NASCAR levels the playing field by bringing the latest technology into an American tradition

27 June, 2016

In the competitive world of stock car racing, race teams and drivers look for every edge they can get when it comes to winning. NASCAR, which oversees this intense and fast paced sport, looks to keep racing safe and fair. And increasingly, technology is giving NASCAR an edge there, too.

The race management app, announced at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, California on June 26, can, among other things, collect multiple live video feeds, providing real-time race viewing to the control booth on one screen. The app can also be a dashboard for race officials who can monitor everything from weather conditions to data about cars as pits stops are made for fuel and tires.

“It’s the next big platform that we’re going to be really leveraging to help our sport get even better,” says Steve Worling, NASCAR managing director of information technology.

Stock car racing’s governing body, around for more than 68 years, isn’t relying on traditional processes to stay up to speed. Like other businesses, NASCAR is undergoing a digital transformation.

“Racing is the core of our business, and obviously we’ve been doing that for a long time,” Worling says. “Over the last couple years, data and technology really have become more prevalent in the business and in our sport.”

It’s important, he says, for NASCAR to look at different areas where it can eliminate manual or dated processes, and take advantage of technology to build new data opportunities that “make our business run better at the end of the day.”

NASCAR has been using various systems for information, but the race management app “is going to give us a single pane of glass to be able to look at all these different systems” and to get “quick, easy, understandable information” that will help NASCAR manage events even more safely, fairly and efficiently, Worling says.

“Our goal as we develop and grow this, is what are the data insights that we start to learn as we put all this together?” he says.

As part of the mobile inspection app, NASCAR started using video analytics to help officiate racing on pit road, something that’s safer for race staff.

“In the past, we had an official standing in every pit box so that when the cars came down for pit stops, there was a guy that would watch a race car do a 12-second pit stop. That’s four tires, two tanks of fuel, 20 lug nuts, usually a chassis adjustment or some adjustment to the race car. Six guys. And you’re doing this in 12 seconds while these 3,500-pound cars are moving 55 miles an hour around you. So we took those folks out, and we’re using video analytics now to do the same job.”

For the race management app, NASCAR is using Windows 10 Enterprise and Microsoft Azure for streaming and storing video and data. Worling praises Azure for being easy to deploy and for its “scalability and the kind of anytime, anywhere access of data” it provides.

NASCAR's new race management app showing driver location on the track.

NASCAR’s new race management app showing driver location on the track.

One of NASCAR’s top teams, Hendrick Motorsports, is also using Azure. The centerpiece of Hendrick Motorsports’ innovative application of Microsoft technology is its use of Azure for its massive, high-performance computing power and real-time, big data analytics to optimize car setup, pit-stop decisions around refueling, tire changes and mechanical adjustments.

NASCAR is also starting to use Azure for data storage. NASCAR literally deals with loads of data, and its practice has been to transport some of it as officials move from track to track during racing season.

“We have semi haulers of data centers that we move around” because of the challenges with Internet connectivity depending on the geography of a racetrack, Worling says. “Our objective right now, in the short term is on premises, and then backup real time to the cloud,” he says.

It’s increasingly important to get that data placed in the cloud, he says.

“When we leave the racetrack, at the end of the event, all of our data shuts down, our servers shut down, and all these disparate systems all kind of get turned off and have to drive down the highway,” Worling says.

During that time, if a driver or crew chief has questions for race officials about the recent race, it’s been a struggle to provide the information in a timely fashion.

“NASCAR is one of the sports that probably generates the most data, just because of the nature of the sport – the cars have a bunch of sensors in them, there’s computers on the car, camera technology aids with other metrics,” says Anthony Morgante, Microsoft director for sports partnerships within the developer experience organization.

Spreadsheets, Morgante says, don’t really tell the full story of what is happening. “They contain data, but to the naked eye, nobody can tell where there’s a deficiency, or where there’s a trend, or what’s affecting that trend or what may be causing that trend.”

That’s where the use of data analytics plays such a key role. In this case, Power BI gives anyone on the NASCAR team easy access to the data in a visualized way that is easy to digest and help make business decisions.

With Azure and Windows 10, Worling says, “it’s giving us the opportunity to showcase ourselves in a new and different way, as kind of technology innovators and thought leaders, and applying that to make our sport, make our business, run better.”