Carl Edwards has been a professional NASCAR driver for 15 years, with a career spanning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Now in his second year as a member of Joe Gibbs Racing, he drove the No. 19 Toyota Camry to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories twice last year and was a top-10 finisher in the first two events of the 2016 season. He’s seen a lot of change over his time in the sport, but one area in particular stands out.
“Technology in the NASCAR world is constantly moving forward, and the rate of change is accelerating,” he says. “The use of technology keeps growing. It affects every aspect of the sport, from statistical analysis to optimized timing of pit stops to strategic planning by the individual teams to NASCAR’s use of technology to monitor all of the pit crews on Pit Road.”
Streamlined, Faster, Safer
One recent development that gives NASCAR drivers a direct interface with technological advancement is the new digital dash that rolled out this year. The digital dash has 16 preset screens that teams can customize. They have the ability to display data using numbers, bar graphs, color scales or a digital version of the old analog gauge with a needle. Teams can also customize which information is shown on the screen as well as its size and position.
“With the new digital dash there’s a wealth of information presented to the drivers,” Edwards says. “The amount of technology we’re dealing with is almost overwhelming.” He hastens to add that he means “overwhelming” in a positive sense in this case, as all the new technology “boosts our ability to gain a competitive edge—even if it’s short-lived.”
Not only does technology help NASCAR drivers go faster, it’s also helps to keep them safer than ever, and that’s something Edwards and his competitors all appreciate. “With every technological advancement, there’s an opportunity to apply it to the car in a way that makes it safer,” he says. “So whether its understanding things as catastrophic as wrecks or the processes in place to make sure every nut and bolt on the car is tight, technology improves safety all around.”
Often, technology helps speed and safety coexist. Take CFD, for example. Short for computational fluid dynamics, CFD is a mathematical simulation of airflow around a vehicle, and it’s one example of how big data analysis plays a growing role in NASCAR.. When CFD is optimized, cars go faster because resistance is minimized, and drivers are safer because vehicles hug the track more securely.
Running on Data
“We build these cars in different shops. There are different guys driving them, different guys putting all these parts together,” Edwards reflects. “When we come out to the racetrack, we’re within thousandths of a second per lap of each other. So any data we can get to understand exactly how the tires work or how the engine’s working or how the CFD models of air flowing underneath the car are doing—all of that information helps you go back and build a better race car, and the sport just continues to evolve. The more data there is, the more ways there are for us to evolve—even in very small ways—in different parameters on the race car. You have to be able to retrieve the information, store it, sift through it, and use what’s available.”
That last part is key, since information only has value if it can be delivered to the right people at the right time in the right place—quickly, securely and reliably.
“The amount of data being looked at, analyzed, captured and stored—it’s huge,” Edwards says. “Our cars send data to the engineers, and the engineers are comparing data from each car on the team. At the same time, we’re trying to communicate with each other in the limited amount of practice time we have in order to make decisions about the cars. ARRIS saw an opportunity to revamp our garage area for us so that communication could happen quicker.”
Each week, NASCAR deploys the WiFi cable modem system, that the ARRIS Group supplies the hardware for. The race teams use it to access the Internet and communicate with each other, plugging their network into Ethernet. Comcast Business provides the Ethernet-based technology at five tracks nationwide, which enables a secure and reliable flow of crucial information for NASCAR teams during NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events.
“NASCAR is much like any other business in the sense that reliable exchange of information is critical to success,” Edwards explains. While technology offers a real opportunity for a competitive edge in NASCAR, it comes with a caveat. “You have to make sure you have a very robust system and people who can fix problems quickly,” he emphasizes. “You can’t afford big downtime, problems with connectivity. Making sure things work, and work well, is the key.”
It All Comes Together on Race Day
On race day, all eyes are glued to the track as individual drivers go head-to-head with each other, each vying to gain an advantage that can boil down to a fraction of a second. But despite that focus on the drivers and their cars, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing is a team sport, and that’s where data and technology play their most important roles.
Here’s how Edwards explains it: “Driving the race, cars are traveling between 180 - 200 miles per hour, and decisions have to be made very quickly based on the data that the crew chief has. It can be as simple as understanding how one piece of information can change the crew chief’s entire strategy for the race. For example: using Nexrad (Next Generation Radar), the team sees that there’s a 60 percent chance of rain within the next 20 minutes. The crew chief has to compare that with the statistical probabilities of there being a caution, the lap time fall-off. He has a graph showing how important it is to get new tires. He can balance all that, weigh it, and make a decision. Every piece of information impacts his decision—whether or not to pit and what to do on the next pit stop.”
The stream of data available to NASCAR drivers and support crews is massive and growing. “We can analyze videos of previous races and we can get real-time information from our teammates. We also have data on throttle position and steering wheel,” Edwards says. Likewise technology is constantly upgrading the experience for NASCAR fans. “Every year when we go to the racetrack it seems like our broadcast partners offer something new for the viewers that makes the races more fun to watch. There are so many things happening in a car race that are hard to describe, so the more information you can give the fans, the more enjoyable it will be for them,” he says.
When all is said and done, however, technology—as important as it is—plays only a supporting role in the spectacle that is NASCAR. “Mining the data makes our cars faster,” Edwards acknowledges. “But at its core, NASCAR does its best to keep racing as simple as possible, so that it is really man vs. man in the cars, guys up on the box making calls and crews jumping over walls to change tires. Combining technology with the human side of the sport keeps it interesting for everyone involved.”