Ever wonder how NASCAR keeps track of 43 cars going around at speeds up to 200 mph? It’s a complex process, one that includes far more than electronic timing to confirm where cars are running around the racetrack. A member of each team aids officials in the tower, individual scorers whose sole responsibility is to make sure their driver is credited for the exact amount of laps he’s run. With nothing more than a piece of paper, a pencil and their eyes, these men and women become an integral part of how the final results get tabulated each week.
But in a sport where technology has moved to the forefront this decade, that process is on the verge of moving to the next level. This year, you may have noticed little black boxes stuck on the windshields of cars in the Nationwide Series. Made by a company called Tiwi – infamous for installing the crash data recorders in Cup cars following Dale Earnhardt’s accident – what these boxes are commissioned to do is part of a long-term process that will revolutionize not just NASCAR Timing and Scoring, but the way in which fans can view a race for years to come.
Just what is this technology, you ask, and why should you understand it? For the answers, read on in this week’s edition of Beyond the Cockpit.
Tom Bowles, Frontstretch: Tiwi has been around in NASCAR since 2002, with your crash data recorder. What’s the back story as to how you got involved in the sport in the first place? Did NASCAR approach you? Or did you have this great idea and approach them to get involved in the sport?
Scott McClellan, Chief Innovative Officer For Tiwi: Basically, a friend of ours was a vendor or potential vendor with NASCAR in a number of areas. And they were familiar with our technology and when NASCAR put out a request for proposals, they knew our product was perfect for what they were looking for. And, so NASCAR called us.
Specifically, the sport wanted to have a very reliable, completely independently powered crash data recorder on board every vehicle that runs in their top-three series: Cup, the Nationwide Series and the Trucks, so that they can begin to study how well their safety systems were working. They needed a very high-quality crash data recorder that was battery powered, and there’s not very many players in that arena.
And we’ve done a very good job with NASCAR [ironing out the relationship since 2002]. Let me share a quick story with you. None of the engineers in our company had ever had any exposure to the sport, and in the first meeting we were sitting there and I believe Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon were there, but they were dressed in street clothes. Well, I turned to Gordon and asked, “Well, how do you do Jeff. I’m Scott. What do you do for NASCAR?” And that’s where there was complete silence in the room because they couldn’t believe we didn’t know who Jeff was. And at that point they realized we were genuine – and the relationship has grown over the past eight years.
Tom Bowles: And this recorder still exists to the present day?
Scott McClellan: Correct. I think that the power of the crash data recorder is that [before it existed] you didn’t have a very accurate system that gave you a pulse or signature of crash severity. [For example,] you wouldn’t really know that the impact in Texas with Michael McDowell’s car – how long the crash pulse was, and what the magnitudes were. [Without the crash data recorder], you couldn’t further go back and test and answer the question of, “I wonder how well the SAFER barrier performed in this case,” or how well the helmet performed, or the seat belts or any of the other safety features on the vehicle. It basically gives you the ability, the feedback you need to test the efficacy of your safety design.
Tom Bowles: OK. Well how did that lead to you getting involved in the future of NASCAR Timing and Scoring?
Scott McClellan: Well, NASCAR wanted to develop some sort of a digital timing and scoring technology, and it was a natural partnership for them to ask us to look for solutions. They wanted a very high precision GPS system. We were making one. And we’ve had a very good relationship over the past eight years. They trust us, and we tell them what we can and cannot do. So it’s been a very good relationship, and it enables them to have a very nimble technology partner.
Tom Bowles: What, exactly, are you doing for NASCAR Timing and Scoring with your black box device?
Scott McClellan: Well, the current system we have right now is designed specifically to perform as a lap counter. The project is multi-faceted… but the first phase of this is to have a box that simply counts laps. It’s not to replace the loop data system. The loop system is millimeter accuracy, and at this point our GPS system – at least in its initial format – can place exactly where the car is on the track, accurate within five meters. But to be a lap counter, whether you’re in front of me by a few meters or behind me, it really doesn’t matter as long as I’m keeping accurate count of the laps completed. And five meters is actually well within – and much more accurate – than the current redundant system that they had in place right now. Currently, it’s a manual process – they have lap counters in the timing and scoring booth that will basically toggle and switch every time a specific car crosses the start/finish line. So, it’s labor intensive, and purely from an efficiency perspective, if you can have an accurate system, a digital system that can replace that, there are economic reasons behind it.
But there are different stages to the project. Stage one is as a lap counter, and as we find success there, the next phase would be to connect that to the crash data recorder [to utilize the data we’re collecting]. And now, you can transmit accelerations and/or crashes in real time [and figure out what the car is doing when those happen]. And then, a third phase would be something akin to very high precision, very high sample rate, which would be positioning where the car is down to the centimeter range, on something more than 30 Hz frequency real time.
Tom Bowles: How does your system get set up in the cars each weekend?
Scott McClellan: We have a bracket that is mounted to the windshield of every vehicle, every car and/or truck. And the system just basically slides into this bracket, there is a cam wheel lock that holds it in place – and we use a pin system that toggles on and off. NASCAR wants to prevent connectivity to the electrical system in the car, so they want a completely self-contained, battery-powered system. And so our system has a battery – it has about a 10-hour battery life.
On a race weekend, we would typically get there shortly after the haulers arrive and the vehicles go through the first inspection. And we place the Tiwis into position, and they’re just basically dormant until an hour or so before race time. And then we pull the pins, and just watch them come up over an internet portal, and the system is now live. And once they start running around the track, we start counting laps, and there’s a specific ID – Identification number – with every Tiwi. And that’s associated with a specific car. So, that’s how we keep track of how many laps the A-car or the B-car complete during any specific event.
Tom Bowles: I wanted to ask a little bit about the technical aspects. I’m certainly not Johnny Scientist by any means, so – how does it work? To me, it’s an amazing thing where you can get GPS to locate where a car is on the track electronically.
Scott McClellan: Yeah, that’s a pretty standard GPS chip set. We’re not doing – that specific chip set is really designed and/or being used strictly for this lap counting application. The fact that [the car] may be on the inside of the track or the outside of the track is not – it’s really of no consequence, because overall they’re going to the start/finish line and we can detect that. That’s our primary focus, primary function. As we move to a later phase of this project, then positioning becomes a much greater focus, and accuracy becomes – you go from five meters into one meter into centimeters of accuracy. And the reason we don’t just jump into that is there a lot of things to learn in the interim, so it’s kind of a [long-term] process.
Todd Follmer, CEO of Inthinc: So, our boxes work via cell modem. So, we have made Sprint’s public network work for us at the track. So, the GPS signal is sent via the cell modem to the portal. We actually log every GPS location at one second intervals right now on the track. And that goes into a separate file that we use for analysis and for our R&D process, but in addition to that, the unit knows itself because of the programming every time it’s completed a lap. And that notification is sent over the cell modem as well.
Tom Bowles: Where do you see this type of technology going in five years? Do you see you guys becoming a primary timing and scoring outlet over time, as the technology becomes more accurate? Where would you like to take your technology within NASCAR next?
Todd Follmer: If our technology evolves to the point that it’s the most accurate means of determining a position of the car on the track, that I would think naturally NASCAR would want to use it. And as we pinpoint our GPS to locate the cars on the track within one centimeter of accuracy – we hope to have that done by 2009 – there are multiple functions we can use this for. Because the technology’s so simple, because it requires no equipment at the track site itself in order to count a lap – it can be deployed in any series and be used at any track. So, tracks that can’t afford the kind of timing and scoring system that NASCAR is using as its primary system at all of its tracks – I think we’re going to have a product that can be used by anybody that’s putting on a race to have a very accurate system. It’ll also be a way to observe a race for races that are not being broadcast.
If you look back to how broadcast.com got started with Mark Cuban, it was his hobby as a fan of Indiana basketball to be able to listen to an Indiana broadcast wherever he was. Well, this system over the long-term can be a way for race fans to – where this system has been deployed – to watch a race, a virtual race anywhere in the world.
Tom Bowles: Sort of like NASCAR.com’s RaceView product.
Todd Follmer: Yes. Really, we’re going to have a fairly inexpensive piece of technology that can be installed in a racecar, and whatever track it’s going to run at can have the benefit of our lap-counting system, and it also can be a feed for somebody to create a virtual broadcast of the race. So, over the long-term, I definitely see it going that direction.
And we’d like to develop other uses for the product. [For example,] having the ability for teams to be able to look at the line that their drivers run would be enormously helpful. Often times, a driver when talking with a crew chief, they are looking for, they are trying to help their driver hit their mark as they enter a turn so they can reproduce their fastest lap time.
And a system like the one we’re talking about – well, often times the crew chiefs tell us that drivers miss those marks by 15 feet either up or down. And a system like ours could help them pinpoint the entrance to their turn or their exit on the track. So, I think there are a lot of benefits to both the teams, to NASCAR, and to the fans for a fairly simple improvement like this one. Not to mention the technologies that we test here have a direct impact into the commercial world.
Tom Bowles: Just one other question that I have – you’re racing a bit of human element. NASCAR has had manual scorers for so long – have you had any backlash in taking away the function of these scorers?
Scott McClellan: I think overall, the teams have been very positive. And even the scorers themselves – which, I think, the manual function or manual process has certainly played a very important role in the history of NASCAR. There’s no question about it. But as other technologies come along, NASCAR is a business as well, and each team is a business. To ignore a significant improvement in efficiency and a reduction in cost would really be – in the long-term – it could be a catastrophic business decision. So, I think that for a lot of reasons, NASCAR is always looking to improve efficiency not unlike they’re moving to improve safety. The fact that they could take a system like this and digitize it, and really – in many respects – move it from an overhead expense, which is a complete cost structure, to potentially a revenue-generating function, it’s good business and it’s actually good for the fans.