Historic car races might seem like the last place you’d find modern technology. The cars are lovingly restored to their full, authentic racing glory, and care is taken not to allow modern tweaks to improve their performance. Surprisingly, though, both the pits and the cars are crammed with modern technology to help drivers improve their performance. Long-term benefits from tech at the race track isn’t confined to racers, though. Researchers are hoping to use what they find by monitoring drivers’ bodies and brains, along with the cars, to build better and safer cars for all of us.
Using the ultimate GPS to coach drivers
Unlike modern race cars, historic cars don’t come with arrays of sensors. That doesn’t stop teams from fully instrumenting their cars and learning from the results. One of the most powerful tools at their disposal is a simple, high-performance GPS device. By recording the exact position of the car as it laps the track, drivers can look back at how they performed and get coached on improvements. Some current units use dual antennas to not only track vehicle position within one inch, but pitch and slip to within a fraction of a degree by using both GPS and the Russian GLONASS systems. By reviewing the results from practice laps, drivers can see how close they are coming to the car’s limits of performance, and whether they can improve at race time.
An even more effective technique is to have a pro driver “coach” run the same track and compare results. By lining up the two logs, it’s possible to see what improvements can be made. A common example is that seasoned pros will brake later and more aggressively than less experienced drivers — yielding faster times around the track.
GoPro goes wild at the track
You can’t go more than a few feet at a historic car race without seeing a poster or banner promoting GoPro. That’s with good reason. Nearly every team uses these tiny, relatively low-tech, cameras to record not just every moment, but every angle, of a race. While monitoring devices are not allowed during many races, cameras are. By placing one camera near the driver’s feet, and another looking at the course, teams can evaluate the driver’s actions after the race.
This is a huge breakthrough for auto racing. Unlike most other sports, it isn’t possible to watch every part of an auto race at the same time — and in many courses large sections can’t be seen at all from the pits. This makes coaching especially difficult, as the only record of on-track situations and drivers’ responses may be the driver’s adrenaline-fogged memory.
By equipping the GoPro units with WiFi dongles, and giving the driver a remote to activate them, the cameras can be turned on and their video synchronized automatically. After the race, a quick edit in Final Cut or Premiere allows side-by-side videos of the race and the driver to be created. The result is the ultimate coaching tool: a “tell no lies” log of everything the driver did, and didn’t do, to react to situations on the track. The technique is as portable as the race car, so it can be used at any track, like Laguna Seca where this Lotus is racing in the world-famous Monterey Motorsports Reunion.
The video shows front, driver, and back views as pro driver Mikel Miller carves up the field at Laguna Seca in a historic Lotus 23B. The GoPro WiFi cameras synchronize automatically, so its possible to relate steering corrections and pedal actions to action on the track. This is not only a great training tool, but it enables the research of groups like the Revs program at Stanford, who are using data from race car drivers to build the self-driving cars of the future.
Making old cars safer to race
Even though most historic race cars don’t reach the same speeds as their more modern counterparts, they can be a lot more dangerous to drive. Modern safety features are missing, and mechanical failures are common. Fortunately there are some safety upgrades to the cars and to the drivers’ equipment that make them safer to drive than they were in their prime.
Most obvious are the drivers’ outfits. Full-face helmets with neck support replace the leather caps and goggles, and later open-faced “hat-only” helmets, common for many decades of auto racing. The helmets are only the most visible piece of updated clothing. Multi-layered, fire-resistant, Nomex suits and gloves give the drivers much better odds of surviving crashes and car fires, with the inner layer helping to wick away moisture. These outfits don’t come without a cost. A helmet, suit and gloves retail for nearly $5,000, although historic car racing is in the same “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” class as yacht racing, so it’s a small price to pay to protect the owner/drivers.
One safety technology you won’t find in all the cars at a historic race like the one at Laguna Seca is seatbelts. While most of the cars have rollbars and serious safety harnesses for the drivers, some of them don’t have any roll protection and drivers would just as soon be thrown clear of the vehicle in the event it goes head over heels. Clearly this kind of racing is not for the faint of heart.
Monitoring drivers’ brains: Thinking less to go faster
While competing teams are limited in what they can measure on the track, a unique project being run by Stanford’s Revs program in conjunction with the Collier racing team, is actively recording not just car data, but biometric data about the drivers themselves. The project is hoping to learn enough about both cars and their drivers to help create technology that will assist car manufacturers in adding assisted-driving solutions to street cars.
This 390 horsepower Ford GT40 was no ordinary car even before Revs got to it. Having raced at Daytona and Sebring in 1967, it was part of the famous generation of cars that brought Ford to the world stage in racing.
Stanford Professor Chris Gerdes, Director of the Center for Automotive Research and Dynamic Design Lab, explained to me that while the data the team had been collecting would be used in improving the group’s autonomous race car, Shelley — which recently topped 120mph in a test run at Thunderhill race track — the primary goal was creating solutions that could be used in more traditional applications like helping everyday drivers to be better and safer on the road. For example, while pro drivers follow a path around the track very similar to Shelley’s, they are still smoother, and therefore faster, than their robotic competitor. Someday these findings may help provide drivers with robotic co-pilots that can help them improve their driving, and have fun while doing it.
By recording drivers’ brain activity along with body temperature and heart rate, and synchronizing the recordings with vehicle position and performance, Gerdes related that the team could start to make conclusions about which driving activities were instinctive and which ones required conscious thought. As you might expect, he said that after a pro driver like the team’s Brian Redman had a few laps in a car, simple actions like shifting and braking didn’t require much high-level brain activity — they were instinctive.
Surprisingly, though, recovering from a skid also took little conscious effort. In fact, there was actually slightly less high-level brain activity in those crisis moments than for most of the rest of a race. Gerdes speculated that once a driver is comfortable with their car and the course, conscious thought is focused on race strategy and tactics, rather than vehicle handling. To help verify his hypothesis, the team has placed front and rear cameras on their cars this year, so they can correlate brain activity with action on the track.
Gerdes also explained that the project hasn’t proceeded without some hiccups. In its first year at the track — 2011 — they monitored the drivers’ skin to determine stress levels through galvanic skin response. Unfortunately most of what they found is that drivers’ hands sweat a lot inside fireproof gloves while racing on a hot day. Measuring brainwaves has certainly been more work, but is yielding a lot more useful data for them.
Whether or not you ever plan to own, let alone race, a historic car, technology is helping turn this spectator sport into an incubator and proving ground for new products that will one day make driving safer and more fun for all of us.
[Image Credits: David Cardinal, special thanks to the team at Big Fork Holdings and to theStanford Revs program]