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."
6. The use of computers has enhanced our knowledge of race car dynamicsover the years. We can now "see" more efficiently what the car is doingand better understand what the car wants. In your experience, how havecomputers in racing helped you to gain more technical knowledge aboutthe race car of today?
Computerized spring rating...
Computerized spring rating apparatus provide speedy and accurateanalysis of the spring rate for a specific range of compression (i.e.,in the working range of the spring based on its location in the car).
Block tells us: "Twenty years ago, I used suspension software on theIndy Cars and learned a ton. That software is still just as valuabletoday for any weekend racer. Twelve years ago, I got a major educationusing engine software, which is still (if not more) viable today for allracers. Six years ago, I got into data acquisition, and the learning hasnever stopped. Shocks have gone from black magic to simple science.Chassis flex way more than you could ever imagine, and your jaw will hitthe floor the first time you see live tire temperatures all the wayaround the track. Best of all, I can now tell how fast the car could go(i.e., lap time) in spite of the driver."
7. A question that is often asked is, "Where do I start with computers?"A racer wants to know how to get started and the basic cost versusbenefits of investing in computers and systems. What advice would youoffer?
Gertgen advises, "Start with a simple front roll center program. It'seasy enough for beginners, and you won't get frustrated, as it's veryintuitive."
"Like any learning experience, the enthusiast should pick what worksbest for him or her. If it's learning through personal interaction, thena class (often a free evening or weekend class at a civic center) wouldbe a great start. If it's quiet, personal study, then there are manyvery good 'getting started' books," Atherton suggests. "All in all,start off cheap and learn. It's doesn't have to cost a lot to getstarted [a used computer and low-end simulation package can be purchasedfor a couple of hundred dollars!]."
"If you don't have a computer, chances are you can get one for free froma friend, family member, or even a work place that is upgrading orlikely to have an old one collecting dust. If it is new enough to have aCD drive, then it will likely be fine for most any suspension or enginesoftware currently on the market," says Block.
8. There are a lot of teams who compete at the above-average level,which includes dirt and asphalt touring teams. Their budgets aresomewhat larger, in many cases, than that of a team who "stays at home"every week. With the need to adjust to new tracks and conditions, howcan computers help?
This computer is located atop...
This computer is located atop the pit cart and used during the race toplan pit strategy as well as keep track of track position and lap timesby being linked to the scoring system at the track.
"On the free end of the spectrum, you can use spreadsheets to trackeverything from hauler inventory to travel expenses. Software for enginetuning (weather, elevation, and so on) is great for anybody thattravels, and these usually cost less than $100. Suspension modelingsoftware can also help, but data acquisition is the ultimate tool. Youwill learn more in a one-day test with data acquisition than with awhole year's worth of racing." Block says.
"Again, in my situation", adds Atherton, "with the viewpoint of asimulation designer, this is exactly why we create and use simulations.It makes it possible for the low-budget teams to get an edge on whatwould be otherwise unavailable extensive testing or even unavailableexpertise."
9. Although most average racers will never race at the top levels suchas Nextel Cup, Grand Am, Indy Car, F1, and so on, some of the technologyand information acquired through the use of computers does cross overand apply to more than one form of racing. What are your experienceswith technology that have crossed over, be it "down" or "up"?
Gertgen offers, "John Block of Autoware is providing a seminar series onthe Web about data loggers and how to use the data to tune your vehicleor driving technique. John has experience in Nextel Cup and Busch and ispassing it directly to the short-track racer. This is an excellentopportunity to learn about data loggers and racing in general."
Block adds, "Don't forget sideways or totally different technologytransfer. For example, I use a software package developed for dragracing when I am working on cars at Daytona or Talladega. This is anincredible aid as witnessed by the fact that we (teams he has workedwith) have been on the pole at both places!"
10. As a professional who utilizes computers almost on a daily basis todesign and refine race cars, what thoughts can you share that might helprace teams at all levels feel more comfortable using computers in theirracing programs?
John Block downloads data...
John Block downloads data after a test run. He has refined the art ofreading the various data and using that to interpret such areas ofperformance as driver skills, engine performance related to trackconfiguration, and so on. Without the ability to read data, many of the"diseases" associated with ill-handling cars would go completelyunnoticed.
"Well, I don't know how comfortable it will make them, but theircompetition is using computers and simulation technology, and if theyignore this resource, they simply won't be able to compete effectively.If they like using high-tech tools, like a great Snap-on wrench thatfeels so good in your hand, then they should look at computers as justanother slick, high-tech tool. It is the natural progression of our'information' society to use more and more computational tools, andserious racers need to embrace this technology; it's not going away anytime soon," says Atherton.
Gertgen is brutally honest when he tells us about his experiences:"We're on computers six to twelve hours a day. We still lose datasometimes because the computer locks up in the middle of something. Weuse software daily where we're only using 10 percent of its featuresbecause we don't have time to learn the whole program. Or, we'll stilljump right into a new program before reading the manual. Don't be tooembarrassed to call for tech help, as we've probably had the same thinghappen to us. You also provide us with valuable feedback to make ourprogram better."
And finally, while I generally don't let these discussions evolve intoadvertisements as such, the following is just too good an opportunityfor the average racer to pass up. For just $20 for four sessions or $35for all eight, Block is offering online Web seminars teaching dataacquisition technology.
"We have started doing seminars online to eliminate apprehension and getracers up to speed. It is sort of like a bulletin board, butturbocharged with rocket fuel and steroids! A racer logs into ourvirtual conference room where we have live classes. You hear theinstructor on your computer speakers and see the instructor's slides onyour screen. If you have a microphone connected to your computer, youcan ask the instructor (or anyone else in the room) questions;otherwise, there is a section where you see live text messages on thescreen. It is a new concept that is becoming very popular, and theracers tell us they really enjoy the sessions."
In this day and age, computers can do for us what was only imagined justa few years ago. Take advantage of all of the opportunities for datastorage, record keeping, suspension design, engine simulation, and dataacquisition. All you need is to get started. The simple programs are theplace to begin and get your feet wet. Once you see what is possible, itwill be an easy step to more involved software and computers.