Horsepower is a big deal when we buy our production equipment. But, do we really know what horsepower is? Really know? My guess is that most of us do not.
Several recent experiences brought the significance of horsepower into better focus for me, not that I wasn’t aware of its importance. That began a warm June day after my 16th birthday. That’s when my dad, Cliff, entrusted me with the keys to a dark green 1951 Ford Custom two-door powered with a squat 100 hp flathead V-8. I thought it was hot. I soon learned it was not.
Two much more recent experiences provided me a more profound understanding of the importance of horsepower, although still leaving me confused about just how to understand it. After digging into the history of how the term came to be and trying to determine exactly how to describe it, I settled on the simplest definition that I could understand.
It’s the formula that James Watt developed in the 18th century to compare the amount of work his steam engine could do compared to the work a horse could do. How exactly he came up with the figure of 33,000 foot-pounds per minute is not particularly important other than to say that it’s still pretty much how we measure horsepower.
OK, let’s circle back to two recent experiences that piqued my interest in horsepower and its significance.
Experience #1: Sweaty hands and my heart thumping so wildly that I felt it would explode from my chest describes what I felt thundering around the 1.5-mile, oddly oval track at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. That cool September morning found me in friendly competition with several Briggs & Stratton folks and a fellow journalist at the Rusty Wallace Racing Experience.
After somehow managing to squeeze through the driver’s window of car #63, a retired NASCAR stock car, I easily worked it through all four gears, and exited pit row with screeching tires and the smell of burnt rubber.
Within a lap I had #63 to 125 mph on the straight backstretch. And over the span of the next 20 minutes or so (and at the insistent urging of my spotter in the stands urging me to go “faster, faster” through my radio headset) I think I approached 130 to 135 on the straightaways.
To give you some perspective of my performance: While my turn on the track was in the company of just three other race cars and novice drivers (one of whom lapped me three times), on a race day, NASCAR pros jostle with 30 or more other drivers at 190 to 195 mph, about 60 mph hour faster than my fastest lap. And these steely-nerved racing pros are going bumper-to-bumper and tire-to-tire for an entire afternoon or evening. The stakes are high, sometimes as much as a million dollars.
So, what about horsepower you might be wondering? The V-8s that propel the cars on the Sprint Car circuit crank out between 750 to 800 hp.
Hall of Fame Jockey Chris McCarron shared fascinating horse racing stores at the Kentucky Derby.
Experience #2: Pre-dawn Wednesday, Oct. 23 found me in the company of about 40 John Deere folks and guests at Churchill Downs in Louisville. As we were finishing our breakfasts, Chris McCarron, a smallish man in a blue sweater who had been standing quietly to one side of the small room, was introduced. Not being a student of horse racing, I did not recognize Chris or his name. Soon enough though I acquired a profound respect for McCarron, one of the most successful jockeys of all time.
McCarron rode 7,141 winners in his 28-year racing career, including two Kentucky Derby winners: Alysheba, 1987, and Go for Gin, 1994. He humbly described those and his other major victories as “being on the right horse, in the right race on the right day.”
What does horsepower mean for McCarron, who now teaches aspiring jockeys at his North American Racing Academy in Kentucky?
Horsepower for him on a race day is a living, spirited 1,200- to 1,500-pound animal that generates enough force to propel it to 40 mph within four strides. And this on legs no thicker than a man’s ankle.
NASCAR and horse racing represent two different examples of horsepower. While neither applies to the equipment that we use in the landscape industry, it’s my hope that this modest column provides you a broader understanding of horsepower in all of its many different applications.
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