July 28th, 2015 by JaimeB
Being a participant in the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series comes with its own small amount of fame. Nick Ottinger gets asked questions all the time like, “Who paints your car?”, “What wheel/pedals do you use?”, and “Do you really have a ponytail?” Peter Fisher and I, however, see a much smaller range of inquiries. Aside from Peter’s weekly “Can you call the pace car?”, the question I’ve been asked most often is “What are you looking at during a race?” There are a lot of people who are curious about what goes on, and that’s what we’ll look at, but first here’s the answer to the ponytail question:
The evolution of “crew members” in sim racing has exploded over the past few years. I remember when iRacing first opened to the public there was no spotter and there was no way to join a session after it had started. I lost count of how many times my friends and I went into a practice session only to have someone say, “You guys want to go practice?” about 37 seconds after we’d loaded into the practice sessions. They were truly dark times. When I was brought on board at Gale Force Racing in 2011 the spectator feature was already in full swing, but it was fairly limited. Each race was a mad scramble to be the first to hit the join button to spectate the session, usually with at least one person from our group being left out in the cold. Still, even if our crews couldn’t get into a spectating slot for the races, the series had evolved to where a good finish required good information. Who’s pitting? Who got two tires instead of four? Is something working better for a specific driver? Can we make it on one more pit stop? Because of that, each of our crew members at GFR had to be able to call a race without actually being in the session. In fact, during the 2011 Pro Series, I had a connection issue during warmup and was booted from the server for a high ping. My spot was taken quickly, and I was forced to get Nick his information using the live broadcast…which was on a few seconds worth of delay.
We’re thankfully almost four years past that eventful race and the environment has changed dramatically since. We have dedicated crews for each driver who have their own role, iRacing implemented a crew function on top of typical spectators, and then went so far as to allow the crews the ability to adjust on a driver’s car. This has come with a few growing pains, mainly one time when Nick drove out of the garage before I was able to reattach the front and rear sway bars at New Hampshire, but we eventually got past that. For myself and our spotter Peter Fisher, races have become a constant stream of information that needs to be either recorded or ignored, and typically leaves us little time to sit and consider what is happening before a decision has to be made.
This is what my view of every race has been for the past three years. While Peter uses the full three-monitor view for spotting, I have just two and, ironically, Nick has only one. This particular screenshot was taken last week during the NASCAR iRacing Series while I sat in to watch our newest driver, Paul Madsen, regret life decisions during the 4-hour long race. Since I have never been present for a WC-level race at Indy, this was good experience.
Anyway, what are we looking at here? It’s definitely a lot to take in and takes a while before you can pick out what you need and what you don’t need. The left monitor is representative of where my camera is located during every race. I typically place it on top of the track’s media boxes, aligned so that the #05 box is straight ahead of the camera. For most tracks, I’ll use just one camera, but in special cases like Indianapolis, where there’s a giant building in the way, I’ll set up a backstretch cam as well. The single camera helps to prevent any issues with “losing” the car, since it will always be in the center of the screen. Also, if I need to look at someone else, I have the same perspective all the time, and can directly compare one car to another. Plus, since the camera is stationary and surround sound is cool, I can quickly tell where a crash is located on track based on the sound itself. I’ll also keep track of the weather, fuel, and messages from Race Control through this window.
That’s cool and all, but I actually spend the majority of a race looking at the right window. I use Marcel Weimer’s “FIA Timing System” almost religiously because of how much data it can spit out and how reliable it has been over the past few years. It works just like the Formula 1 timing system, except it’s hooked into iRacing’s data output system. From just the screen pictured, I can see the running order of the top 28 drivers, their gap behind the leader, their gap behind the car ahead of them, three split times (instead of just two), and their last recorded lap time. Furthermore, times will change colors based on whether or not they’ve sped up, set a fastest lap, or are maintaining pace. The bar across the top also gives the fastest split times in the race so far as well as the fastest lap of the race, alternating between the time and the driver’s name.
Where this monitor is worth its weight in gold is what isn’t pictured. On the far right (there is a lone “1”) on this screenshot, is a column that shows how many pit stops a driver has made. This has helped to keep us in the loop many times by showing when a driver has short pitted without being noticed, and has often resulted in us completely flipping a strategy over at a moment’s notice. There’s also another page, “Strategy,” which shows when someone last pitted, how many times they’ve pitted, when they’re next expected to pit, and even gives us a graph of their lap times. I can even select multiple drivers to compare side-by-side, giving an idea of when their car may finally fall off, allowing us to plan very far in advance.
In most cases though, planning is usually rendered useless with about five laps before a scheduled pit stop. If a caution comes out just before stops, it’s pretty simple. When a driver pits before he was expected, however, it throws everything into raging chaos. If the timing monitor doesn’t immediately show a huge difference in said driver’s new tires, focus will turn towards the notebook. Yes, believe it or not, even in 2015, we racers still can’t get away from paper and pencil. The notebook I have for my kart is no joke, but the notebook I’ve used for the NASCAR PEAK Antifreeze Series has been going for four years. It has served as both an R&D notebook and a race notebook, with information going all the way back to the Daytona race in 2012 with a small note saying “Not in spectator.” Go figure.
True, most of the data in iRacing can be found on-screen in some fashion, but anything that shows up needs to be recorded because it will eventually be replaced by newer data. I’ll dive in deeper to the process in another article, but while Nick is practicing pit entry during the warmup session, I’m busy jotting down the weather conditions, sometimes accompanying that with the actual weather conditions at a given location. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, mainly because we run a lot of “day” races at 9pm. Despite that, if we can find a pattern in the weather for the sessions, maybe we can get a small advantage. Anything helps! After the race starts, I have to record the fuel usage in racing conditions, plan out the pit windows, and try to identify who will be a factor late in the race, as well as look at who is pitted around us. If the car pitted one box before ours seems to take a nose-dive in times he’s likely to pit earlier, and getting a good line in and out of the box is crucial for green-flag stops.
Aside from the obvious things like adjustments made during pit stops, I have everything Nick has ever said about handling, the temperatures from each tire along with averages for each tire, when cautions fell and what caused them, and anything else that might pop up during the race. It sounds a little over the top, but I get asked at least a few times a week things like, “What pressures did we end the race on last year?” or “Have we have [this problem] before?” Plus, just like in the real world, tracks develop their own pattern of cautions and green flag runs and have many times shown to repeat themselves from year to year.
With all the coming features slated to hit the track in the coming years, and especially with dynamic tracks on the horizon, preparation for races will become very important. Not just for Pro and WC-level races, but for the NASCAR iRacing Series, NASCAR Class B & C, and even road races as well. Knowing when a second lane will typically become available, or when a lane may give up too much due to rubber buildup and the changes made to the car to accommodate that, will be the difference between the guys who stay out front and the ones who fade mid-way through a race. Keep yourself informed, be prepared, and your experience will be that much more enjoyable!