Mobil 1 Auto Tech: Looking forward at ... oil spills

April 09, 2014, Ron Lemasters Jr., for, NASCAR.com

NASCAR oil spill

FLIR technology helps clean-up crews spot problem areas quickly

FOLLOW: Mobil 1 on Facebook

The racing surfaces in NASCAR are, theoretically, pristine and clean and ready for the thunder and lightning that NASCAR has always brought on race day.

That's the story, anyway.

In reality, it's just like any other piece of asphalt or concrete: it has its clean parts and its not-so-clean parts. When you put 850-horsepower machines with slick tires on it, it gets grungy pretty quickly, and the thousands of fans contribute to it, spreading everything from hot dog wrappers to Coke syrup to … you get the idea.

One of the substances that gets on the track and gums up the works is motor oil, and motor oil, like Mobil 1, of course, is great inside the engine, but not so grand when it escapes containment in a speed environment.

Slippery doesn't begin to cover motor oil on the track. First of all, it is viscous, another word for thick, and it is a lubricant, which means it protects against heat and thermal breakdown. NASCAR tires aren't treaded; therefore, there's nothing to grab onto the asphalt or concrete.

From there, it's on. The result is more spilled oil, a lot of metal and carbon fiber debris and all sorts of complications that teams, officials and fans would rather not deal with, all in all.

Enter Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR's Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development.

Stefanyshyn is the guy NASCAR calls when it needs a solution to something, or the plans for a better mousetrap in this case.

Part of his job, as he sees it, is to use all the technology he can find or build or borrow to aid NASCAR in its pursuit of the perfect racing series.

In a recent interview, Stefanyshyn touted the use of infrared cameras (also known as thermal imaging cameras) as a way to help track safety crews find oil spills and debris.

These cameras are used in a variety of applications ranging from the military and law enforcement to safety to mining and other industrial areas. In fact, Stefanyshyn referred to the Boston Marathon bombings as an indicator of how the systems could help NASCAR.

"We get a global perspective being global ourselves," he told TrendReports.com. "By looking at other industries, we were also influenced by FLIR Systems. They used thermal imaging cameras to find the suspect from the Boston Marathon bombings. After incidents on the track, we found that these same cameras helped us to find oil spills and debris. The clean-up crew could work more quickly because of this technology."

In the old days -- like 2012, for instance -- safety crews had to use their own special brand of radar: the Mark-One eyeball. That is, they had to see the oil with their own eyes before beginning the clean-up. It's not difficult once you get used to it. There is, up close, a definite sheen to the spilled fluids, and you can reach down and feel it between your fingers.

There is a better way, however, and Stefanyshyn found it.

FLIR (Forward-Looking Infra-Red) is the same technology used on some of the U.S. military's hottest equipment, from Apache helicopters to space-age F-22 fighter planes. It identifies heat sources across the visual spectrum, even when there is very little or no light, by measuring differences in heat signatures.

In an infra-red spectrum, differences in heat signatures show up very well. The track temperature is usually 130 degrees farenheit or less; the engine oil, fluids and race-car parts the NASCAR-owned FLIR looks for are usually quite a bit hotter.

Anyone who has tried to change the oil in a hot engine knows exactly how hot it gets in passenger cars; the oil and other engine fluids in racing engines are even more so.

They show up as a brighter splotch of color on the FLIR screens and show the safety crew where they need to concentrate their efforts. Even if there's some thermal degradation, the FLIR is sensitive enough that it can pick out even small temperature differences.

To put it more scientifically, thermal mass determines the rate of heat transfer.

The larger the pool of oil, the easier it is to see on FLIR. Temperature differences will be able to show smaller spots of oil as well, but as in most things, bigger is better.

If you've noticed in recent races, the speedy-dry is not applied all that haphazardly any more. It's directed to specific areas and then sucked up by vacuum cleaners on standby.

When you think about it, getting every last drop of oil off the speedway before turning the field loose only makes sense. Technology, through the advent of FLIR thermal imaging, helps NASCAR and its tracks make sure that happens every time.

Following innovations in materials, crash barriers and clean-up materials, the addition of thermal imaging to NASCAR's arsenal is a big step forward for the sport.