely custom. They might have been referred to as “Fords” or “Chevrolets,” but those were only the stamps on the engines. The car bodies themselves were usually welded chassis and hammered aluminum bodies. After World War II, many hot rod “salt racers” were even built inside the disused fuel tanks of bomber planes.
With all the work that went into building hot rods, there often wasn’t budget or interest in adding fenders. Though he was born into a later era, hot rodder John Buttera built hot rods around salt era cars. “I could get a car done a whole lot quicker and cheaper if I left all that extra stuff off,” he once said. “That’s why I didn’t run fenders…it costs you as much money putting fenders on a car as it does to build a car!”
But perhaps, knowing what we know today about aerodynamics, the hot rod pioneers would have gone to the trouble. Closed wheel racing is actually better when you’re dealing with the ravenous maw of drag. Open wheels tend to grip the air at high speeds like thieving monkeys, while cars with fenders tend to slide right through.
Why, then, do F1 cars have open wheels? If Formula One is the fastest, most intense type of circuit racing, wouldn’t they need fenders to fight drag? Well, assuming we can ignore the massively complex FIA rulebook governing exactly what F1 cars can and can’t have, (and ignoring that rule book is never a good idea) there are also the brakes to consider. A fenderless wheel can cool its brakes much faster at 150 MPH than one can in the close, choked environment of a fender.
F1’s twists, turns, blocks, and other quick deceleration needs mean fenders would completely change the sport. But fear not, fender fans. The side wings are crucial to Sports Car races like Le Mans. That fabled run, for instance, churns on for a full 24 hours, and endurance is the real trick. Automakers like Peugeot and Audi spend years and millions researching the best ways to keep their Le Mans cars out between pit stops. Cars producing less drag burn less fuel and don’t have to stop as often. This has led to the creation of some breathtakingly beautiful machines, like Audi’s R18.
For your daily drive, most of this is moot. State DOTs have strict fender regulations on everything but the oldest hot rods and vintage replicas. In some states even these exemptions are missing. Fender laws these days usually annoy the off road community, especially the Jeep branch, who want to run their boggers, even if the rubber clears the fenders by 3” on either side.
So let’s say you were running a custom built hot rod in, say, 1946. Knowing what you know about aerodynamics, and still wanting to save weight, would you add fenders, or leave your wheels running bare?