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

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
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.

And while all this is happening, the teams must worry, to some extent, about the data being stolen by competing teams as it travels wirelessly from the cars to the command centers.

That's because, Weiss said, the connections are open. In fact, he said, race fans can monitor much of the data at home using RaceTracker, an application on the Champ Car Web site.

Thus, the teams hold back from sending some of the crucial data wirelessly. Instead, they download a significant amount of data every time the car comes in for a pit stop by connecting a serial cable from the command center straight into the car.

Once all the data has arrived, Weiss explained, the crew can analyze it in many different ways.

For example, the team can read aerodynamic data that determines wind flow around the car in real time. Then, depending on what the data tells the crew, they can adjust tire pressure or other aerodynamic factors on the car in response in order to best take advantage of current conditions.

Most important, he said, is that the team knows exactly how fast the fastest cars in the race are going, as well as the slowest. Further, they have to know where every car in the race is at all times, and in relation to their own car.

According to Weiss, it is crucial to be able to run all this technology in the simplest way, and with minimal staffing, as it must be set up and taken down 20 times a year as the Champ Car circuit travels the world.

"The goal is to keep everyone's eyes on the game," Weiss said, "and to keep Justin in the car, not fixing it."

Another bit of impressive technology is the car's steering wheel, a $15,000 tool that includes several readouts and a whole lot of buttons allowing the driver to make decisions and act on them without taking his hands off the wheel.

One button, Weiss said, can deliver drinking water directly into the driver's helmet. Another limits power to the cylinders when the car is in the pit, since rules limit cars to 60 miles an hour in the pit.

There's also a button called Power to Pass, which boosts performance by 50 horsepower at any time. However, rules limit cars to 60 total seconds of this boost per race. So teams must monitor each car's usage in order to strategize on when best to use it themselves.

That data can be read by the command center and then relayed to the driver.

In the future, Weiss said, even more technology will come to bear. That could include the ability to monitor drivers' heart rates, as well as to record race audio and video on TiVo-like equipment.

"Technology is always evolving in the cars," Weiss said. "The more information we have, the more we know what to adjust."