Testing & Analysis

Behind the Scenes at the Indy 500

23 Jun, 2010 By: Bill Fane

As guests of HP and Gil de Ferran's Dragon Racing Team, two car-loving CAD journalists see first-hand the computer power behind the engine power — not to mention a few celebrities.

Editor’s note: Although technically he’s retired now, Cadalyst contributing editor Bill Fane has hardly slowed down. On any given day you might find him teaching an AutoCAD course in Texas, covering a software launch in Europe, or spending the holidays in Hawaii. However, it was an invitation that he received recently that truly was the opportunity of a lifetime. “Have you ever wanted to be a CAD journalist?” Fane writes. “Read on to see what a tough life it is!”

Dear Diary:

March 1957:
I learned to drive this month — on a '56 Jaguar XK-140 roadster. I'm rapidly developing a love of fast cars.

May 1966: I graduated from the University of British Columbia, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
September 1986: In my job as a doorknob designer for Weiser Lock, I've started using a program called "AutoCAD."

February 1987: I wrote my inaugural ”Learning Curve” column for Cadalyst. Hopefully it will be the first of many.

May 17, 2010: The PR firm for Hewlett-Packard (HP) contacted me today. It's not what you know that counts — and it's not who you know, either. Usually it's what you know about who you know, but in this case it was what the PR team knew about me. They were looking for a freelance CAD journalist/computer geek/engineer interested in fast cars. Bingo!

May 27, 2010:
I boarded a plane headed for Indianapolis, where I'll be a guest of HP and Gil de Ferran's Dragon Racing Team at the legendary Indy 500 car race!

Just minutes before engine start on race day, Bill Fane gets an up-close look at the place where the rubber will meet the road.

May 28, 2010: I met up with CAD journalist/computer geek/car nut David Cohn, who is also a guest of HP and de Ferran Dragon Racing. We picked up a rental car and drove to the track offices to get our accreditation and passes, which afforded us general admission to the grounds, access to the media center, and the right to park in the infield about 100 feet from Gasoline Alley — but no grandstand seats. Oh, and we also received "hot" passes; these effectively made us members of the Dragon Racing pit crew, with full access to Dragon's garage and to the racing pits, even on race day.

Next, we went to the team garage, where we were re-introduced to team owner and manager Gil de Ferran, who drove to victory in the 2003 Indy 500, and driver Davey Hamilton (#21), both of whom we had met at the HP workstation roll-out held in Santa Monica in March. We were also introduced to the crew members, the engineers, and the other driver, Raphael Matos (#2). It takes about 30 people to run a two-car team like this one. They loaned us noise-cancelling radio headsets that allowed us to listen in on the chatter between each driver and his crew chief.

Track activity on Friday consisted of an Indy Lites race and the final one-hour "Carburetion Day" practice session. "Our" drivers did reasonably well, and the team seemed pleased. We also watched the "Pit Stop Competition" from the pits. Dragon Racing didn't enter, because they were running both cars in the main race. (Most teams enter a spare car in the pit stop competition because they don't want to risk hurting their main car or cars.) Late-afternoon activities included a concert by ZZ Top.

Evening found us at an exclusive cocktail reception in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It was hosted by the head of the parent company of IZOD, which is a prime sponsor of the Indy Racing League series. There were about 200 people there — a very eclectic mix of NFL greats, Olympic gold medalists, car-racing legends, and so on. We even had a pleasant chat with Mario Andretti.

May 29, 2010: there was no track activity, so we spent much of the day in the garage, talking to the engineers and crew members. In particular, we had a lengthy Q&A session with engineers Eric Zeto (for Raphael's car), Carlos Gutierrez (for Davey's car), and Scott Raymond, who handles computer systems. The conversations, including discussions with other crew members, went something like this:

Q. "How much design work do you do?"

A. "Not much. In an effort to reduce costs and to attract more teams, the cars are highly standardized. The teams must all buy a standard chassis from Dallara Automobillia in Italy. We must use an XTRAC #295 six-speed gearbox, but we can specify their ratios.

"All engines come from Honda as sealed units. They are 3.5-liter normally aspirated V-8s putting out about 650 hp on ethanol. Our mechanics cannot touch them at all; they are strictly plug-and-play units.

"All cars run identical Firestone Firehawk tires. The only variable we can play with is tire pressures.

"Body shells all come out of the same mold from one manufacturer. Three standard, identical wing configurations are used for street, road course, and oval races. The only variable is wing angle of attack.

"There are so many dimensions defined for suspension components that most teams buy a standard kit from the same manufacturer. Minor adjustments can be made to caster, camber, and toe-in — but that's it.

"All we design are miscellaneous small items such as mounting brackets and minor aerodynamic bits."

Q. "Okay, with all due respect, what else do you do?"

"We model and analyze. We record about 100 parameters while the car is running. This includes such things as the steering wheel and throttle position, brake pedal travel and hydraulic pressures, brake pad temperatures, the speed of each wheel, suspension travel at each corner of the car, position on the track, and so on."

During races and practice runs, members of the Gil de Ferran Dragon Racing team (Gil at center, in white) monitor data collected about racetrack conditions and car performance.

"How about engine parameters?"

"We get RPM, and that's all. Honda monitors everything else, and they don't tell us. Each Honda engineer is assigned to two cars. "

"How about differences between engines? Are some more powerful or reliable than others?"

"Honda is paranoid about making sure the engines are identical. No one has ever even thought about complaining. As to reliability, there has not been a single engine failure in four years." [Note: this year makes it five.]

"How do you record the data?"

"There is a solid-state memory module in the car. During practice and tuning runs we download when the car is in the pits. In addition, we use radio telemetry to monitor and process about 30 of the main parameters in real time, even during the race."

"So why do you do all this parameter monitoring?"

A. "In the 'good old days' where every car was different, an engineer could come up with a single innovation that could give a 5%, 10%, or even 15% improvement. Now, with all the cars being virtually identical, we have to fight like mad to come up with 0.1%, and we have to factor in the differences between drivers. The identical setup can behave differently with a different driver. Our objective here is to build a complete mathematical model so that we can accurately predict the effect of any change, and changes can even include things like air temperature, humidity, and winds. Remember, all we can play with are wing angles, tire pressures, and minor suspension geometry changes."

Q. "What does Hewlett-Packard bring to the table?"

A. "Three things; money, hardware, and software. The first is self-explanatory. As to hardware, look at this row of laptops that we just received. These are not generic consumer units; they are the latest EliteBook 8540w portable engineering workstation models. Remember that everything is interrelated, so computational needs go up exponentially. If we double the parameters that we analyze in real time, then we quadruple our computing requirements. These new units have given us such a quantum increase in computing power and speed that we are looking to get real-time telemetry and analysis of all 100 parameters.

Team members use HP mobile workstations to analyze the data and model the effects of any modifications to the cars or changes in weather conditions.

"When it comes to software, HP is always challenging us: Is there a better way? We know cars, but they know computing. The fastest car will win, but the fastest car belongs to the team that gets to the answers fastest. This will become even more significant in a year or two with the switch to a new chassis, and possibly a second competing engine."

Q. "Even though Raphael and Davey weren't the fastest yesterday, we don't see any changes being made to the setups."

"The cars weren't set up to be fastest in practice. They were set up for what we think conditions will be on race day. All we were doing was verifying our calculations."

"We noticed a monitor in the pits that shows the current location of every car on the track, along with its lap times and current speed. Doesn't this give you an advantage?"

"Not really. Every team is supplied with the same information."

May 30, 2010: Race day. The garage seems remarkably quiet. Everything that can be done has been done, so the crew watches the Turkish Grand Prix Formula 1 race on TV. These guys just can't get enough.
At 10:30 a.m., the cars are rolled out of the garage and toward the track. The masses are crowded behind the fences lining Gasoline Alley, but with our passes David and I walk right down the middle with the cars and crew and out onto the track. We stayed out on the starting grid during the various ceremonies, songs, anthems, and fighter aircraft flyby. At 1:02 p.m., we finally had to move over the outer pit wall about three minutes before the cry rang out, "Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!" After the cars passed on the warm-up lap, we moved to the safety of the inner pit wall.

When the green flag fell, Davey got tangled in traffic and hit the wall in Turn 2 on the first lap. I was in his pit at the time. The only reaction from the crew was that one of them said, "Damn. We didn't even get a chance to show them that we know what we're doing." With that, they silently went to work packing everything up and clearing out of the pit.

On the other hand, Raphael verified the calculations made on the HP laptops, and the statement that Friday's practice was just to confirm Sunday's setup. He rapidly moved from 10th up to 3rd place and was easily closing on the leaders when a pit stop put him back in 10th. Despite Gil's repeated admonitions over the radio to take it easy, Raphael may have been a little too eager to get back up front. He spun on lap 79 and hit the wall quite hard.

One of Dragon Racing's cars in the team's garage before the big race ... and after.

The 2010 Indy 500 was the hottest on record, with the temperature hitting 95 degrees in the pits and 140 on the track. With both of "our" cars out of the running, I retired to the air-conditioned media center to watch the rest of the race, seated beside a freezer full of ice cream bars.

The Indy 500 car race bills itself as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Any race that includes ZZ Top, balloons, low-flying jet fighters, Jim Nabors, Jack Nicholson, David Letterman, and Jewel certainly earns the title.

At 4:30 pm, about 200 journalists attended a press conference with the winner, Dario Franchitti. One journalist asked which was more exciting: his first Indy 500 win, or this, his second. Dario replied, "That would be like asking me to choose between one of our two dogs." His wife — the actress Ashley Judd — was seated in the audience, and at that moment she burst out into an explosion of raucous laughter. There must be a story there!

Although today was a little disappointing for Gil de Ferran's Dragon Racing and its prime sponsor, HP, it's a safe bet that we haven't heard the last of this powerful duo.

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