Race on! How tech makes Nascar faster, safer, and more exciting

Nascar hopes to draw fans with a high-tech car and a tighter field than ever. CNET Road Trip 2013 took in the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to see if it works.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- The challenge facing Nascar was simple: Make its cars faster than ever, safer than ever, and more exciting than ever, without turning fans or drivers off. And keep the playing field as level as possible.

As part of Road Trip 2013, I've come to perhaps the most hallowed racing grounds of all, the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home to the Indianapolis 500, for last weekend's Brickyard 400. I'm here to see just how Nascar is trying to pull off this tricky balancing act, an attempt to breathe new life into a sport that once was more popular than any in America, but which had been losing fans before a recent resurgence.

I'm focusing on Nascar's recent launch of its so-called "Gen-6 car," as well as the technologies it uses to inspect cars prior to races, and to keep accurate score during a race. I'll be posting a separate story on Nascar racing tires, so please stay tuned for that.

Chassis to R&D
For the many teams that race in Nascar's major leagues, the Sprint Cup Series, the competition process begins well before any races. That's especially true this year, because Nascar rolled out its sixth-generation car in 2013, leaving behind a car that it first raced in 2007. The Gen-6 car is meant to better its predecessor by adding several new features, even while slashing 150 pounds of weight.

To begin with, the Gen-6 car's body is made from a new carbon fiber material. It has a new, stronger roof structure meant to be safer, and a rear spoiler known as a deck fin that helps with stability. It also has a new paint scheme that helps fans figure out who is driving by placing the driver's last name on the windshield. And in response to fans who were unhappy with the fact that the Gen-5 cars had the same body shape regardless of the manufacturer, the Gen-6 car has unique panels for each manufacturer, regardless of if it's a Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion, or Toyota Camry.

In order to find the ideal parameters for the Gen-6 car, Nascar spent uncountable hours in a special rolling road wind tunnel looking for the right set of aerodynamic rules. The result, Nascar believes, is a car that drivers love, because it's lighter, and faster. Indeed, throughout 2013, track speed records have been falling one after another due to the new cars being faster than ever.

At the same time, there appears to be evidence that the new cars are bringing greater parity to the sport than ever before, which was precisely Nascar's goal.

Prior to the Brickyard 400, there had been 19 Sprint Cup Series races in 2013, and while five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson had won four events, 11 different drivers had won at least one race. In addition, the remainder of the field is tighter than ever, as measured by points in the standings. So far, at least, the Gen-6 car seems to be doing its job.

But each car's chassis is built by the team behind it, which must follow a strict set of Nascar guidelines governing a wide variety of specifications. And before the body is added, the chassis are sent to Nascar's research and development center in Concord, N.C., where they are inspected using a CAD system to ensure that things like metal thickness and general geometry are up to snuff.

There, Nascar embeds 11 RFID tags in the chassis, which allow inspectors at each race to determine if it has been modified. But before the cars hit the tracks, they return to the teams, where the bodies are added.

While Nascar is aiming for a level playing field, and the goal that the drivers will make the difference in who wins and loses, and not the cars (especially because some teams have far more financial resources than others), the sport's governing body is not naïve enough to think that the teams don't look for an edge. It's a truism in racing that "if you're not cheating, you're not going to win." But by using the latest technology, Nascar is hoping to keep that cheating to a minimum.

Engineering
In another attempt to adopt modern technology, while making sure teams follow the rules, Nascar has moved to a new electronic fuel-injection system. That system requires that teams run Nascar's software, which controls the rate of fuel spray and other factors. If teams do anything to change the software, the engine shuts down.

While Nascar doesn't test each car after each race, it does take the winner's car and engine, as well as one random car and engine, back to its R&D center to test them and make sure they're in compliance with the rules. And while it's rare, Nascar has assessed penalties for infractions like being too low to the ground.

What's clear is that even little changes can affect races. After all, the difference between pole position and the final starter was less than 10 miles per hour, and the top 10 starters were separated by just over 1.3 miles an hour in their qualifying speeds. And that's exactly what Nascar wants. As such, it allows only minor modifications to the car, such as a little engineering to the vehicle from the driver's front clip, in front of the driver's feet, which can potentially help the car turn better.

Then again, Nascar's rule book is constantly in flux. It frequently distributes a Tech Bulletin, announcing any new rules, and there can be new regulations in between races.

Though it doesn't come into play at tracks like Indianapolis, there are sometimes restrictor plates mounted on the cars' engines -- most likely at tracks like Daytona in Florida or Talladega in Alabama. They are designed to slow the cars down in order to keep them from climbing up the steep inclines on the tracks' curves, a very dangerous phenomenon.

Scanning and scoring
Before each race, each team brings its car to a special scanning system set up outside the garages at the event racetrack. There, officials mount special white rims on the wheels, which are designed to help center special lasers which are meant to measure a long list of heights and widths on each car.

A laser-driven scanning machine helps Nascar ensure that each car measures up properly before a race. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The computerized system records the data and instantly spits out the measurements. If a car fails, its team has a small amount of time to make required changes. When it passes, it moves forward, and a Nascar official stays with each car until the race begins to ensure there are no disallowed modifications.

At the same time, Nascar mounts wires throughout the track and transponders on each car in order to do very accurate in-race scoring. Each time a transponder passes one of the so-called "scoring loops," its time is recorded. While Nascar has been doing electronic scoring for 20 years, the newest version of the system allows it to keep a much closer eye on the order of cars at various points around the track, meaning that if there's a caution, it can freeze the order of the field until the race is back on. Previously, cars would race and jockey for position during a caution, which caused a safety problem.

Now, Nascar is beta testing real-time statistics, though it has yet to distribute them to teams or the press. It also measures passing data, since the scoring loop can track most passes on the course.

The question is, are fans responding to the changes? It's hard to tell. Today, according to Forbes, Nascar is second only to NFL in terms of TV popularity among sports. But it has lost ground over the years. And if the Brickyard 400 is any indication, the sport has a ways to go. The race last weekend drew 100,000 people. That would be an impressive number if only the Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn't seat 250,000.

 

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