Drivers and their teams increasingly turn to technology to improve performance, but Nascar officials are putting the clamps down. On race day, Nascar inspectors inspect parts and check for hidden computer chips. The job of monitoring for technological compliance is growing more difficult by the day. For example, tiny chips for traction control are a recent concern. These ICs help cars cling to corners. A dead giveaway when a race car carries traction control is that its wheels don’t slip.
So why does Nascar limit technology? One reason is to level the playing field. Not all teams are bankrolled by big sponsors. Restrictions on track technology, reasons Nascar, gives all drivers a fighting chance. The organization’s regulations now govern nearly all internal components, down to the shock absorbers.
One outlawed technology is telemetry, beaming data from on-board sensors back to the pit crew. Modern race cars carry numerous sensors to monitor items ranging from fuel consumption to tire pressure. But this information must stay on the car, except during shake-down laps. On-board computers, recording devices, and digital readouts are forbidden while racing. Any radio used must be for two-way voice communication only and be independent of the car’s electrical system. Nascar even dictates antenna placement because it could affect vehicle aerodynamics.
The organization also is quite specific regarding electrical systems. It permits ignition amplifier and rpm boxes that are analog. But they can’t contain programmable circuits or computers. All car wiring must run to the driver’s right. None of it is allowed in the driver’s door. Rules even spell out the connector to the ignition box. For car crews, the situation is analogous to tip-toeing through a regulation minefield. Says Jim Wall, engineering group manager for Hendrick Motorsports, Harrisburg, N.C., “My job is to use technology to gain a competitive edge. With Nascar, you are given a defined set of rules and must work to optimize them.”
Gentlemen, start your inspections!
Nascar inspects race cars numerous times before and after a race. Inspectors use 14 to 15 body templates, special measuring devices, and a rule book during the inspection process. The exterior features, inner components such as the roll cage, the engine compartment, and even the car’s underbelly are all subject to viewing. There are prequalifying, postqualifying, and prerace inspections of all body aerodynamics. Officials check the race car’s front, rear, corners, and sides. They also verify ground clearance on the front air dam and the height of the rear spoiler. Ditto for the rear deck lid and roofline height. Compression ratios, manifold clearance, and carburetor and restrictor-plate clearance also get the once-over.
Inspections take place upon arrival at the track, before the first round of qualifying, before second-qualifying rounds, before the race in the morning, and after the race. For Nascar Winston Cup races, which span a three-day weekend, the first inspection takes approximately 4 hr. The cars must be checked before they can enter the track for practice. Afterwards, the crews put cool water in the radiators, mount new tires, and tweak settings to improve performance. Once again, inspectors comb the car to ensure nothing changed since the morning inspection. During second-qualifying inspections, officials eyeball the carburetor as well as everything under the hood. They also scrutinize the rear axle for the proper differential gear. Safety equipment and seat belts are examined for compliance.
Wheelbase measurements come next, as well as tire tread width. The cars are weighed to verify they reach the 3,400 lb minimum required. Odd though it may seem, the right side of the vehicle gets weighed separately and must reach 1,600 lb. The reason: most Winston Cup Series races run on left-hand-turn oval tracks. If racers adjust the car centerline so the wheelbase extends on the left side, it would more evenly distribute the tire weight. The result would be more efficient cornering. To prevent this asymmetrical adjustment, Nascar mandated a minimum weight for a car’s right side.
Inspectors also audit roof height, as well as clearance between the ground and exhaust pipe and from the ground to the front air dam. The rear-quarter-panel height must be between 33 and 35 in.
Engine height measurements from the ground to the crankshaft centerline are the last item on the list. The hood is shut, and inspectors certify it fits properly at air induction. The car then comes under Nascar control. The crew is banned from opening the hood or jacking up the car. The next crew member to touch the vehicle is the driver who qualifies it.
After the race, there are height and weight inspections on winning vehicles to prove each win is legal and official. When the engine cools, a tear down process begins. The carburetor is the first item checked, followed by bore and stroke measurements. Next comes investigations of components such as the manifold and ignition box. Finally, the entire car is combed through again.
Rule violations are dealt with by hefty fines. For example, at this year’s Daytona 500, three teams were fined for infractions including unapproved exhaust pipes, nonmagnetic driveshafts, and unapproved brake rotors. The fines ranged from $2,000 to $5,000.
Black boxes are technological jewels
After a run, the Pi box downloads the data to a computer for analysis with specially designed software which graphs car performance. Crew members interpret the data and tweak the car accordingly. Thirty-seven Nascar Winston Cup teams use either System 3+ or 4+ with V6 software and optional accessories including a tire temperature package, load cells, and laser ride height. Pi software can even help plan pit stops for a race weekend. V155 race-day strategy software incorporates fuel, mileage, and time management. With a price tag ranging from $9,000 to $40,000, these systems are affordable only by teams making the big bucks.