Jul 01 2006

The Racer's Edge

Trackside technology overhaul helps Justin Wilson's RuSPORT Champ Car team make it to the winner's circle.

Photo: Carie Taylor

Justin Wilson gripped the steering wheel as his 750-horsepower turbocharged Champ Car hurled him down the asphalt of the Milwaukee Mile at 175 miles per hour. "G" forces plastered him against his custom-molded seat and then pushed him to one side as he banked the next turn. Split-second decisions can mean life or death. Thankfully, he didn't have to worry about crashes — computer crashes, that is.


Last year, he and his teammates weren't so lucky. The computers they used to keep tabs on engine stress, coolant temperature and other key data were plagued by operating system crashes and hardware failures. Rather than analyzing real-time race data, team engineers found themselves rebooting hard drives. "We were losing man hours that could have been devoted to making the cars run faster," laments RuSPORT president Jeremy Dale.



To make matters worse, Champ Car rules require teams to share a subset of the data they collect with race officials, who distribute timing and scoring data to each team's timing stands. In some races, RuSPORT cars would go lap after lap without that data being collected.


Photo: Carie Taylor


In 2005, after two years of going in circles, RuSPORT flagged down CDW for help. Now a primary sponsor of Wilson's No. 9 car, CDW brought its team of field engineers to overhaul the team's computer technology on and off the track. "We're known for delivering answers to business challenges with speed and accuracy, so this partnership with the RuSPORT racing team makes perfect sense," says John A. Edwardson, chairman and chief executive officer, CDW.


Job one was overhauling the team's two trackside timing stands. The stands, which resemble high-tech, umbrellaed hot-dog carts crammed with computers, overhead LCD displays, radio equipment and video cameras, serve as mission control in auto racing. Like other Champ Cars, Wilson's #9 CDW/RuSPORT car uses hundreds of sensors to measure engine performance. Most data is collected by an onboard computer, while 30 to 40 key stats are transmitted wirelessly to the timing stand computers.


Photo: Carie Taylor


Using those numbers, team mechanics and engineers got to work. Small adjustments — such as increasing tire pressure to improve handling — are made at pit stops. Big changes, such as recalibrating engine torque, are made between races. Combined, the alterations can shave seconds off a finishing time. That's huge in a sport where results are measured in milliseconds, and it's why computer crashes are so costly.


That's why CDW replaced RuSPORT's three rack-mounted servers and mid-range consumer-quality notebooks with a dozen Hewlett-Packard Mobile Workstations and monitors. "The new IT has greatly enhanced our functionality by giving us something that was reliable and robust, but user friendly," says Dale. "After all, if you have to have an IT person at the track, you're using the wrong system."


Photo: Carie Taylor


CDW chose HP systems, with a lot of muscle under the hood. They included Hewlett-Packard's nw8240 Mobile Workstation, which comes standard with Windows XP Professional operating system, Intel's 2GHz Pentium M processor, 1,024MB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive and a screen that supports up to 1600 by 1200 pixel resolutions. CDW also chose the nc8230 for engineering (1.86GHz Pentium M processor, 802.11b/g, Bluetooth and 60GB hard drive); the nc6120 for operations (1.73GHz Pentium M, 802.11b/g, and 40GB hard drive); and the nc4200 for management (Bluetooth, Ethernet, Fast Ethernet, Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g).


Significantly, each of the HP notebook computers sport Intel's Enhanced SpeedStep technology, which adjusts processing power to save battery life — a smart move given the highly mobile nature of supporting a Champ Car race team.



Turbocharging those notebooks are dynamic random access memory upgrades from EDGE Tech, while headsets from Plantronics will keep RuSPORT team members in sync, and custom cases from Targus will protect the gear from the harsh working conditions. In addition, CDW chose 12 HP L1955 flat panel monitors for RuSPORT's new timing stands. The L1955's extra-high contrast ratio of up to 1000:1, and sharp 1280x1024 resolution on a large 19-inch viewable screen, allows RuSPORT engineers to clearly read data even in bright sunlight.


Photo: Carie Taylor


All told, CDW and HP outfitted RuSPORT with 25 notebooks, three desktops, three servers and 65 monitors. Eight of those notebooks and a dozen of the monitors are used in the timing stand; the remainder are being deployed in RuSPORT's Denver headquarters.


Dale has never calculated the financial return on his investment but says he is certain that his business — and his cars — now run more smoothly. In fact, on July 23 the young team won the Edmonton Grand Prix — moving Wilson into second place in the Champ Car driver championship — its sixth podium appearance in just four months, including three consecutive second-place finishes in May and June. Clearly, RuSPORT is gaining momentum.


CEO takeaway
If your business relies on highly computational applications — such as the real-time data collection done by RuSPORT’s Champ Car team — here are tips on systems upgrades that can boost performance.
• Keep it simple. Only consider those systems that your IT staff can readily support. There’s no sense in buying a complicated rack-mounted system when a fully loaded notebook will do the trick. “Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t help you achieve business goals,” says RuSPORT president Jeremy Dale.
• Squeeze the juice. When deploying notebooks, consider systems that take advantage of power-saving technologies, such as Intel’s SpeedStep, and make sure all the system’s battery-saving features are implemented.
• Protect your investment. Motherboards and hard drives have replaced fragile screens as the most likely source of hardware failures in notebooks. To improve hard-drive longevity, consider technologies such as Hewlett-Packard’s Mobile Data Protection System, which uses an internal motion detector to temporarily stop the hard drive and protect data in the event of impact.