Sensors in Auto Racing.
The importance of sensors and senders relaying critical
data to race teams has been proven time and again.
Now, many of these products are available to grassroots
race teams, at a fraction of their original cost.
Sensors and senders have become vital to a race team's success, from
their essential use and development in high-end applications, such as
Formula 1, to their growing profile in amateur ranks due to competitive
pricing. This technology relays a wealth of information for controlling,
monitoring and optimizing the race car's suspension, engine and exhaust
"Knowing precisely how the car behaves on the track helps the driver and
race engineer extract the best lap times," said Peter van Manen, McLaren
Electronic Systems, Woking, Surrey, United Kingdom. "It also provides
critical feedback to the engineers and technicians who are developing the
vehicle. And, when something does start going wrong in a race or test,
knowing about it early can be the difference between finishing the race or
Sensors and senders are critical because they directly measure what is
happening on the car, Tom Remedios, Pi Research, Indianapolis, Indiana,
agreed. "Improvements in lap time and overall performance are achieved
incrementally. Race car engineers make small changes to the setup or
aero package, struggling for gains in tenths and even hundredths of a
second. Sensors measure and confirm if the changes are helping or
Sensors monitor anything that can affect vehicle performance-pressures,
speeds, temperatures, aerodynamics, braking loads and torques, explained
Mark Lane, Smith Systems, Brevard, North Carolina. "Many sensors
provide only analog or digital signals which remote or onboard control
systems interpret into useful data. More devices are becoming available,
however, that provide current controlled output."
Chris Smith, Active Sensors, Indianapolis, Indiana, said the general trend
is toward sensors that are smaller and lighter but are capable of surviving
at ever-increasing temperatures. "Over the years, the technology used in
these units has taken huge leaps forward, utilizing new materials and
techniques, all designed to improve the overall performance of the product,"
he explained. "At Active Sensors, to meet client demands, special high
temperature silver plated wire is used as standard on all sensors, which
is not only stronger but will also survive temperatures up to 200 Deg Celsius.'
While many sensors and senders are manufactured exclusively for high-end
race teams, opportunities do exist for racing retailers to merchandise
some of the more abundant products in this category. "There's a tremendous
market out there," said Fred Oberbuchner, FJO Racing Electronics,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. "With the price of sensors and senders
having come down significantly over the past five to 10 years, a lot of
middle-of-the-road racers are finding that this technology is within their
Sensor & Sender Trends
'The very nature of all auto racing is to extract as much performance from
your combination as possible,' said John Romero, AEM, Hawthorne,
California. "Only by knowing where you are operating can you safely
approach the true performance capability of your vehicle. Without accurate
information in real time, you are forced to play it safe,' and playing it safe
will get you passed by someone who does not have that handicap."
The most common sensors-tachometer, coolant temperature and oil
pressure sensors-are in wide use and are familiar to the entire racing
industry, Romero said.
AEM's hottest sensor is its universal exhaust gas oxygen (UEGO) AFR
sensor. "It comes with a cockpit-mounted gauge that conditions and
drives an extremely accurate air/fuel ratio sensor, which provides accurate
feedback to the gauge in real time,' Romero explained.
AEM also offers sensors for other common applications in race engines,
including boost, oil, fuel and crankcase pressure sensors, and oil, water,
intake air and exhaust gas temperature sensors. "Typically, you see the
more advanced data monitoring of engines in endurance and drag racing
applications," Romero said. "That's because in both cases it is difficult
for the driver to monitor the vehicle's performance, either due to event
duration or the sheer speed at which everything is happening.
"The technology in Formula 1 is staggering," Romero continued. "It's not
that any single item is so trick; it's more the totality of the engineering
that goes into running the car. In cases like this, the sensors are king.
I would estimate that 95 percent of the feedback that the engineers
receive is from the sensors and not the driver."
Romero said amateur racing classes reap the benefits of all the work done
with sensors and senders in the top ranks. "There are now affordable,
high-quality sensors available to the weekend racer as a direct result of
the Formula 1 and ChampCar work," he explained. "This includes everything
from laser ride height sensors to steering wheel dash displays, to tire
pressure monitoring systems. We now are able to offer to our customers
extremely accurate stainless steel pressure sensors that can withstand
pressures up to 3000 psi, and fluids as damaging as nitro methane, for
less than the cost of an OEM replacement MAP sensor. These sensors
are better than the ones used in Formula 1 and ChampCar just five years
ago, and are 1/10 the price."
Penny & Giles, Hinsdale, Illinois, offers positional feedback sensors used
in Formula 1 on down. "You would use ours to measure throttle position,
gear selection, brake pedal position, and, most commonly in North America,
suspension positions," said Mark Vandersluls.
"That way you can relate what the driver is doing to his throttle and his
brake input and his gear selection. You can relate that to what the car
was doing based on the suspension feedback as it cornered or braked.
"It is such an inherent advantage that as soon as somebody does it, they
all have to do it. We're now at the point where I'm even talking to people
that are doing it at a club racing level," added Vandersluis.
Van Manen, of McLaren Electronic Systems, explained the various types
of sensors used in racing applications. "Some sensors are used for control
for example, crank sensors measure the speed of the engine and provide
essential timing information. Others are used mainly to monitor the health
of the car for example, oil pressure and water temperature sensors. Then
there are those that are used to help optimize the setup of the car, such
as suspension load and displacement sensors. The rate at which data is
acquired from the different sensors depends on how quickly the physical
quantity changes and for what the information is being used."
Many sensors developed for top-flight professional racing quickly find their
way into other racing categories, according to Van Manen. "Although
motorsport sensors are still generally more expensive than series automotive
parts, some of these parts are still a cost-effective choice for amateur racers.
"Anything which is measurable tells you something about the car," Van
Manen continued. "Hence, the growth in number and types of sensors
on the car to help squeeze more time out of a lap. In the engine, sensors
will become more readily available in the future to tell you what is happening
in the combustion chamber, for example, ion current sensing, and what
torque is being generated. On the chassis, there will be greater use of
tire pressure and temperature sensing, aero dynamic pressure measurements
and accurate GPS systems."
Sensors and senders report valuable information
for controlling, monitoring and optimizing race cars'
suspension, engine and exhaust setup. The benefits
of using sensors and senders include transmitting
information to help drivers and engineers achieve
optimum lap times as well as determine where a
problem may be located in the car. One manufacturer
reported that a trend is toward sensors that are
smaller and lighter but are capable of surviving high temperatures, especially
with the increase in the operating temperature of racing car gearboxes and
engines. Pictured here is an oil pressure gauge and sensor from FJO.
Smith, of Active Sensors, said one area in motorsports where displacement
sensors are having a lot of success is in suspension movement measurement.
"All race cars are affected by the slightest change in the suspension setup,
so the more information the racers have, the more chance they have of winning,
" Smith said.
Active Sensors has made advances in the linear variable differential transformer
(LVDT) market with new designs using the latest manufacturing processes,
materials, adhesives and potting, according to Smith. The company's latest
special application LVDTs include clutch and brake wear sensors.
Active Sensors has introduced a new rotary potentiometer, designed for
gearbox and throttle position measurement, featuring a multi-fingered contact
and thick track. "Advances such as these mean that race teams can now
expect their sensors to achieve a much-increased lifespan as the new
generation of potentiometers does not suffer from pits worn into the track by
vibration and dither," he said. "The new thick track means that track wear
is virtually negligible."
Fred Bartoli, Altronics, Schaumburg, Illinois, said the fact that drag racing's
major sanctioning bodies, NHRA and IHRA, legalized data acquisition all the
way down to the bracket racing classes has opened the door for widespread
use of sensors in those applications. "It's basically in every available class
of drag racing," he said. "You are able to utilize sensors throughout the vehicles
to tie into data recorders or visual outputs to see what the car is doing as it
is being raced."
Altronics manufactures several products that use sensors, such as air/fuel
ratio sensors, which "provide feedback either through a visual gauge or as an
input to a data recording system to determine the tuning of the vehicle.
"The wideband air/fuel ratio is one of the leading sensor technologies now
being used in the drag racing market, along with things like fuel pressures,
oil pressures, speed sensors, airflow sensors, fuel flow sensors, various
different types are popular. Of course, EGT (exhaust gas temperature)
sensors are also very popular in the drag racing market," added Bartoli.
Innovate Motorsports, San Juan Capistrano, California, offers its LM-1
wideband controller for auto racing applications. "Our core technology is
a patented method for controlling wideband oxygen sensors," Patrick
Thompson explained. "With the oxygen sensors, having wideband
air/fuel is probably one of the biggest kind of changes that has occurred
over the last two years. More and more racers-whether it's circle or
drag or even rally-are able to directly measure at the track, not on a
dyno, exactly how rich or lean they are running under load."
Thompson said the LM-1 wideband controller, which is a built-in data
logger, makes it easy to recalibrate a sensor to dead center. "That is
key because sensors age," he said. "Oxygen get carbon buildup on
them, especially when you are using race gas, it happens even faster.
Our calibration principal corrects for both sensor wear and altitude
or air density changes."
The company's LMA-3 'Aux Box' has five sensor controllers built into it.
The five internal sensors are intended for capturing manifold air pressure
(MAP or boost), cylinder head temperature (CHT) or exhaust gas
temperature (EGT), rpm conversion (from a tach signal or inductive
clamp), acceleration, and injector duty cycle (or dwell). The internal
MAP sensor is a three-bar absolute pressure sensor, designed to provide
accurate data up to 44.1 PSIA.
Performance Trends, Livonia, Michigan, manufactures a wide variety of
sensors for the racing market, including its popular infrared tire temperature
and air/fuel sensors. "The one that is growing the fastest in popularity is
the air/fuel because it is coming down so much in price," Kevin Gertgen
said. "Since we are software people, the big thing that we can offer is
even with a cheap little sensor-some software that can let you hook a
sensor to a laptop and have a little data logger."
Pi Research's data systems provide information on speed, pressure,
temperature, load, displacement and fuel consumption. "The team can
view the data in real time via telemetry or after the car returns to the pit
or garage," Remedios explained. "The data can be studied in different
forms-graphs, charts, histograms, spreadsheets, etc. Some Pi systems
can calculate onboard math functions to output data that can't be
The company's products can be found in many classes of racing, including
IRL, ChampCar, NASCAR Nextel Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck. "They
are also used at virtually all levels of club racing, from karting to SCCA
Pro series, Star Mazda and Grand Am Cup," Remedios said.
"Our latest system for Fl is extremely compact (pack of playing cards size),
and features 128 MB of logging memory and up to four kHz log rate for some
channels," he said. "The system is designed to run in 800 C environments
to meet the ever-increasing demands of Fl. This system is also in use by
many ChampCar and IRL teams."
Amateur classes have also benefited from advances in technology, Remedios
added. "Our loggers and dashes for club racing are very compact yet are
fully software expandable to over 30 logging channels," he explained. "Some
of our club products can connect directly to the OBDII data port in late model
cars, easing installation and simplifying the wiring."
Oberbuchner, of FJO Racing Electronics, said there have been great advances
in onboard processing power in terms of engine control and suspension control
units. "It's really progressed significantly from the days where you collected
a whole bunch of data if you could, and then analyzed it and made changes,
" he explained. "In a lot of cases now, a lot of the processing can be done
onboard and in real time."
FJO tends to produce "middle-of-the-road" sensors that measure temperatures, pressures, and air/fuel ratios, according to Oberbuchner. "We don't really get
into any of the high-level, high-end sensors because a lot of that is proprietary
within the teams."
Lane, of Smith Systems, said the push in high-end applications is for more
information from increasingly smaller devices capable of withstanding extremes
of speed, pressure and temperature. "The sensors, cabling, connectors and
harnesses being used are aerospace quality," he said. "Smith Systems has
products on every space shuttle launch. Our manufacturing processes and
product design methodologies are NASA approved. Applying the same
standards to performance racing products is very important to us."
Amateurs want to improve performance as much as professionals, so the
demand is growing for affordable products that do not compromise quality,
according to Lane. "Price is often determined by quantity, so some high-end,
low-quantity devices will stay out of reach for the street guys," he said.
"Common devices, however, are available which offer much-improved reliability
at comfortable prices. Smith Systems, for instance, manufactures replacement
crank triggers which are going to last much longer than average OEM devices
and which cost the same or less."
Sensors monitor anything that can affect vehicle performance-pressures, speeds, temperatures,
aerodynamics, braking loads and torques. While
many sensors and senders are manufactured
exclusively for high-end race teams, opportunities
do exist for racing retailers to merchandise some of
the more abundant products in this category.
One manufacturer reported that with the price of
sensors and senders having come down significantly
over the past five to 10 years, many more racers have found that this
technology is within their reach pricewise. Pictured here is AEM's universal
exhaust gas oxygen (VEGO) air/fuel ratio (AFR) gauge and sensor.
For the future of sensors, Lane predicted, "Enhancements to chassis flex
and load determination will improve overall vehicle guidance control from
automated braking distribution to engine power generation."
IS Motorsport, Indianapolis, Indiana, sells electrical harness equipment that
attaches to sensors. "We provide the connection from A to B, so our
products might be coming out of a port on a modular box or straight out
of the data acquisition box for any particular channel sensor," said Neil
As products are getting smaller and lighter, IS Motorsport has accommodated
this trend by trimming down its wire and heat shrink jackets and connectors.
"There's no point having a tiny sensor if you've got a great big wire and
connector on it," Casserly said.
There are many opportunities for retailers to sell sensors and senders, said
Pi Research's Remedios. "Pi is constantly searching for better sensors for
our customers. Many times Pi purchases off-the-shelf sensors, but historically,
Pi has developed many of the complex sensors we offer-such as laser ride
height, half-shaft torque and very compact strain gauges and amps. Retailers
that offer compact, low-power and robust sensors are always sought after.
Also, sensor retailers may be unaware that their product could be-or modified
to be used in a racing environment."
"Retailers should be aware of what parts are out there so that they can help
their customers pick the right parts for the applications," McLaren's Van
Manen advised. "There are many cases where an inexpensive road car part
is the right choice. There are other times when paying extra for a motorsport
sensor could be the difference between finishing or not finishing the race.
Retailers should not be afraid to ask the manufacturers for advice about new,
sometimes 'off-the-wall' requests from racers. Chances are that someone
else, at some time has wanted to measure the same thing, so a sensor
might exist that can do the job."
From an article by Nick Gagala of 'Performance Racing Industry' magazine
Performance Racing Industry is published monthly
in the interest of the growth and development of the
racing market, consisting of manufacturers, retailers
and racing participants.
Visit their website at www.performanceracing.com
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