It's not nice to upset the nearly static evolutionary "progress" of NASCAR. The overseeing powers of CART and Formula 1 have conceded that the digital electronic evolution of engine management has progressed to the point where they can't effectively police electronic traction control (ETC). NASCAR and other U.S. racing sanctioning groups with less technically elaborate race cars and in-house expertise and resources are bound and determined to stay this digital tidal wave.

If one digital processor that assists/controls a driver's input is allowed, they say, where will they stop? A valid question, but one pertaining to a battle that's already lost at most of the racing tracks around this country. They're drawing a line in the sand as a digital tsunami is sweeping over them. If CART and F1 with all their technical resources find it impractical to detect ETC, how can series with lesser resources be expected to do so?

Typical Cat & Mouse

For more than a year NASCAR and other sanctioning bodies' tech inspectors have been:

1) Randomly cutting into ignition control boxes confirming the internals are legit

2) Extracting car wiring harnesses and checking each wire's origin and destination

3) Disassembling tachometers looking for "extra" electronics inside

4) Applying engine seals to wiring connectors to detect if they've been unplugged

5) Using high-frequency sound detection equipment to monitor engine sounds on track

6) Enacting post-race "claiming" of ignition controls from racers.

These are just some of the countermeasures they've employed in their determined quest to control the spread of ETC. You can look for more measures from NASCAR. We might soon see wiring harness routing and mounting regulated where all of it (about 30 feet total in a typical Cup car) has to be out in the open for inspection along with the ignition controls; say placing them on top of the dash. You can assume the wiring harness will not be within reach of the driver, either.

In a highly unusual move for such a close-to-the-vest organization, NASCAR has even gone public about its "search and reveal" mission for these clandestine traction enhancing electronics. The public grumbling from some major NASCAR competitors and team owners in its top three divisions alluding to ETC aiding and abetting some racers' performance needed some tempering, or at the least spin-doctoring, it would seem.

The first spin-control salvo was at the Martinsville spring race in 2002 where Mike Helton placed the drivers publicly on alert in the drivers' meeting by brandishing a couple of ETC devices NASCAR had procured, and he made it clear his inspection force was on the prowl and the penalties would be appropriately high for anyone caught with it. Then, at the Pepsi 400, all the major NASCAR brass from Bill France Jr. on down attended an innocent sounding "Competition Update" press conference before the race to inform the media that NASCAR was on top of this perceived ETC problem, to display less than state-of-the-art ETC hardware (likely by choice--they know what's on the market), and to indicate they are going to step up their rules and inspection measures to keep out the digital devil.

Head Winston Cup Inspector John Darby reiterated the penalty for getting caught with it would likely be the most severe in NASCAR history. The threat of making the record book as the team/sponsor receiving the largest fine or suspension or points penalty in NASCAR history is the prime deterrent NASCAR has. Nevertheless, you can take it to the bank that they wouldn't expend all this inspection and public relations effort to catch an electronic "bogeyman" if it weren't in use.

Where Is ETC Being Raced?

Underground ETC use is not confined to the upper reaches of U.S. touring series; it is pervasive in U.S. racing even to the grass roots level. In my researching and writing about ETC over the past two years, sources racing in Winston Cup, BGN, DIRT Modifieds, Silver Crown (using magnetos), dirt Late Models, big-block pavement Late Models, IMCA-type Modifieds, and other car types have acknowledged the use of ETC. It's even making its tentative way into boat racing, where engine power is being modulated based on rpm "jitter." Publicity about ETC policing isn't confined to NASCAR either.

On July 17, DIRT Motorsports issued a tech bulletin so "as to forestall any misinterpretations in the 2002 DIRT Rulebook," stating that "traction control, in any form, is not allowed." DIRT inspectors will randomly confiscate ignition controls during 2002, and "cars found to have traction control devices will be subject to disqualification."

Earlier this year (2002) at Kankakee (Illinois) Speedway the UDTRA publicly pilloried Late Model racer Dale McDowell and his car builder Mark Richards when UDTRA head tech inspector Richie Lewis found a connector he believed could have been used to hook up ETC into the car's wiring harness. Ultimately, McDowell was fined $2,500 for the potential intent to use ETC.

While the UDTRA, with its tough inspection procedures, demonstrates the current police-state mentality about ETC held by most racing sanctioning groups, the Southern All-Stars Late Model series lets ETC be used, and the tech people of the Renegades sanctioning group for Late Models have accepted the futility in policing current ETC technology and don't seem to be rigorously teching it.

ETC Evolution

Rudimentary ETC for stock cars was first accomplished by bootstrapping racers with some homebrew electronic expertise in the late-1980s and early '90s. They electronically mated MSD racing ignition spark boxes with the company's timing or rpm limiter controls, and secretly mounted these what could be labeled "Frankenstein ETCs" in race cars. The policy of that ignition company then, as it is today, is not to market an MSD-branded ETC product--even though it is well within its electronic expertise. In fact, MSD has worked closely with NASCAR and modified its NASCAR-legal ignition controls to make the track inspection process easier to determine if they have been tampered with and packed with "extra" electronics.

The basic physics and tactics of the electronic management of tire slip also haven't changed much since these first efforts at ETC on stock cars. But the cost of miniaturization and packaging of electronic sensing and controlling components has become impressively affordable. Today, effective mass-produced ETC units are available that are so small and portable they are almost undetectable. Expensive, yes (in the $6,500 range), but you pay for the stealthiness of the technology. In the September 1999 issue of Circle Track we examined the TracMate electronic traction control system, which was/is representative of a typical sensor-based unit. Effective, but not exactly undetectable because of its bulk and accompanying sensor wiring.

Today, Davis Technologies is one manufacturer of ETC that is "sensorless" and so small and portable that it's not much bigger than a 9-volt battery. According to Shannon Davis, the unit's designer, "Power is sourced from the original +9-volt battery, and the timing is adjusted through the battery case to the chassis ground." That is, this portable unit detects wheelslip via a close monitoring of an engine rpm (tach) signal, and then retards ignition timing to "soften" the engine power. Damped engine power reduces torque to the driving wheels and therefore assists traction. This unit currently does not have to be permanently hard-wired into the car's harness. Thus, tech inspectors can cut away on ignition controls, claim or swap them out, or apply engine seals to wiring connector junctions till their hearts are content that they're policing ETC. But they will be hard-pressed to detect this portable unit that is separate from the ignition control's internal circuitry and can be temporarily jacked into the car's wiring harness.

Miniaturization = Minimal Detection

A few years ago an ETC unit was typically cobbled up by cannibalizing various MSD Ignition circuit boards out of their factory packaging and retrofitting them into one of the main ignition control spark boxes. This may still be done at the more local levels of racing. For instance, an off-the-shelf timing retard circuit board, or rpm limiter (controlled misfire) circuit board, can be piggy-backed inside the spark box, activated by a push button on the steering wheel, and then the racer could still be the sensor/activator.

A next step in the ETC circuitry evolution was to control the activation/ deactivation of the timing retard circuit, or rpm limiter circuit via a "window switch," which turns the circuit on at one preset RPM and turns it off at another. These circuits were still typically mounted inside the spark box. Sometimes this timing-retard circuitry, or controlled misfire circuitry, would be extracted from the factory packaging and installed elsewhere in the car (say, for example, in the seat), if tech inspectors decided to open up spark boxes and see if they were just a bit too stuffed with electronics.

But within the past few years, there came on the market ETC not integrated in an ignition control. This packaging refinement occurred because the inspection processes became more thorough. Some sanctioning groups have gone to a "claimer rule" where they can randomly take an ignition control, or they issue a racer one from the track, or the ignition control gets inspected with a saw. Racers risk losing a relatively expensive ETC unit if their number is in the claimer pool and they have an integrated ETC/ignition control unit. Consequently, the move to making portable ETC, or designing it so small it can be folded into a wiring harness and look only like a bulge in a loom, or pocketed and removed from the car post-race.

Does It Work?

ETC can improve fuel mileage because throttle transitions are electronically damped. Tire wear/conservation can be improved because it can calm down all the little tire slips that are going on during racing that wear and heat up the tires--the electronics can react faster than a human can.

Mark Richards, owner of Rocket Chassis, sells Davis Technologies ETC. He doesn't make a big deal about it, but he knew he was competing against it, so he began investigating ETC last year to find out if there was any real value to the claims he was hearing. "We're offering everything for a customer to win," he notes. "It won't make a 15th- or 10th-place car win a race, and it won't help the lap times of the best racers out there. But the average driver can pick up to 0.1-0.2-seconds. We've tested it (the Davis Technologies units). If Dale McDowell runs a 16.50-second lap without it, I run a 16.70-80 second lap without it in the same car on the same track. But I can hit 16.50-60s if I use it on an open track." Richards clairfies, "If Dale uses it, he can become more consistent and achieve more 16.50s over a number of laps." Richards also notes that traction control, "has become the number one excuse in racing: 'I got beat, I think the winner had traction control'" is all too common a post-race refrain these days. "Racers still have to have the skills to race: drive in traffic; adapt to changing track conditions; and adapt to the car's changing performance," concludes Richards.

Resource Allocation

Given the cost, effectiveness, and portable packaging of current ETC, it seems to me that the amount of resources/aggravation required to find this one "unfair advantage" is basically futile at most levels of racing. NASCAR and major touring series may choose to police it, and will likely restrict its use, but it's unlikely to be totally eradicated--unless it's legalized.

ETC is just one of the many pieces of creative engineering going on in racing, and it's become one of the most difficult to detect. Legalize it and the price could come down to the $500-$1,000 range and then expend the tech inspection efforts on finding ways to improve driver safety, for instance. That has more return on investment in the long run for racing's future. CT

Davis Technologies, Dept. CT11
P.O. Box 8250
NC  28814
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