Indy 500: Accelerating at the Speed of Tech


Sally at the Indy500 by Harvey Biggs
Sally Wiener Grotta in the HP pit at the Indy 500 (Photo by Harvey Briggs)

Mention Memorial Day weekend, and the vast majority of Americans will think of beaches, family trips to the mountains and backyard barbecues. But for a large segment of the population, the Sunday of Memorial Day is nothing less than Race Day! In fact, the Indy 500 draws more fans – hundreds of thousands of them – to the Indianapolis Raceway than to any other sporting event in the United States. It transforms the city and suburbs, with families renting out their homes and others selling camping and/or parking spaces on their lawns. Hotels and charter buses are sold out for months in advance. The traffic begins clogging the surrounding roads in the dark early hours of Race Day.

This past Memorial Day, I was invited to the Indy 500 by Hewlett Packard*. As one of their privileged invited guests, I was transported in style to the track, in one of three large HP buses, which avoided the traffic jam by arranging for a police escort. (Numerous corporate groups and some well-heeled private individuals pay for the police to blaze a trail through the gridlock traffic.) And, for most of the race, Sally viewed it from one of two HP private and well-catered suites.

But I wasn’t at Indy to sit still and just watch the race. My reason for being there was to learn about the tech that has transformed racing. And, since HP was my host, naturally the interviews and behind the scenes access that HP provided focused on their car: number 77, driven by Simon Pagenaud.

In the HP garage, Rob Edwards, the General Manage of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (which runs the HP car among others) explained that all Indy cars are identical, down to the chassis that is built in Italy by Dallara (which, I understand, designs the chassis on HP workstations). Their engines (from either Honda or Chevrolet) follow the same established specifications. Therefore, the differences among the teams come down to the drivers, the talents and efficiency of the crews, and how well the cars can be tweaked for aerodynamics and performance.

Simon Pagenaud, the #77 driver, talked about the weeks leading up to the race, during which engineers used data from hundreds of sensors on the car, to fine tune what they could. For instance, during the Saturday “Carb Day” run, he clocked the fastest pre-race speed at 228.9 miles per hour, because “the engineers tricked me.” From the data, they had determined that significantly lowering the angle of the “wing” would give them that much more speed.

Dan Hobbs, an assistant engineer on the HP team, further explained that the car “talks” to the engineers, with a constant stream of radioed data from those sensors. During the race, that data is then distributed to four engineers who study the numerous numbers, graphs and charts in real time on a battery of monitors and laptops under a pit-side tent. “It’s literally sensory overload.” Among the many analyses that fly across their screens are the rate of fuel consumption, variable pressure in each tire, lateral acceleration, and steering “traces.” The latter set of data tells them how and how much Simon is turning the steering wheel, from which they can deduce how the car is handling. Another constantly reported figure is ride height, to determine how well the car is “sucking down on the road.” Red alarms alert the engineers if one of the hundreds of sensors is picking up something that can negatively impact on performance, or if they need to bring the car in for a pit stop.

While Dan Hobbs admitted that it is a very tense scene, with the various screens throwing all this data at them, during a high-energy, very high-speed race, he said with pride, “Nascar doesn’t have this kind of telemetry. It’s a godsend to have properly recorded data coming off the car.”

The race itself was the noisy high-speed chase you would expect. Simon, who was driving in the Indy 500 for only his second time, did quite well, moving up from position 21 to 8 by the end of the race. However, the real headline grabbers were the three leaders — Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Carlos Munoz — who were jockeying for a very close finish. In fact, the lead position had changed a record 68 times throughout the race. Then, on the 197th lap (of the 200 lap race) a minor accident on the track caused the last three laps to be ridden under a yellow flag. If it had been one of the accidents that had thrown up a caution flag in the middle of the race, what would have happened is that all the cars would have slowed down, riding the circuit in the same relative positions they had jockeyed into just before the accident. Then, when the accident was cleared, the cars would resume the race at full competitive speed. But when the accident happened just three laps short of the end of the race, the accident wasn’t cleared in time, and the ending was a (comparatively) slow motion parade of cars courteously maintaining their position until they crossed the finish line. In other words, Tony Kanaan, who happened to have just taken the lead at the time of the accident, was the de facto winner.

And, yes, Kanaan’s car – and every other car in the Indy 500 – also benefited from high-tech, digital tweaking. The day when a race was simply about a car and a driver is a thing of the past. Now, it’s a man or woman, the crew and engineers, the machines and lots of digital data that make a race.

* Full Disclosure Note: Hewlett Packard Workstations are premier sponsors of my American Hands, a non-profit photographic project.

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