‘A Precise Sport’: Racing and the Power of Data

‘A Precise Sport’: Racing and the Power of Data

In the words of Team LeMans driver Yoshiaki Katayama, “Racing is a precise sport. The power of a team is in the amount of data collected.”

These days, data is a racing team’s greatest resource. And no data point can tell a story like onboard video.

The racecam is born

Only four drivers made the final lap of the 1983 Daytona 500. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt’s strong starts gave way to engine problems but not without a fight. By the last lap, there had been a nail-biting 58 lead changes. Buddy Baker held a steady lead over Joe Ruttman, Bill Elliott, and Cale Yarborough, who’d wrecked his car in a nasty flip after breaking 200 mph in the qualifiers. Yarborough took another risk, edging out Baker in the final minute of the race for a stunning finale.

But the race went down in history for another reason. Not just Cale Yarborough’s win, but how this win was captured: by a remote video camera from inside his Pontiac LeMans.

In 1983, this technology was brand new. The camera didn’t travel inside the racecar until 1979 when Australia’s Seven Network introduced the “racecam” at the Bathurst 1000. In its early days, the racecam was over a foot tall and weighed roughly 22 pounds. Positioned in the middle of the vehicle behind the driver’s seat, racecams could rotate 360 degrees to give viewers a periscopic view of the race. A helicopter traveled over the track to bounce the racecam’s video signal to a nearby broadcast van.

Racecam made its American debut at the 1979 Daytona 500 when CBS broadcasted from Benny Parson’s vehicle for the first race televised “flag to flag,” as opposed to previous race footage that aired long after the event. Yarborough’s legendary win in 1983 captured from over his shoulder won the network an Emmy in 1983.

It wasn’t long before onboard video spread to European-favored Formula 1, making its entrée in a Renault at the 1985 German Grand Prix. While early racecam footage was shaky, clouded with dirt, and prone to outages, the next decade brought key advancements in stabilization, self-cleaning lens technology, and ground-based receivers that rendered the helicopter broadcasts unnecessary.

By 1998, all Formula 1 cars were outfitted with at least three cameras. By 2016, each F1 camera shot quality, 1080-pixel definition footage. By 2017, Fox Sports aired its first NASCAR race in 4K. But for race engineers, even 4K needs greater definition.

Telemetry tells all

“If you’re ready for the race two weeks in advance, you’ve probably not tried hard enough,” says Ole Scheck, Formula 1 race mechanic for Oracle Red Bull racing in a behind-the-scenes promo for the team. Race Coordinator Gerrard O’Reilly takes the film crew for a tour of the team’s loading dock, where a forklift navigates around shipping containers packed to the brim.

O’Reilly notes that they’ll be traveling with more than 33 tons of air freight — in addition to the 40-foot containers they sent on a barge three months ago. The promo cuts back to Scheck reaching inside a chassis with a pair of tweezers. Scheck uses a tool like a paperclip to jimmy parts into place. It gets lost in the machines sometimes, so he keeps a pencil-shaped magnet on hand in case extraction is needed.

Thirty-three tons of equipment, some assembled by tweezers: this is the scientific culture of current day motorsports. Competition engenders constant optimization to whale-sized bodies of auto parts. But optimizing vehicles by fractions imperceptible to the human eye requires data that is intelligible to humans.

This is what’s called race telemetry: reading the dozens of stats generated each second by a racecar in motion. In Formula 1, each car may be outfitted with as many as 200 sensors that monitor unique data points throughout the race. Engineers watch these data points in real time alongside external measurements like track temperature, ambient temperature, and tire state to get a holistic view of their team’s performance.

Solutions for tracking and storing this data have become so fundamental to each team’s strategy that individual teams will employ their own data cloud just for the duration of a race to eliminate the threat of bottlenecked data. Even in NASCAR, which forbids telemetry during races, data collection is fundamental to engineering work.

Most of a NASCAR engineer’s day-to-day tasks involve processing telemetry data, says NASCAR engineer Byron Dailey in an interview with Andrew Kurland. Telemetry databases have grown even more important during COVID, during which NASCAR has eliminated on-track practice, leaving teams to dig through past statistics to inform their approach.

Video footage has progressed from a virtual form of spectatorship to an essential part of race telemetry, monitoring one of the most crucial data points invisible to engineers during a race: driver behavior. The capacity to playback a driver’s performance allows engineers to adapt vehicles to individual racing styles. It also allows drivers to understand and improve their style.

Super SDs

“[Being at] a racetrack is like going camping but everybody’s having a bad time,” said JG Pasterjak, writer for Grassroots Motorsports, in an interview. “You’re always outside, the weather always sucks, everybody’s always mad … stuff needs to be physically very robust to survive these types of environments.”

This physical resilience is precisely the issue Team LeMans faced in collecting onboard footage while training for the Super GT, Japan’s premier grand touring car race. With high humidity and temperatures inside the car sometimes exceeding 120 degrees, the team needed durable SD cards to weather extreme conditions. While all electronic components of a racecar must pass the AEC-Q100 standard of stress endurance, the team still suffered some data loss from other SD card options with this certification.

Data integrity was key to developing their strategy for the Super GT’s unique rules, namely, that no single driver travels more than two-thirds of the track. Super GT teams attack the massive tracks using pairs of drivers, which means engineers and mechanics must adjust to two different driving styles that require two different setups. Optimizing for both driving styles is a primary challenge of strategizing for the Super GT.

Individualizing a car setup is no small matter, these decisions can make or break races. Just ask Ray Philips, North Carolinian Driving Coach and Owner of Precision Data Analytics. He recently helped a client shave off four seconds (an eon in race time) simply by readjusting his setup after a thorough look at the data. There are multiple points he looks for when it comes to gauging setup. For example, throttle trace and steering input can tell him whether a car has under or oversteer.

“For drivers who are new and getting used to driving a racecar, you want to give them a setup that has more understeer because it’s more comfortable,” Philips said in an interview. Onboard video allows Philips to get the full picture after combing through finer data points, depicting the exact movements that convey a wobbly throttle trace line, or “hobby-horsing,” as Philips says.

The importance of correcting for personal driver pitfalls via car setup is magnitudes greater at the professional level, where milliseconds can impact the livelihood of entire teams of people. Team LeMans finally ended their storage struggles by partnering with Western Digital. With data this integral to the sport, SD cards are never an afterthought: they are a crucial team player.

Bringing the race home

JG Pasterjak says the line between old-school unanalyzed racing and current-day data-driven racing is almost like the difference between improv and standup.

“You might make great choices in the moment and create something magical, but you might never be able to duplicate that again.” On the other hand, driving with sensors and onboard cameras is like refining a standup set. “Because you’re working with the same material over and over, you can produce something that’s much more finely honed,” he said.

“Being able to capture video gives you the capability to [refine your driving] back at your hotel, at home, on an airplane — many places that aren’t racetracks where, ultimately, you spend very little of your time.” Heart-thumping race footage is no longer the stuff of action movies, but the action of racing itself.

Related Stories

What is the 3-2-1 Backup Strategy?