A good data acquisition system...
A good data acquisition system may be all you need to stay out front. Photo by Kevin Thorne
"If you do not measure, you can't improve."
When you mention data acquisition, many racers' eyes glaze over and they instantly make the assumption that you are talking about racks of computers and very complex on-board dataloggers, armies of engineers, computer technicians, miles of cables and wires, and other complicated equipment. I would agree with them if we were talking about rocket science, but we are not-we are talking about race cars.
I asked a variety of racers some rather pointed questions at the last race I attended at Manzanita Speedway, a dirt track in Phoenix, Arizona. I asked them what they would measure if they had dataloggers on their race cars. The answers were interesting, to say the least. The majority of our racers were concerned with a minimal number of factors: rpm, speed through corners, braking performance, speed in mph, and acceleration rates.
In the simplest terms, data acquisition is a method of gathering information or data and using it to answer a specific question or group of questions. We need to remember that data comes in two forms: attribute and continuous. Attribute data is just that-an attribute (good, bad, better, or best). Attribute data is not what we should be using to tune our race cars. Continuous data is expressed in the form of a number, and it is the number that the DA system is going to record for later use as a basis for analysis.
This view gets the whole picture....
This view gets the whole picture. It almost seems like too much information at one time, but it is like driving a faster car: At first it seems too fast, but after a few laps you are accustomed to the power and want more.
This data acquisition is happening in real time, while the car is on the track, and it is happening automatically, without any driver input or special actions from the driver. With a DA system, we have the ability to track specific functions on the race car in real time, and we can do some analysis and determine if performance is increasing or decreasing. It is just that simple.
Early DA was done manually with a stopwatch, a pen, and some paper (at best, graph paper). Some analysis is still done that way. Granted, we were not able to track as many parameters or look at as many dynamic variables using manual methods. But the world has changed, and we are being offered a better way to gather the data we need to answer the questions we have about our race cars. In fact, we can measure things now that we never dreamed possible.
As the racing world has changed, the data we use to answer our questions has been sourced in different locations, as opposed to merely gross lap time, as in times past. The questions we are asking now are more complex. We have the ability to look at g-forces through corners, down the straight, and under braking. We can look at suspension travel and driver input to various controls, such as brakes, steering, and shift points.
This is a screen shot of a...
This is a screen shot of a Pi Club Expert Windows software package. This map shows the minimum and maximum mph for each sector of the track. Utilizing this analysis, we can see where the driver is gaining or losing speed on the track. It's a tuning tool and an aid for driver development as well.
We also can look at engine rpm and a variety of temperatures from oil, water, exhaust, and intake. We can even analyze air pressures at a variety of body locations to verify wind tunnel data and get a better understanding of how pitch and yaw affect the car. We can look at the driver and monitor heart rate and breathing. All it takes is money and an inquisitive mind.
Computers and electronic dataloggers have been around for the past 30 years, but only in the last 15 years or so has the cost of dataloggers and software for analysis become more affordable. Over the last five years, the cost of some of the smaller systems has become less than the price of a set of digital scales, and the software is now much more user friendly than earlier versions. You no longer have to be a computer geek to use the software.
We need to note that we do not need racks of computers and fancy 8-, 16-, or 32-channel dataloggers to accomplish data acquisition. Prior to buying anything, assess what you want to measure. What are you interested in learning about? Are you interested in engine parameters, lap times, wheel travel, steering inputs, brake pressure, and clutch performance?
Data acquisition (DA) in our world is a very different animal. At the highest levels of our sport it can mean much more, but at the grassroots level it does not have to be overly complex or expensive. While it costs money, DA is not out of the realm of the weekly racer.