New 2018 inspection process aims to ‘create a level playing field’

NASCAR will have a new inspection system in place for the 2018 season, with a full-fledged rollout of a process that was tested at four tracks last year. But by the time the garage opens for business later this month at Daytona, the procedure will already be a familiar one.

The process — developed by Hawk-Eye Innovations, the company that oversaw the debut of NASCAR’s Pit Road Officiating technology — will replace the laser inspection system (LIS) and claw template station that previously measured vehicle bodies. The new system is expected to be far more thorough in its scanning process, creating a three-dimensional heat map of a particular car and comparing it to the computer-aided drawing (CAD) for each manufacturer.

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It’s the latest evolution in technical rules enforcement that dates back to its primitive origins with manual measurements and wooden templates.

“It’s part of our DNA to try to innovate,” says John Probst, NASCAR Managing Director, Competition and Innovation. “I think if you look at the technology partners that we have — Microsoft and even Hawk-Eye, the supplier of this particular system — this isn’t our first step into this arena. … This is a natural extension for us to go in and start going from the officiating side of using technology and now starting to employ it on the inspection side.”

Two inspection stations will be a fixture at the race track this year, one in the Monster Energy Cup Series garage and the other for the NASCAR Xfinity Series. A third rig is set to be permanently stationed at the NASCAR Research and Development Center, and it’s already getting plenty of use.

Competition officials have kept that dedicated inspection bay open to teams in the offseason, allowing them to become better oriented with the setup. Since that open-door policy was established, organizations have booked more than 100 appointments and conducted more than 800 scans in preparation for the season.

“I think that as you go back and look at how NASCAR has evolved their inspection process over the years, not always did we have a lot of team involvement,” Probst says, noting that organizations have contributed design time, parts and engineering time to help develop the inspection efforts. “… I think that’s a really good step and a good omen for the industry moving forward in that we had such a collective effort to put this thing together.”

One notable difference is the new inspection bay’s appearance — a black tent with a collection of 16 cameras and eight projectors attached to its inner structure. An additional camera is positioned below the vehicle to measure the underside.

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Once a car rolls in, the projectors cast light in a series of lines and dots over the body to create a coordinate system for the cameras. In roughly 30 seconds, those cameras capture the measurements of those light patterns and create a 3-D heat map — also called a point cloud — that helps officials determine whether a car is in compliance.

“I think that the initial reaction may be that NASCAR’s changed something and oh, they’re clamping down on it harder, more difficult, and in a sense the biggest difference is we used to officiate in slices and templates,” Probst says. “Your body had to fit in a particular slice across the car or the length of the car. Now with this technology, we are inspecting the entire surface of the vehicle.”

The tolerances have changed. Last season, common elements of the car were officiated to 100-thousandths of an inch tolerance with manufacturer-specific parts measured to 190 thousandths. Now teams are measured to plus or minus 150 thousandths of an inch tolerance on all metal surfaces with 200 thousandths of an inch on glass surfaces.

The 3-D scans will be compared to manufacturer standards. Areas of the body in compliance will show up on the computer screen in green; areas outside the allowable tolerance will display in red or blue. The entire process is expected to take approximately three minutes for each car.

The system’s reliability has already been tested last season and into the winter months. Much like with the pit-road officiating system, the amount of cameras in the inspection bay create redundancies, so that if any camera were to fail, others would make up the difference. And in the event of any doomsday-style scenario where the new system was rendered inoperable, the old manual system would be held in reserve as a backup.

“It is, I believe, just like every other aspect of the sport, whether that be the way we officiate pit road or the way we execute timing and scoring,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition. “It’s all as technology develops, we are trying to adapt technology to best serve the industry. This is just another example of that. I think obviously one of the big goals is just to create a level playing field for the competitors and that it goes a long way with its accuracy and capabilities to getting to that end.”