By Jon Brodkin
When race cars whiz around a track at 200 miles per hour, driving ability isn’t the only factor that determines who wins the race. Behind the scenes, in mobile data centers tucked into semis and behind laptops in the pit area, people like Chuck Houghton use tech to make decisions that can determine whether their car crosses the finish line first.
As race engineer for the No. 4 Corvette C6.R of the American Le Mans Series GT class, Houghton and his squad build sophisticated algorithms to crunch the reams of data spit out by modern race cars. When it’s race time, Houghton is on scene, running calculations that determine when to make changes to car variables like “ride height” or when to let drivers know that they’re running a few seconds behind. “It’s kind of like hanging a carrot out there in front of a horse,” Houghton says.
In some cases, it’s as simple as making sure the car doesn’t run out of gas. At the Petit Le Mans in Georgia 2010, a 10-hour race, the endgame came down to putting just the right amount of fuel into the car.
“[Both top cars had] stopped at the same time for our last stop,” Houghton recalls. “We put just a tiny bit more fuel in our car, so they beat us out of the pit. And on the last lap, the Ferrari ended up running out of fuel. We were in second, and passed them on the track, and won.”
Whether the algorithms built by the Ferrari’s squad weren’t good enough, the calculations were lacking, or someone just took a chance and made a mistake, the end result was the same: second place. Houghton firmly believes that the in-house software his group created helped win that race and today provides an ongoing competitive advantage over other teams.
Houghton spoke with us just a few days after his car finished first in its class at the Tequila Patron American Le Mans Series at Long Beach. The car completed 84 laps in just an hour and 20 minutes, a walk in the park compared to some of the endurance races the #4 Corvette squad does each year. Longest of all is the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. Between travel and preparation, Houghton and colleagues stay awake for a good 36 hours by the time the race is completed.
“The adrenaline is enough to keep you up for most of it, especially if you’re doing well,” Houghton says. “If you’re in the top three or four you’re generally excited enough that you can stay awake without too much coffee or Red Bull. But certainly when you’re kind of out of it, and you have no shot at winning, and you’re multiple laps down, it makes it really difficult to stay awake.”
In such long races, analysis and adjustments take on a bigger role. “During the race we get live telemetry from the car,” Houghton says. “We can see exactly what the tire pressures are, the temperature of the tires, what gear the driver is in, we can see all that in real time and we can adjust quick things like tire pressure for the next stop.” While the team keeps pit stop times to a minimum during short races, in longer ones Houghton might take more time to adjust things like the overall balance of the car by changing the “rake,” the difference in ride height between the front and rear.
Houghton, who has been with the Corvette squad just outside Detroit for about eight years, earned a degree in mechanical engineering while taking an interest in car racing, getting involved in a Society of Automotive Engineers student competition to build a small race car. His expertise is more on the vehicle engineering side, but over time he’s learned how to program in Visual Basic and MATLAB to help build the tools necessary to properly analyze the cars.
In the week before a race, Houghton and fellow engineers run hundreds of simulated laps through their computer programs to evaluate vehicle dynamics and to determine what changes to make to the car. They bring a cluster of servers to the track in a semi-truck for pre-race preparations; during the race, they settle in front of their laptops with big headphones and ear plugs in place to drown out the noise. They talk to each other via an instant messaging system they built in-house, and to the driver by voice.
While Houghton plays a crucial role on the team, he hasn’t yet been rewarded with the chance to drive the #4 Corvette. “We’ve got guys that are professional and probably do a lot better job than I could at that,” he says.