The racing line: Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

His car was sent spinning skyward. Two tires, an engine and a cloud of other components found their way through the safety fence, injuring 28 spectators who were sitting trackside. When all was still, Kyle Larson's blue and white #32 Chevrolet Camaro was nearly ripped in half. This incident, which took place in the Nationwide race the day before the Daytona 500, plus NASCAR's seemingly knee-jerk actions to try and remove user-submitted footage of the crash from YouTube, painted for many the picture of a sport woefully ignorant of the times.

The truth, however, is rather different. The V8-powered machines that circle endlessly, fruitlessly on-track are built with a flagrant disregard for, and indeed a stubborn reluctance toward, modern technology. However, the organizing body that governs those cars and will host nearly 40 events spread over 10 months this year is anything but oblivious. In many ways NASCAR is the most technologically progressive motorsport body on the planet.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

To support such an improbable statement as that, it's important to think of NASCAR not as a single body, but as more of a family of services all surrounding the seemingly very straightforward task of goin' racin'. Indeed, NASCAR at its core is still very much a family affair -- even if its origins are somewhat unsavory. The very early "stock cars" were just that, production sedans lightened and modified to make them faster. The sport, though, wasn't chasing checkered flags. It was being chased by the law.

Stock car racing as we now know it famously grew out of the Prohibition days, with bootleggers hauling moonshine up the fast, twisty roads that typify the Appalachians. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but that didn't stop the moonshiners from having their fun, running from lawmen that now wanted to tax their still-crafted wares. At the same time, a somewhat safer but infinitely more legal form of racing was happening down on Daytona Beach. Drivers of similarly souped-up cars lapped a 4-mile course that ran one way down the beach and looped back up the A1A.

For moonshiners who were sick of running from the law or who wanted a less nefarious way of showing off their skills, it was the perfect opportunity -- even if the organization often left a bit to be desired. Each year, the town was losing more money trying to host a racing event that was poorly officiated, haphazardly scored and supported only by dismal ticket sales. Fans would flock to the city by the thousands, but few bothered to buy tickets to watch the race since there was any number of suitable vantage points to be found.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

In 1938, Bill France Sr. took over running the race at Daytona and gradually turned it into a success, despite a five-year hiatus during WWII. France quickly gained a reputation as a trustworthy businessman, a well-liked alternative to the shady organizers who would frequently take off with the purse before the race was run. In 1948, France took the next step and formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). The rest, as they say, is history, but through the years one thing has remained the same: the France family. Brian France, current chairman and CEO of NASCAR, is Bill France Sr.'s grandson.

The organizational body follows a similar tree-like structure, overseeing three major (and progressively more competitive) American racing series: Camping World Trucks, Nationwide and, at the top, the Sprint Cup. There are separate sanctioned stock car series in Mexico, Canada and Europe, plus regional series on the eastern and western coasts of the United States. Finally, for those who prefer road courses, there's the Grand-Am series, which itself campaigns four real-world racing series (plus a fifth, virtual one, the Online Sports Car Series) and next year will grow to consume the American Le Mans Series.

NASCAR racing is, then, big business, and that's not the half of it. For each of the 43 drivers that took the green flag at the 2013 running of the Daytona 500, hundreds of other souls played a part in getting them onto the track, ranging from the folks who clean the shops back in Wilkes County, N.C., to the guys and gals who handle the frantic wheel changes in the pit stops. (Most of whom, by the way, are scouted out of college sports programs for their strength, speed and reflexes.)

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

However, there's a new breed of crewmember at the track, often sporting bespectacled faces and distinctly English accents. They're engineers, and a surprising number have made the transition to NASCAR from what is considered to be the pinnacle of motorsport technology: the international Formula One series.

'Hey, I got an engineer.'
'Oh, what's he do?'
'He tells ya what time you ran.'

"Formula One has always been based off of engineering," Kenny Wallace, a longtime NASCAR personality and current driver of the #29 RAB Racing Toyota, told us. "This is still a new world for us, but now it's here for real. Twenty years ago it was 'Hey, I got an engineer.' 'Oh, what's he do?' 'He tells ya what time you ran.' Now it's here for real... It's so real now, that if you don't have this, you're behind."

Indeed, on race mornings you'll see engineers frantically wielding a variety of tools, but the humble laptop (and, on some more progressive teams, Microsoft's Surface tablet) has become a recent addition thanks to the introduction of electronic fuel injection (EFI) to the cars in 2012. EFI replaces clunky, complicated carburetors, the sort that hasn't been seen in production cars in the United States for 20 years. (Similarly, leaded fuel was banned from US streets in 1995 -- but NASCAR ran it until 2007.)

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

It's the "E" in EFI that's most important. Before, a complicated, but purely mechanical series of needles, springs and bowls dribbled gasoline into the engine. Now, a 32-bit Freescale microprocessor more precisely calculates fuel flow, a system made ready for racing by the boffins at McLaren. (Yes, F1 fans, that McLaren.) Since its introduction last season, mandated for use in every single car in the pit lane, the engine control unit (ECU) hasn't suffered a single failure.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

This change has, for the first time, allowed teams to gather a very limited amount of telemetry on race weekends. Telemetry is, basically, the science of getting accurate data from the car. In Formula One or Le Mans or many other top racing series, there are hundreds of data sources feeding back information to the pits in real-time, enabling data wizards huddled over laptops to know everything from fuel levels to brake temperatures instantly. In NASCAR, this sort of data is banned -- except when it's not.

Teams are allowed to participate in private test days at non-sanctioned tracks (those NASCAR does not compete at). In these sessions, anything goes. Engineers can slap as many widgets, sensors and other bits of prototype hardware on their machines as they like.

"We don't get the opportunity to do that all the time. We'll do it four or five times a year, but we don't have enough to support it on a week-in and week-out basis," Scott Miller, executive VP of competition at Michael Waltrip Racing, said.

The budget of a top NASCAR team is estimated to be between one-tenth to one-fifth that of a top Formula One team, where costs can exceed $400 million annually.

This sort of data acquisition can exponentially raise the cost of motorsports, something NASCAR teams are keenly aware of. Miller estimates the budget of a top NASCAR team is somewhere between one-tenth to one-fifth that of a top Formula One team, where costs can exceed $400 million annually to make winged, swoopy and entirely bespoke cars go incredibly fast. That drastically lower cost, combined with the incredible popularity of the sport, means there's a huge amount of money to be made racing these cars that are charmingly still called "stock."

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

Real-time telemetry at every event has the potential to drastically cut into those profits, both thanks to the expensive hardware required to gather data and the flotilla of engineers required to make sense of it all. Still, in our conversations with many teams, that's a Pandora's box they are eager to open. Steve Wickham is VP of chassis operations at Toyota Racing Development USA. He has a strong background in Formula One (and in souping up his kids' scooters to make them the envy of their friends), but he came over to NASCAR for a new challenge.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

"What we're allowed is very limited on race weekends," Wickham said. "Telemetry is another evil for [NASCAR], but it's going to come soon."

The Freescale and McLaren EFI system does provide a very simple feed of data, but teams have to physically tether a laptop to a car to access it. That, it must be said, is rather hard to do while the car is hustling around the track at 200-plus miles per hour, so data acquisition occurs only before and after the race. Prior to a race, you'll commonly see engineers standing there looking intently (sometimes confusedly) at laptops sitting on rooftops as V8 engines rumble away in the garage, slowly coming up to temperature.

When the race begins, the laptops are put away and the cars effectively become black boxes.

"Once we start the race, we're locked down. We're all stopwatches and tire pressures," Darian Grubb, crew chief of Denny Hamlin's #11 Toyota, told us.

It's the drivers that provide the best insight into what's happening under the hood thanks to an array of old-school, analog gauges scattered across the dashboard. If any needles start sweeping in a wayward direction, it's up to the driver to spot it and call it out over the radio to his or her crew -- while at top speed in a pack of 40 other cars.

But there's another source of information that virtually every team on the pit wall deploys before the race, beamed down from a geosynchronous orbit onto receiving dishes connected to sophisticated decryption systems all tethered to high-resolution flat-panel displays. If that all sounds fancy, it is -- but it isn't particularly novel. It's satellite TV.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

Early Sunday morning, hours before the green flag started this year's Daytona 500, the dedicated mechanics were out and about in the pit lane. While some crouched over steel wheels, dutifully gluing yellow lug nuts into place, others were tinkering to get digital tuners set up. These tuners feed video to as many as six separate TVs in the teams' pit complexes, some down at ground level for the crew to watch and other, smaller sets positioned on top where the big bosses perch themselves. During the race, most spend their time watching two things: one screen showing positions and lap times, and a second screen showing the current NASCAR broadcast. Yes, they have to sit through the commercials.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

Primarily, they're keeping an eye on what's happening in the race. On a 2.5-mile track, you can only see a very small sliver of the action from the pit lane. The pack of cars blast by once every minute or so like a freight train and then quickly stream out of sight, with stragglers roaring by feebly a few seconds later. Only the team's spotters, standing way up top of the circuit, have an unobstructed view of the action.

Spotters are acting as the all-seeing eye for the drivers, radioing down constantly to tell them when they have a lane into which they can merge. In the pits, meanwhile, crewmembers watch to see what they can learn from the competition. Teams have to wait to download telemetry from their own cars after the race, but that stuff is being sent to the race broadcaster in real-time, creating on-screen displays of things like engine RPM plus brake and throttle position.

In other words, viewers at home know every bit as much as the crew chiefs in the pit lane and, if those viewers pay $25 to add real-time data to NASCAR's mobile apps, fans can even get real-time lapping data and radio chatter from their favorite drivers. This is where things get truly interesting. This is where the low-tech action on the track ends and the high-tech job of consuming that action begins.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

While the supposedly stock cars run by NASCAR are, in every way, vastly crude and unsophisticated compared even to even a modern economy car, the way NASCAR races are presented to the world outpaces any other form of motorsport. For example, NASCAR made the switch over to high-definition broadcasts way back in 2005, beating Formula One by six years, and became the first motorsport to use HD in-car cameras two years later. A typical stock car race makes great use of all those pixels, too, filling the screen with data-rich overlays.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

This year's new toy is the Gyro Cam, mounted in the center of the car, inside the cockpit. As the car climbs the banking on an oval turn, the camera rotates to stay level. Admittedly NASCAR isn't the first to use this -- MotoGP used a similar trick last season to show just how far over professional motorcycle racers lean over in the turns -- but here it certainly gives another way to appreciate the pitch of these tracks.

If that's not enough, NASCAR has your second-screen experience covered too. The NASCAR Mobile '13 app for iOS and Android gives you news and video highlights for free, but pay $24.99 and you'll get live timing data streamed to your tablet, plus radio chatter and in-car camera angles. Then there's the NASCAR RaceView Mobile '13 app, which, for $39.99 per season, gives you a 3D look at the race as it happens from any angle -- so long as you don't mind PS2-era graphics. And, if you actually go to the race, you can use a handheld device from a company called FanVision to get in-car views from any of about a dozen cars plus radio chatter and enough timing data to satisfy an army of gearhead statisticians.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

While other global forms of motorsport have similar offerings, no single body brings them together as well as NASCAR, something Scott Speed, driver of the #95 Ford (and former F1 pilot), elevates to a level of national pride.

It's an American sport. It's America. Everything we do that's media-related is better. Our sport has a better show, no question; it's infinitely more entertaining [than F1]... That's our country. That's what we're good at.

And there's more to come. At Qualcomm's star-studded CES event we got a glimpse into an even brighter second-screen future, with multiple camera angles selectable from a smart TV and alternative views of the action pushed directly to a tablet.

NASCAR, then, has the second-screen experience covered more comprehensively than any other motorsport, but Marc Jenkins, NASCAR's vice president of digital media, made it very clear this is all designed to complement, and not replace, the on-air presentation provided by broadcast partners like Fox.

"Our primary goal is driving engagement around the sport and broadcast ratings," Jenkins said. "That's key for us, and that's why you'll see the free versions of the apps are very robust."

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

And then there's the company's social presence. After barely a year on YouTube, NASCAR's channel has already topped 15 million views. It's about to cross the million-follower threshold on Twitter and, thanks to keen use of images and galleries showing winners in their glory and losers in their agony, it's tallied 3.3 million likes. That's on a Facebook page containing photos dated all the way back to the founding meeting hosted by Bill France Sr. in 1947.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

That kind of social success doesn't come by accident, which begs the question: How is it that such a socially savvy media organization could have such a seemingly ham-fisted response to the crash at the end of the pre-Daytona 500 Nationwide race? After Larson's car speared through the fence, injuring 28 spectators, eyewitness footage hit YouTube within the hour showing a horrifying scene with people screaming and a tire lying on now-empty seats.

Soon after it gained the attention of the blogosphere, the video was gone, pulled from YouTube for supposed copyright violations. As we're all too well aware, it's impossible to really remove anything from the internet once it's been posted. Copies of the footage spread just as quickly as accusations that NASCAR was trying to control the story, and by the time Chief Marketing Officer Steve Phelps issued a statement, it was too late.

The fan video of the wreck on the final lap of today's NASCAR Nationwide Series race was blocked on YouTube out of respect for those injured in today's accident. Information on the status of those fans was unclear and the decision was made to err on the side of caution with this very serious incident.

By not providing that statement immediately, or by not just letting the video stay up, NASCAR came off looking like a stodgy, old-school bully that thought it could silence the internet. We asked Jenkins (whose department handled the request to get the footage pulled) why the company wasn't more transparent:

It really was a fluid situation, meaning that there'd just been a tragedy on track. We saw a video that looked gruesome and we really weren't sure what happened, and we made the decision to block it out of respect... Each [situation] is distinct and, as much as we try to game plan, each one has its intricacies.

This, then, gets us back to square one: family. NASCAR is a sport founded and run by the France family. It's contested by drivers, many of whom bring their children to the track with them every weekend. Those good folks in the stands are treated as members of the same, big clan. In its own way, by requesting to have that footage pulled, NASCAR was trying too hard to protect its extended family. It seems to be over-protective of the family budget, too, with draconian regulations designed to keep cars simple, ostensibly preventing teams from excitedly spending themselves into the kind of financial crisis that Formula One has suffered of late.

DNP The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

But all the digital, second-screen showmanship in the world can't make up for a motorsport powered by decades-old technology. By being so resistive to change, by locking teams and drivers into an unwaveringly stoic and unquestionably dated racing formula, NASCAR risks losing its relevance to the modern racing world. In 2012, television ratings continued to slide. In the crucial 18- to 34-year-old market, the kinds of viewers most excited about modern tech, viewership was down 25 percent, and ticket revenue is down sharply overall.

Can a form of motorsport that's entering retirement age change its course? Can it become more relevant to younger viewers who only recognize Danica Patrick from her terrible TV commercials while still supporting the older fans who grew up watching Junior Johnson figure out drafting? Can it take the technology and sophistication of the presentation and bring that to the racing itself? All that remains to be seen, but it's clearly time to call in all the cousins and sit down for a serious talk. With any luck, the hip, tablet-toting branch of the family tree can help the rest of the clan get with the times, and soon.

The racing line Exploring NASCAR's technological dichotomy

This article originally ran in Distro Issue 81.

[Lead image credit: Getty Images]