A line of cars as far as the eye can see snakes between the big rigs that carried them to the race. It's inspection time for all 40 cars for the weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Sonoma Raceway in California.
The smell of ethanol and diesel waft throughout the pits. There's a buzz of excitement as crews scramble to make last minute adjustments as officials begin measuring every inch of each car to make sure no one is cheating.
Frank Prendergast, a NASCAR engineer working on vehicle inspection tools, pulls out a Microsoft Surface Pro tablet and calls up the Mobile Inspection app. The app, also developed by Microsoft, collects and verifies visual inspection data. It's cut down a process that typically takes six hours to just three, and Microsoft claims the app has already saved 20,000 sheets of paper. In addition to ensuring an even playing field, the Mobile Inspection app helps NASCAR officials verify decal and paint scheme information, cutting 10 hours from each race weekend.
"We had a slow, rigorous paper process and lost a lot of information," says Prendergast. "Microsoft created a whole paperless system where we could look at the history of infractions and real-time telemetry."
Microsoft's apps integrate with NASCAR's other data gathering technologies, like pit lane cameras. "What they used to do is literally put a human official in every single stall. So you have an official standing there with his helmet and race suit, and he would eyeball the car coming in and eyeball the crew jumping over the wall," says Mike Doney, Principal Architect of Microsoft's Race Management app.
"So they switched to a camera-based system and, holy shit, their infraction rate just up like this," Doney says with an upward gesture of his hands.
Although Microsoft didn't develop the camera technology, it was able to tap into it and bring it into its own Race Management app. In the past, it would take some time to discover and report on pit lane infractions, but with these new technologies, it happens instantaneously.
In addition to the Mobile Inspection app, Microsoft worked with NASCAR to develop the Race Management application, which brings live data across six different screens into a single app.
"It gives officials and teams a more precise view of what's going on during the race," says Doney.
The Race Management app is a powerful tool. It allows tracking of each car on the race track, using transponders. Race officials and team managers now have a centralized, bird's eye view of what's going on around the track in real time. The app pulls in multiple camera feeds from around the track and teams can quickly share screen captures of events in real-time.
"For our sport, every second of every race is under replay," says NASCAR Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O'Donnell. "Building the race management app on Windows 10 is a game changer for us. By digitizing the video feeds we're able to analyze calls and send data to the pit box in real-time.The Race Management app allows us to make calls more quickly and confidently."
Driving towards the future
Beyond making NASCAR more efficient, Microsoft hopes to increase safety as well. "Safety is our first priority," says Stephen Byrd, Director of Technology Integration and Development at NASCAR. "Fast, real-time access to information gives race officials a better understanding of what's happening in the race car and on the track."
But it's still early days for Microsoft's NASCAR apps and technology. NASCAR only began aggressively pursuing technology with Microsoft in the last 18 months, and the apps are still in a trial period. NASCAR officials and teams still use the tools they always have, but they are experimenting with adding the Race Management and Mobile Inspection apps to their arsenal.
NASCAR is cautious about adopting new technologies, as it could change the competitive nature of the sport and can even impact safety. "We're deciding what data we need to keep from the teams to keep competition fair," says NASCAR's O'Donnell.
Microsoft and NASCAR also need to present the enormous amount of data collected in a way that's meaningful yet not overwhelming. "How do we increase the usability? What information do we give to users at what time? We have to be careful about how we present the information," Doney emphasizes. "The real art is how do you best present information to create drama."
Microsoft's technology is just the start for NASCAR as the motorsport adopts different technologies for racing and fan engagement. A few cars on the grid are testing the new Digital Dash, which gives teams a customizable dash interface that captures much more data than what the old analog gauges could provide. In the past, teams would have to communicate via radio to let drivers know about lap times, which can now be easily shown on the dash. Microsoft didn't develop the Digital Dash, but the company is excited about integrating data collected from it into its Race Management app.
And if you needed more proof that artificial intelligence (AI) is going to take over our lives, Microsoft plans to leverage AI to analyze everything about NASCAR races. "What [AI] will allow us to do is take race data and put it into a model and start making predictions about things," says Doney. "That can be about safety issues. For example, given a certain scenario, what's likely to happen? We're just starting to dabble with these things."
Helping fans get more engaged with NASCAR will be the next step. Microsoft has helped NASCAR collect all of this data, but it still needs to figure out how to present it to fans in a meaningful way. Having all data channels visible at all times isn't compelling, but giving fans data in the context of what they're seeing will make the sport more engaging.
Some may think NASCAR is a low-tech sport because it follows the simple formula of big V8 engine in a light car, but there's more than meets the eye. There's technology running behind the scenes that's helping the sport remain competitive, and that means a more exciting experience for fans, present and future.