2012

The Engineering of IndyCar Racing

IndyCar racing features some of the most technologically sophisticated automobiles in the world today. Weighing just 1,565 pounds and powered by single- or twin-turbocharged 2.2L V6 engines that produce anywhere from 550 to 700 HP, the sleek, aerodynamic vehicles are capable of speeds in excess of 220 mph.

Not surprisingly, all of the space-age technology used in modern IndyCars tends to attract high-tech companies to the sport. Two such companies – Mouser Electronics and Littelfuse – have joined forces this year with the KV Racing Technology team. The team’s chief technology director, Eric Cowdin, spoke with Tech Briefs Media Group editor Bruce A. Bennett to answer some typical questions an engineer might ask.

NASA Tech Briefs: How big a role does electronics play in an IndyCar?

Eric Cowdin: Electronics are actually the backbone of running an IndyCar — everything from the engine management to the data acquisition system. It’s really the basis of controlling everything that’s going on in the IndyCar, as well as feeding us information back to make it perform better. Because of all the electronics on the car, there’s a very important circuit protection system on our car: the PDU, or power distribution unit. That PDU has eight outputs and each one has a pre-set current on it. Each one of those outputs is designed specifically to the electronic system that it’s providing control to, or current to, and that PDU protects every one of those delicate circuits. The other thing that allows us to do is monitor that output, via telemetry or recorded data, which gives us a chance to help the driver avoid a serious problem.

altNTB: What type of onboard computers are these cars equipped with, and what do they typically control?

Cowdin: Generally, there are two main systems onboard that actually control the car. One is for the gearbox and clutch assemblies, and the other is the engine control system. Each one controls its own systems initially, but there is communication between the two systems that allows the car to perform at its optimum level.

NTB: When a car comes into the pits during practice sessions, a crewman will often plug a laptop computer into it and download data. What type of data is being downloaded and what do you do with it?

Cowdin: The data that’s coming from the car is up to a thousand points per second of information — driver inputs, performance characteristics of the car, air speed, wheel speed, and lateral, vertical, and longitudinal acceleration. There are over 300 channels being recorded in real time, and that information is being offloaded during the car’s time in the pits.

NTB: Is the use of telemetry legal in IndyCar racing?

altCowdin: Yes, it is, and it’s actually quite vital to the point where it’s required by the engineers that real-time telemetry be in operation while the car is on the track. We don’t necessarily have quite the data sampling rate we would have with the onboard system. Any of the real-time channels could be sent across the telemetry stream, which is really only limited by the bandwidth of our telemetry system. That information is visually indicative of what the driver is asking from the car — throttle, steering, brakes — all the way down to engine performance, its health, temperatures, pressures, and fuel level. All these aspects are monitored while the driver is on the track, and from a safety standpoint, we look at tire pressure and all of the preventative aspects in case we have to call the car into the pits for safety issues.

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