The racer’s edge

8 September 2011

ELKHART LAKE, Wisc.–Car racing, the saying goes, started the day the second car was purchased. Technology has been a part of racing since then and has consistently driven innovation from the tracks into automobile showrooms for consumer benefit.

From rear-view mirrors to sensors to braking advances and countless others. Racing is the R&D labs for normal folks like us.

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What’s happening today on tracks around the world is no different. The innovations being deployed in competitions are not only telling us what we can expect in the cars we buy in a few years, but also how the everyday driving infrastructure will change.

It’s long been said that races are won or lost in the pits, a second here or there is vital to staying in contention (here’s a link to a slideshow from the two big races this summer). This takes on a whole new meaning when you consider that the pit crew is now in constant real-time communication with its cars. They spend more time looking at computer screens than they do at the track.

Jay O’Connell, chief technical director for Bobby Rahal’s Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan BMW racing team, gave us a peek into how his engineers have leveraged technology to stay on top of their game–even as their success has prompted racing officials to slow their cars down!

From the pits, O’Connell, Rahal and team watch a number of screens, including one with the famous “marching ants,” graphical representations of all race cars as they circle the track. RF antennae on top of the race cars transmit to a hilltop repeater here and back to the pit stop’s receiver.

“It’s as if we’re in the car with the driver the whole time,” O’Connell said.

Every time their cars pit — two cars race per team in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) racing – the team download’s up to an hour’s worth of technical data in 15 seconds and a storage card is exchanged in the back of the car. That card is handed over to race track officials, who monitor data and ensure “a balance of performance,” according to O’Connell.

You know this will make its way to us as consumers within a decade. Communications in all likelihood will begin to manage traffic, car speed and so forth, especially in congested urban areas.

Listen as O’Connell describes the amazing innovations that keep the Rahal team atop the ALMS leader board:




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