NASCAR racing is often called a game of inches.
It is true, to a degree. An inch of clearance can mean the difference between making the winning pass coming off Turn 4 and carrying your car to the transporter on the hook with a basket full of damaged parts in the passenger seat.
It can mean winning the race -- or the championship, as we saw in 2011 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Tony Stewart.
And it can mean the difference between getting the thumbs-up from NASCAR inspectors or having to push your car out of line, take a sledge hammer and arc welder to it and run it back through.
NASCAR’s laser inspection platform, in place since the Daytona 500 in February, makes NASCAR racing a game of 1/1000th of an inch.
The platform, which is built much like the inspection stations used to weigh the cars, adds a degree of precision to the process that the sport has never had before. Using RFID chips already installed on the chassis at the NASCAR R&D Center in Concord, N.C., the platform orients the chassis to the precise position that it was when it received its certification from the sanctioning body.
By way of review, each team submits its race chassis to NASCAR prior to building out the car. The chassis have the Radio Frequency Identification tags fitted to them in specified locations, and these are then used to map the chassis.
The data is stored via computer and cataloged by teams.
That statement tells you how far NASCAR has come in embracing new technology. For years, there were hardly any electronics involved in NASCAR, save the Pi Research telemetry packages the teams used to gather data from testing.
Electronics -- especially computers -- were powerful and precise, and NASCAR tightly controlled their use as a form of keeping the playing field level. Traction control, engine mapping and revisions were possible, with the advances in wiring harnesses and other such equipment, and it was very hard to police from a sanctioning body’s perspective.
With the new platform, it’s easier than it sounds.
As the car rolls onto it, the RFID chip is picked up by the computer and referenced. The platform’s brain scans the library of certified cars for the proper chassis and compares its placement on the platform to its position when it was mapped the first time.
If it notices a discrepancy, it adjusts the car to match the position exactly.
If you’ve noticed the cars in the tech line, they all have white wheel caps on. These hold the connectors by which the platform moves the car.
Once in place, measurements are conducted, and the platform can do up to 40 measurements, such as camber on the front and rear wheels, wheelbase and the location of the rear axle.
Much attention has been paid to the “gray area” where Team Penske was playing with the rear-end housing at Texas earlier this year. The platform found the “improvements” made by the team and called them out.
"There is no other system like this used in any other form of racing," NASCAR Sprint Cup Director John Darby said at Daytona. “A lot of the gadgets and trickery we had going on underneath the back ends of the cars -- the sideways stuff -- will be much, much easier for us to control.”
Formula One has a similar process for its inspections, though not precisely like NASCAR’s, and several years ago, the IndyCar circuit came up with something at Indianapolis called The Qualifier that was very similar in scope.
The Qualifier used pneumatic measurement tools to plumb the depths of all the nooks and crannies that open-wheel cars have on their undersides, including side pods, tub floors and suspension pieces. That idea was ahead of its time, however, and didn’t last long.
At Daytona, the process broke down … or rather, the equipment did. No problem, though, as NASCAR officials simply punted and went back to the way it had been done for years with manual tools and measurement devices.
According to NASCAR, it takes about three minutes to do the measurements with the laser platform, so all 43 cars can be inspected in two hours. Of course, it is just one of many stops on the push-the-car process that is NASCAR inspection.
The laser inspection platform -- no one has come up with a catchy name like The Qualifier as yet -- represents a step forward for NASCAR on the technical side. By streamlining the collection of data on cars, which it already does, NASCAR is able to use technology to provide a dead-on accurate landscape for the teams to set up to.
By setting up the database where nothing is left to chance, NASCAR can more accurately inspect the cars to ensure that all is right by the rulebook. It also likely means there will be more applications of technology coming down the road.