Data Acquisition Plays Vital Role In Preparation Of An Indy Car

6/17/2004 12:36:07 AM

There was a time when an Indy car crew had to rely 100 percent on feedback from its driver. If he said he was holding the throttle wide open at certain parts of the track or the engine was misfiring, it was tough to dispute his word, since he was the troubleshooter.

But nowadays, there is zero guesswork when it comes to technical issues, thanks to a little helper called "data acquisition."

As Indy cars got more technical and more complicated, a race driver's seat-of-the-pants feel, a mechanic's expertise or an engine builder's savvy weren't always enough.

Enter the age of computers and data acquisition.

"It started in the early '90s in Indy cars, although when I worked in IMSA in the late '80s we were beginning to use data acquisition," said Gene Hingert, one of Honda Performance Development's engineers, who studied computer science at the University of Toronto.

"Prior to Joining Honda in 1998, I worked in CART with the Precision Preparation/Cal Wells and All American Racers/Dan Gurney Teams. There weren't a lot of us back then but now every IRL team has at least one data acquisition guy."

Gathering data requires saturating the car with sensors, which transmit everything while the car is circling the track. The data gathered covers everything from wheel speed to damper positions, to steering position, to the strain on the tie rods, to everything that goes on inside the engine.

There is a CDI (Capacitive Discharge Ignition) Box, or "spark box," for the ignition, an Engine Management Unit, or ECU, that controls and logs the engine operating conditions, and a PI Box (data logger) which takes in the chassis data.

"While the car is running those three systems pass information back and forth," said Hingert, who also raced sports cars in his younger days. "During practice and qualifying, we can trend stuff so that before the car comes back into the pits our engineers have a jump start on optimizing the engine for the track and current conditions, as well as driver preferences. Also, the team engineers and mechanics can work on adjusting the car.

"Our real-time telemetry may also show a problem with a major component that the driver may not see, but our engineer sees it in the pits and can take the appropriate action.

"Drivers are still critical to the equation but it's no longer a guess on how the car handles or if the engine is performing properly. The data from the car gives us a high degree of confidence that we are moving in the right direction and improving performance."

Honda's assault on the IRL began in 2003 and has expanded to nine full-time cars in 2004 with a massive program for data acquisition.

"We have roughly two race-team members per car, one in the engineering role who analyzes data, and the second who generally works on the mechanical side of the engine, and they work together," continued Hingert. "We also have specialists, electronics guys who know software and parts specialists who make sure all the right mechanical configurations are on the car.

"At every event, we have a meeting at the start of the weekend to make sure everyone has all the latest information and everything is shared among the Honda trackside team members. We all start at the same point with base data. Our job collectively is to make sure we keep things well under control, with reliability being the emphasis. The important thing is to keep the engine safe."

A good example of Honda's data acquistion teamwork came at Motegi.

"The wind was continuing to build so we were tweaking the rev limiter to try and help because there wasn't enough time for the teams to change gears," explained Hingert. "Between Tony's [Kanaan] and Dan's [Wheldon] run the wind stopped blowing and a last-second tweak helped Dan get the pole."

Staying on top of all the data is an exhausting but rewarding task for the trackside support crew.

"We keep track of everything and, naturally, we will experience failures," Hingert conceded, "but we don't ever want to see the same failure twice. The good thing is that we can react quickly from one race to the next."