For more than a year, NASCAR and other U.S. racing sanctioning bodies' tech inspectors have been:
1.Randomly cutting into ignition control boxes confirming the internals are legit;
2. Extracting car wiring harnesses and checking each wire's origin and destination;
3. Disassembling tachometers, looking for "extra" electronics inside;
4. Applying engine seals to wiring connectors to detect if they've been unplugged;
5. Using high-frequency sound detection equipment to monitor engine sounds on track; and
6. Enacting post-race "claiming" of ignition controls from racers.
These are just some of the countermeasures inspectors have employed in their quest to control the spread of Electronic Traction Control (ETC), and they're about to be stepped up.
We might soon see wiring harness routing and mounting regulated where all of it (about 30 feet total in a typical Cup car) has to be out in the open for inspection along with the ignition controls; say placing them on top of the dash. You can assume the wiring harness will not be within reach of the driver, either.
In a highly unusual move for such a close-to-the-vest organization, NASCAR has gone public about its search and reveal mission for clandestine traction enhancing electronics. The very public grumbling from some major NASCAR competitors and team owners in its top three divisions, which alluded to ETC aiding and abetting some racers' performance, needed some tempering, or at the least major spin-doctoring. The credibility of the organization was being called into question. It prides itself on being a series of drivers, not microprocessors, and they are not about to allow microprocessor regulation of engine power to assist traction.
The first spin-control salvo was at the Martinsville spring Winston Cup race in 2002, where majordomo Mike Helton placed racers on alert in their drivers' meeting by brandishing a couple of ETC devices NASCAR had procured. He made it clear his inspection force was on the prowl and the penalties would be appropriately high for anyone caught with it.
Then, at the Pepsi 400, all the top NASCAR brass, from Bill France Jr. on down, attended an innocent sounding "Competition Update" press conference before the race. It was to inform the media that NASCAR was on top of this perceived ETC problem, and to indicate it was going to step up its rules and inspection measures.
Head Winston Cup inspector John Darby reiterated the penalty for getting caught with ETC would likely be the most severe ever in NASCAR. The threat of making the record book as the team/sponsor receiving the largest fine or suspension or points penalty in NASCAR history is the prime deterrent NASCAR has. Nevertheless, you can take to the bank that NASCAR wouldn't expend all this inspection and public relations effort to catch an electronic "boogeyman" if it weren't in use.
ETC Is NationwideClandestine ETC use is not confined to the upper reaches of U.S. touring series; it is pervasive in U.S. racing even to the grassroots level. In my researching and writing about ETC over the past two years, sources racing in Winston Cup, Busch Grand National, DIRT Modifieds, Silver Crown, dirt Late Models, big-block pavement Late Models, IMCA-type Modifieds, and other racing series have acknowledged the use of ETC. The technology is even making its tentative way into boat racing, where engine power is being modulated based on rpm "jitter."
The basic physics and tactics of the microprocessor management of tire slip are well developed. Many high-performance passenger cars have ETC, and the cost of miniaturization and packaging of electronic sensing and microprocessor controlling components has become impressively affordable. So affordable that an electronic specialist can buy off-the-shelf components and build ETC-whether for sale on the open market, or for use in-house for a race team.
Effective mass-produced ETC units for racing are available today that are so small and portable they are almost undetectable. Costing in the $6,500 range, they are expensive for many amateur racers, but pocket change for professional efforts. You are paying a premium for the stealth technology, given its widespread illegality. The September 1999 issue of our sister magazine, Circle Track, examined the TracMate electronic traction control system, which was/is representative of a typical sensor-based unit. This system was effective, but not exactly undetectable because of its bulk and accompanying sensor wiring.
Today, Davis Technologies is one manufacturer of ETC that is "sensor-less" and not much bigger than a 9-volt battery. According to Shannon Davis, the unit's designer, "power is sourced from the original +9 volt battery and the ignition timing is adjusted through the battery case to chassis ground." That is, this portable unit detects wheel slip by monitoring an engine rpm (tach) signal, and retarding ignition timing to "soften" the engine power. Damped engine power reduces torque to the driving wheels and therefore can assist traction by keeping them from being overpowered.
This ETC unit does not have to be permanently hard-wired into the car's harness. Thus, tech inspectors can cut away on ignition controls, claim or swap them out, or apply engine seals to standard wiring connector junctions till their hearts are content they're policing ETC. But they will be hard-pressed to detect this portable unit that is separate from the ignition control's internal circuitry and can be temporarily wired into the car's wiring harness. That's why NASCAR is likely to make its race cars' ignition wiring harness be completely exposed, making connecting any auxiliary microprocessor electronics and wiring hard to do without detection.
Does ETC Work?Understandably, getting any performance numbers out of racers about ETC is not something they randomly bandy about. One Winston Cup racer acknowledged, "At Greenville-Pickens (South Carolina) it's worth 0.3 second a lap." ETC can improve fuel mileage in a carbureted race engine because throttle transitions are electronically damped and less fuel is expended. Tire wear/conservation can be improved because it can calm down all the little tire slips that are going on during racing that wear and heat the tires-the electronics can react faster than a human can in both cases.
Mark Richards, owner of Rocket Chassis, one of the top chassis manufacturers in Late Model racing, sells the Davis Technologies ETC. He doesn't make a big deal about it, but he knew he was competing against it on tracks across the country. So he began investigating ETC last year to find out if there was any real value to the claims he was hearing. He disclosed some hard test numbers about ETC.
"We're offering everything for a customer to win," he notes. "It won't make a 15th- or 10th-place car win a race, and it won't help the lap times of the best racers out there. But the average driver can pick up to 0.1-0.2 second. We've tested it (the Davis Technologies units). If (Late Model racer) Dale McDowell runs a 16.50 second lap without it, I run a 16.70-80 second lap without it in the same car on the same track. But I can hit the 16.50-60s if I use it on an open track."
Richards clarifies, "If Dale uses it, he can become more consistent and achieve more 16.50s over a number of laps." Basically, ETC helps a good racer stay good. Richards also says that traction control, "has become the number one excuse in racing: 'I got beat, I think the winner had traction control'" is all too common a post-race refrain these days. He states a reasonable legitimizing counter-argument. "Racers still have to have the skills to race: drive in traffic; adapt to changing track conditions; and adapt to the car's changing performance," he concludes.
Time Better Spent
NASCAR and major touring series may choose to continue to police ETC, and will likely restrict its use, but it's unlikely to be totally eradicated. They might take a page from Formula 1 or CART's rule book and legalize ETC-those sanctioning bodies recognized the futility of trying to police it versus the formidable technical resources of their racing teams. Then, they could apply their resources to bigger problems.
ETC is just one of the many pieces of creative engineering going on in racing, and it's become one of the most difficult to detect. Legalize it and the price could come down to the $500 to $1,000 range, and then expend the tech inspection efforts on finding ways to improve driver safety, for instance. That has more return on investment in the long run for racing's future.
What is ETC?
ETC used in stock car racing is often defined as the electronic management of engine power to the driving wheels to achieve optimum grip from the tires. Engine power can be reduced or "softened" by sensing wheel slip and then: retarding the ignition timing; or applying brakes; or electronic control of the throttle blade angle or fuel injector pulse duration; or a combination of all these. Current stock car racing ETC isn't that elaborate; they typically affect the engine timing or adjust the braking system.
We're only going to consider ETC for carbureted, rear-drive race cars without electronic engine management controls and using a battery-powered ignition system because the majority of stock cars fit that profile. They typically have a separate ignition control ("spark box") wired into the car's harness. Note though, that ETC is now available for MSD's Pro Mag magneto ignition-it's worth 0.5 second a lap at Phoenix's (Arizona) track in a Silver Crown car, according to one source-and HEI-type ignitions can also be mated to ETC.
If you're a sanctioning body thinking you could eradicate ETC by reverting back to contact-point ignition systems, don't bother. It can be adapted to them, too.
A limited amount of slip from the driving tires is desirable for maximum traction-according to most sources, 8 to12 percent depending on the track conditions and tires. Racers learn through years of making laps to manage the application of throttle to control engine power to get the best grip via a calibrated accelerator foot. They learn to sense and absorb inputs from the car and conditions, process them, and then adjust the throttle for best grip. ETC uses digital electronic components to approximate this throttle management, and in many cases the sensitivity and adjustability of the electronics are superior to the racer's throttle control ability (especially newcomers). Lap times can improve, or stay consistently good.
ETC detects tire slip and then uses different methods to manage it, although all the methods rely on reducing engine power to the driving tires. What defines the current racing ETC units on the open market is:
* How they detect and discern excessive tire slip, and once doing so;
* How they control the engine output to reduce it; and
* Their packaging of the sensor and control circuitry.
Detecting tire slip can be done various ways. Some ETC units use wheel speed proximity sensors mounted on the wheels to detect a difference in wheel speed between the front and rear tires-a big difference indicates wheel slip. Other units compare ground speed registered with a small radar gun to rear wheel speed. Others monitor a speed signal indicative of engine rpm and use software to check the rate of change of this rpm signal-if it exceeds a certain rate of change (a fair indicator the drive tires are slipping), then engine power is affected. For example, flywheel teeth can be counted to get this rate of change of engine speed, as can transmission gear teeth (both requiring a potentially detectable proximity sensor). Or the ETC can closely monitor a tachometer signal via a direct connection or an inductive pickup mechanism like that used on an ignition timing light.
Once tire slip is detected, electronic methods are used to reduce/degrade the engine power to the wheels. Up to a max of about 15 percent of an engine's horsepower can be reduced with minimal indication it is being done. Start to degrade more than that percentage and telltale indicators like sound (engine note changes), temperature of the exhaust (increases), or fire coming out the exhaust pipes (unburned fuel) begin to show up. A common method of degrading engine performance with ETC these days is by retarding the ignition timing-somewhere a distributor signal wire that triggers an ignition control to fire has to be tapped and the signal delayed. Sanctioning bodies are counting on finding or restricting that tap-in point, and ETC makers are just as determined to circumvent any barriers.