Take a close look and you...
Take a close look and you will notice that this is not a Nextel Cup car,but a Street Stock car photographed during a test session with a dataacquisition system installed. Hey, why not?
Racers in general have had a very tough time getting comfortable withusing computers in their everyday racing lives. The ones that haveembraced the use of helpful software programs have definitely been moresuccessful for the effort. I speak with racers every day who tellstories about how the "lights came on" and their success improvedthrough the use of computer programs.
Let's take a look at where we are from an industry perspective. Wedecided to ask some professionals that are associated with majorsoftware companies that service the racing industry their opinions onsome topics related to computers in racing.
More racers are getting used to using computers through everydayinteraction with them. It is a natural progression, at some point intime, to move into using computers for racing. The fact that thecomputer is merely a tool helps. Just like a timing light won't decideyour engine's timing, the computer won't set up your race car.
The computer gives us critical information so that we can makeintelligent decisions as to the setup and engine settings that will makeour race car more competitive. When we look at the computer in that way,it is much more palatable to the average racer. Let's see where theindustry is positioned as to the use of computers in racing.
1. Our society, in general, has adapted quite extensively to the use ofcomputers in everyday life on a broad scale. Most families communicateby e-mail, order online, and search for information using computers.What is your perception of the acceptance level of the average racer tousing computers in their racing effort?
John Block, with AutoWare, has this to say: "Based on the 13 to 14thousand hits per week on our company's technical bulletin boards, Iwould say racers using the computer to ask other racers questions iswidely accepted. With roughly a thousand hits per week to our Web site'stech library section, I would say a good number of racers arecomfortable with using the computer for research, too."
On the other hand, "A lot of short-track racers in the lower budgetclasses are happy to be able to just drive fast and have a good time.They are not interested in computers. However, competitive racers in allclasses are always looking for new ideas and technologies to keep themin front of the competition. These racers are looking into computersoftware and data loggers for that extra edge," offers Kevin Gertgenwith Performance Trends.
Larry Atherton, a consultant to ProRacingSim software, adds, "I havebeen selling software to performance enthusiasts and racers for about 10years. Over this time, I have noticed a significant change in theattitude of the average racer. These changes have occurred in two majorareas: 1) Users generally accept that it is possible to perform thecomplex simulations that are now commonly used tools in racing andperformance, and 2) Automotive enthusiasts are more familiar withcomputers in general and are not as intimidated with either computeroperation or the use of simulation software and all the features that itnow contains."
2. We have seen the level of technology and sophistication of computersskyrocket in a relatively short amount of time. How far has racingtechnology come, in the past 10 years or so, related to computers?
The computer station (sometimes...
The computer station (sometimes more than one) is where the data isanalyzed and decisions are made to improve the handling of the car.
"The single most important factor contributing to the robustness ofsimulation technology is computer speed. With today's gigahertzprocessors with built-in, floating-point math coprocessors, it ispossible to perform, in one second, the math that would take a singlehuman being an entire lifetime by hand. Hundreds of millions ofcalculations per second without a single error!" says Atherton.
Gertgen has this point to make: "The biggest two advances are: a) Thecosts have come down dramatically, so now the average short-track racercan afford a computer, some racing software, and even a data logger, andb) The computer software, as it matures, has become more powerful and,more importantly, more user-friendly."
And this interesting observation from Block: "One comparison might bethat computers have helped us reach the moon and beyond while racing isstill trying to get from the hangar to the launch pad."
3. There are many different levels of complexity in racing overall, fromStreet Stock class Saturday night racers up to "weekend" prototyperacing, where the budgets often exceed a million dollars. Is there aneed at all levels of racing for computers?
"Computers can help in all levels of racing, perhaps even more in thelower budget classes. That's because the lower budget, less experiencedteams need more help," is the opinion of Gertgen. "The big thing iswhether the team has the time required to learn, use, and take advantageof the software. This is where the high-budget teams have the advantage.They will assign the computer duties to a team member, and that memberwill make the time to use the computer correctly."
Block says, "I can use a cutting torch to pull a wheel off, or vicegrips to change jets, but to win (and win on a regular basis), the besttool for the job of setting up a race car is a computer. All racers canbenefit from analyzing suspension geometry or engine combinations on acomputer."
On a very positive note, Atherton adds, "Anyone who would like toexplore what would happen if they installed certain parts, or adjustedsuspension components in a certain way, or make any of the thousands ofmodifications that are commonplace in racing and performance, simulationsoftware can save them money, give them answers that can help themcompete effectively, and even be fun to use and form the basis fortechnical discussions with their associates."
4. The average person is not very computer literate per se. Many times,it is the perceived complexity of computers and software, real or not,that holds most racers back from using beneficial technology. What canyou say to those who fear computers to make them more comfortable?
Even the tire guy gets into...
Even the tire guy gets into the computer act. Here, he logs informationabout tire temperatures, tire wear, and tire pressures. This data baseproves very useful in determining such settings as static camber angles,cold tire pressure settings, overall tire wear, and so on.
Block gives us this interesting perspective into his earliest adventurewith an engine: "I remember as a pre-teenager the first time I tore downan engine. There was a great fear of not being able to get it backtogether properly before my dad got home. However, all went well, muchwas learned, and to this day he has no idea of what I did to his lawnmower. I seriously doubt there is anything you could do to a computerthat would make your dad take his belt off. Just do it!"
Amen. Heck, I blew my dad's Briggs & Stratton lawn mower motor in lessthan a minute when I supercharged it with a bicycle pump at age 13.
"Using any complex tool can be a challenge. Like any automated machinerythat comes with a very intimidating manual, it takes a while for a newuser to begin to do quality work. But anyone who has gone through thelearning curve would agree that it was worth the effort. The sameapplies to computers and software. Any reasonably intelligent individualwith determination can accomplish a great deal with computertechnology," Atherton suggests.
Here is some great advice from Gertgen that suggests: "Start with a verysimple computer program. Then you are less likely to become frustratedand turned off by computers. It's really exciting to see answers comingout of a computer program about your car on your track, about a problemyou are trying to solve. Once you see how much knowledge can be gainedor time saved, you will want to move into more powerful programs or todata acquisition."
5. In your experience, what are the most useful functions of computersand related software for the average racer?
Gertgen says, "Most of our sales are for suspension analysis software.Customers first want to find their front roll center. Then, theyconsider a record-keeping program or they get software to analyze theentire car (e.g., to find the best gear ratio at different tracks).Then, they get the more detailed analysis of bumpsteer, Ackermann,anti-dive, and so on. After that, they start looking to data loggers."
"Number one is data acquisition, even on a Street Stock, especially nowthat it has gotten so affordable. Next is computer modelingsoftware--programs that simulate suspensions, engines, and so on.Modeling lets you play 'what if' games and see what would happen muchfaster than you could mock it up on the actual car," is Block's opinion.
A view well worth considering is from Atherton: "Well, in my experience,it's the ability of simulations to let users 'play' with ideas andconcepts without having to spend a fortune on parts. This is a wonderfulcapability that I could only dream about when I was racing in my youth.This really changes who can participate in the 'inner sanctum' of racingtechnology. Just about anyone can now make real contributions."