In race cars, high-speed data has new meaning

At more than 200 miles per hour, these grand prix cars need every advantage they can get. Photos: High tech hits the racetrack

SAN JOSE, Calif.--I'm standing in the pit at the San Jose Grand Prix as race cars in a qualifying heat are flying by at high speed, and I'm in a conversation about technology. It has to be one of the oddest places I've ever had such a chat.

But it turns out that high tech and car racing go hand in hand, especially these days. And that's why I've been invited to come and get a close-up view of exactly how, and why, that happens.

To be precise, I'm in the pit of the RuSport racing team, which is sponsored by CDW, a giant technology retailer. Everything I'm learning is specifically related to how RuSport incorporates tech in an attempt to get its sleek red number 9 car to the finish line just a little bit faster than everyone else.

RuSport gallery

These cars go fast, by the way. According to Howard Weiss, a CDW field systems engineer, the cars can hit speeds up to 240 miles an hour. And so, in a race that spans 97 laps, every little advantage counts.

From the technology perspective, RuSport aims to access and analyze data from its car, largely on the fly. And these days, having the best technology in this extreme environment can translate into a better chance to win.

Technology "is incredibly important, and in fact, we can't perform without it and we can't even function without it on the racetrack," said Jeremy Dale, a former racer himself and now owner of the RuSport team. Its place on the auto racing circuit has some noticeable distinctions from other tech environs here in Silicon Valley. "This isn't exactly a clean room," he said. "That is temperature- and humidity-controlled."

According to Weiss, each team's car is based on the same Ford Cosworth 2.65-liter, 800-horsepower V8 engine and Lola lightweight carbon fiber chassis. But beyond that, each team gets to improvise in many creative ways, especially when it comes to how they use technology.

Some of the most important technology used by each team in this ChampCar World Series event is sent wirelessly from the cars to command centers alongside pit row, where it can be analyzed on the spot. There are hundreds of sensors all around the car, Weiss explained, measuring braking, tire pressure, tire rotation, fuel level and, of course, speed.

Within the RuSport command center, crew members are huddled over laptops, taking in wireless data as the number 9 car speeds around the track in this initial qualifying run. The cars that do the best over two days of qualifying are expected to have the best chances to win during the actual race.

In Sunday's final, the number 9 car, driven by Justin Wilson, did well enough to finish in the third spot. First place went to Sebastian Bourdais of the Newman Haas team, followed in second by Cristiano da Matta, another RuSport driver.

As simple as Pi?
For RuSport, bringing CDW on board was a matter of trying to find a way to get the best out of technology, even when that tech is as simple to operate and maintain as possible. And for CDW, providing help to a racing team was a chance to put its usual methods to work, albeit in slightly different circumstances.

"How we approach RuSport is how we approach our other small-business customers," said CDW spokesman Clark Walter. "Only they're not going 200 miles per hour."

Weiss said that the team relies on telemetry--the wireless acquisition of crucial race car data--to learn during the race what modifications to make when the car comes in for a pit stop.

As the team monitors factors like fuel usage, speed, tire pressure and the like, technicians are feeding the data into a sophisticated, custom application called Pi. The idea is to evaluate the data as it arrives in the context of safety, to make sure the car isn't overheating; performance, to ensure that the car is performing as well as possible; and strategy, to see to it that the car has enough fuel to run, but not so much that it is weighed down.

The wireless racing data is sent to a single telemetry server, which then feeds it into the Pi application. Then, Weiss said, the application file shares the data into relevant customized subapplications, which are operating on separate laptops manned by individual crew members.

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