In motor racing, money buys speed. Teams with more money typically outrun lesser-funded teams. (Which is why Mercedes and Ferrari dominate the podium in Formula 1.)
In an effort to control costs, in 2018 NASCAR limited the number of people -- from unlimited to twelve -- each team could bring to the track. At the same time NASCAR made a specific set of race telemetry data available to and for every team.
Hendrick Motorsports (HMS), the home of drivers like 7-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and fan favorite Chase Elliott, turned the challenge of having fewer people at the track and having to deal with a massive influx of data into an opportunity, adding a purpose-built Team Operations Center (TOC) to their race shop in Charlotte.
Think NASA Mission Control: Engineers, race strategists, pit crew coaches, and others work in a more controlled -- and much quieter -- setting to analyze telemetry, video, radio communications of other teams, the race broadcast, and even social media.
The amount of data that flows into the TOC is massive... but data without insight is just noise. Turning a constant flow of data into actionable intelligence, and sharing actionable insights with the teams at the track is a major challenge. So you would assume that HMS developed a custom software and communication hub to meet their specific needs.
In fact, HMS uses Microsoft Teams. HMS was part of the initial Teams beta testing group.
"The persistence of group chat was an absolute requirement," says HMS I.T. Manager Matt Cochran. "Once we created initial teams for the race engineers, Teams went viral inside of our organization. The adoption rate was really quick, especially since we let them create groups and teams outside of I.T. Once you give people access to a useful tool..."
Using an existing tool made creating the TOC much simpler. While there were definitely bumps in the development road, and building the TOC was an expensive proposition that required considerable resources in time and money, the overall cost was made lower by not trying to add a new communications tool to an already complicated technology infrastructure.
Leveraging the resources in the TOC also allows each driver to see the data he wants to see. Jimmie Johnson likes to analyze custom practice and race videos. William Byron likes to analyze brake and throttle application and racing lines to improve how his car handles. In years past, Alex Bowman served as the primary simulator driver and also spent significant time doing wheel force testing; data analysis is second nature to him. Each team's engineers ca provide the data and information that is most helpful to the individual drivers.
Even so, during a race the drivers literally have their hands full, so communication between driver and crew chief must be succinct and to the point.
That means the crew chief must synthesize a nonstop feed of data and input from the twelve people at the track, the team at the TOC, the team's spotter, and the driver. He's responsible for improving the car. He's responsible for race strategy. He's responsible for leading the team.
Drivers drive. Crew chiefs lead. And make decisions.
Lots of decisions.
"Early on it was a little tough to get used to having even more data available during a race," says Alan Gustafson, Chase Elliott's crew chief. "That's where having people like Alba Colon and Keith Rodden in the TOC really pays off." Alba was the NASCAR Program Manager for General Motors and is now the Director of Competition Systems at HMS. Keith is a Project Manager whose experience as a former crew chief helps him understand what the crew chiefs at the track might want to know... and just as importantly, what they don't want to know.
"Some data is interesting... but not actually helpful in the moment," Keith says. "We only want to provide information the teams can actually use. There's enough going on during a race. The last thing we want to be is a distraction."
That's the problem with data -- and with the systems that support data. Data is basically worthless unless you can turn that data into intelligence -- and then turn that intelligence into action.
Analyzing data is important. Making decisions based on data is important. But communicating those decisions efficiently... and communicating those decisions in a way that works best for the end user... that's the real key to data analysis.
Gaining an advantage from analytics requires the right systems and the right communication tools.
But before you go looking for new tools, consider the tools you already have. For HMS, using existing tools made adopting a new race-day workflow a lot easier.
And meant HMS could spend time finding ways to gain a competitive advantage... instead of trying to find ways to make a new system work.