Indy 500 team turns to IP wireless for racing edge

Von Matt Hamblen

Wireless IP technology will play a role at Sunday"s Indianapolis 500, keeping the Red Bull Cheever Racing team updated with reams of precise data from two cars zipping around the 2.5-mile track at speeds of 219 mph.

Wireless gear from Cisco Systems Inc. will be used to gather hundreds of real-time measurements of variables such as tire temperature to a quarter of a degree, air speed and the weight each car exerts on its suspension when taking corners, said racing veteran Eddie Cheever Jr., owner of the team. The raw data, as well as video and voice communications from inside the cars, will constantly be scanned by race team engineers using laptops and custom software, mainly to enable pit stop crews to make tiny adjustments to the cars.

For instance, the pit stop teams could use the data to adjust the camber of the wheels one-eighth of a degree or change the angle of a spoiler by .1 percent, Cheever said.

A new 802.11g Wi-Fi network along the Indy 500 track has been installed to eliminate a dead transmission area and offers much more bandwidth, allowing as much as 15 times more data to be streamed during each lap, Cheever said. "More information means we are allowed to make more intelligent adjustments," he said.

Ruggedized mobile access routers are mounted near each car"s engine to collect data and send it over the Wi-Fi network to five Cisco access points on the speedway, Cheever said. In addition, the team and its guests can access the data from a guest suite, a garage and an engineering trailer.

The wireless system, which includes Cisco 7920 wireless IP phones being used by the pit crews, is being constantly refined and has been deployed at about 20 races over the past year. But this is the first time it has been used at the Indy 500, he said. Over that time, IP voice quality has "gotten a lot better," Cheever said.

The IP voice data is encrypted to keep other teams from listening in, a capability that the other teams do not have on their own voice communications. Monitoring of a competitor"s voice traffic is just another way teams try to gain an edge, Cheever said.

Among the refinements in the past year or so has been the shrinking of car-mounted routers. "We couldn"t put a big box in an Indy race car," Cheever said.

Cheever and Cisco consider the wireless project a way of researching future uses for police, fire and homeland security crews. "Cisco is looking at how to deploy similar technologies in state and local government and homeland security situations," Cisco spokesman Charles Sommerhauser said.

Cheever hopes the entire Indy racing series will adopt similar technology. "This is absolutely a new business venture," he said. "We"ve taken the old communications architecture and thrown it into the corner and built this. It"s silly not to put it into the market."

Cisco was a clear choice as a partner for the research, said Cheever, who had doubts about the technology early on. "The Cisco team arrived last year with two boxes of equipment, then came back the next day with four boxes, and then showed up with an entire truck of equipment. I knew this was going to be something different," he said.

Cheever is hoping that the technology might give his drivers, Alex Barron and Patrick Carpentier, an edge in Sunday"s race. The last time a Red Bull Cheever Racing car won at the Indy was 1998.