While NASCAR competitors must forgo many digital technologies (all teams are required to operate only analog gauges in their race cars, for example), the world’s most successful auto racing teams don’t shy from deploying high-technology systems wherever permitted. They’re so dependent upon information technologies, in fact, that many businesses would do well to follow the data sharing and protection practices leading NASCAR teams implement in the relentless pursuit of competitive advantage.
I attended a recent NASCAR Busch race at Kentucky Speedway, where I toured the mobile offices of several NASCAR heavyweights, including Richard Childress Racing and Roush Racing, whose drivers often dominate Nextel Cup and Busch Series racing. My interviews with numerous team engineers revealed several IT practices that all businesses should consider incorporating as operational standards.
Lesson 1: Share Data Effectively to Empower Teams
Teams collect and process critical data throughout a typical race weekend. Large amounts of information—including chassis settings, tire setups, lap times, and fuel consumption data—must be recorded and quickly shared among crew members in incredibly harsh environments.
"We live by timing and scoring data," says Roush Racing’s Randy Fuller, referring to scoring information that NASCAR collects in real time and distributes to each race team (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 NASCAR Nextel and Busch series teams depend on computers in the pits to display real-time timing and scoring data. The information the program provides proves critical in helping shape team strategies.
All teams use specialized Pi Research hardware to receive live timing and scoring data, which is then shared with the entire team. In addition, the team, which fields cars for such drivers as Carl Edwards and Mark Martin, also closely tracks setup information. During practice, qualifying, and the race itself, it’s common to see engineers continually crunching data using customized Excel spreadsheets and Access databases. Variances of even a few degrees in ambient air temperature or the sun’s setting can require significant changes to a race car’s tuning. Without those changes, the team’s driver can find it next to impossible to maintain pace with other competitors.
Accurate timing and scoring data and often-updated car setup information must be quickly distributed to all team members. Without access to this data, teams quickly fall off the pace as race strategies can no longer be calculated properly, and adjustments can’t be made to compensate for changing track conditions.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the line. And, unlike some industries in which mistakes result only in lost revenue, a mistake made tuning a race car can result in personal injury to drivers who already flirt with danger by the very nature of their work.
NASCAR teams turn to simple Windows XP Professional–powered workgroups not only to collect such data but to distribute it. Linked systems are deployed in all locations where they could be needed, including in the pits, in the garage area (where frantic and intensive repairs are often made during a race), and inside a team’s transporter.
In addition, crew members wear radio-equipped headsets to enable instant communication among the entire team. To ensure that the team remains on the same page, crew chiefs and engineers often instant message one another as they review race data. So the next time you watch a NASCAR race, keep an eye out for the pit carts adorned with laptops and look for the crew chief (who typically sits atop the cart) to see whether he’s typing. If so, he’s likely working to calculate the team’s next pit window or discussing setup changes with the engineer.
Businesses should emulate the NASCAR teams’ important practices in the process of sharing data:
- NASCAR crews work to ensure that all team members—from the lowest level to the most senior—have access to critical decision-making information.
- NASCAR teams strive to ensure that multiple communications lines are present, from live radio-based discussions to instant messaging sessions.
- NASCAR teams seek to ensure that systems are deployed in all locations where they could be required. Investing additional resources in garage-area systems, where a PC may often prove superfluous, guarantees that contingency plans are in place if needed.
While purchasing additional systems may seem an insignificant expense for today’s powerhouse NASCAR teams, you might be surprised to learn the truth. Large teams, including those that operate both Nextel Cup and Busch efforts, face the same budget dilemmas as most IT professionals.
NASCAR engineers frequently don’t possess the resources they desire or need, and often find themselves at the closest electronics retailer, hurriedly seeking a replacement Linksys router, hard drive, or cellular Internet PC card.
"A lot of our [Busch series] equipment is used or recycled," adds Fuller. "We go to plan B mode when things break—we go down to Radio Shack or Best Buy or Wal-Mart at night."