By Ethan Joyce, Sports Business Journal
SMT’s Paulus Weemaes gave SBJ a behind-the-scenes view of NASCAR race day, explaining how data collection works in the car, all the moving parts that have to communicate and the need to always be ready to problem solve.
The nervous part of race day
Paulus Weemaes has been around NASCAR for years now. He’s the senior director of motorsports for SMT, a company that’s changed the consumption of race day for fans and drivers alike. But even still, there’s always a moment of nervousness before a race: when engines fire up for the first time.
“Cars are not being turned on until, literally, 15 minutes before the race starts or before they’re actually let go,” Weemaes said. “At that point, we’re kind of like, ‘Everything working?’ And we do have instances where we have to reboot or swap out something, but that’s part of the gig. Keeps us on our toes.”
Weemaes widened his eyes and chuckled as he said this on Sunday, just a few hours before that moment of stress would happen again at the Cup Series’ “Roval” playoff race. He stood just outside of SMT’s trailer of the TV production area inside Gate 4 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The company provides multiple solutions (like data tracking and graphic integration) throughout sports, contributing to broadcasts of NFL, NHL and MLB games, along with all golf and tennis majors, to name a few of many. Recently, SMT struck a deal to become the exclusive graphic provider of the NHRA, creating a full graphics package for the sanctioning body.
In short, it’s been a busy racing season for SMT. Their relationship with NASCAR started in 2001, providing telemetry data from cars to the broadcasts. That expanded to producing race data and driver stats for all teams and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). This year, however, is the first that SMT has provided all three NASCAR series — Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck — the full gamut of data (this is Year 1 for the Truck Series).
The 17-turn Roval was the last race in the round-of-12 for the NASCAR playoffs. After this, only four more races remain to crown a champion in 2023.
Precision within 2.5 centimeters
Weemaes sat in the small office space of SMT’s trailer, having just made his way out of the morning breeze. In his left hand was an SMT GPS unit, also called a vector internally. The small device — which oddly enough looks a bit like a mini-race car, with wheel-shaped rubber shock absorbers and a small fin on the back — is a powerhouse of data collection that funnels numbers to broadcast partners and race teams in real time to enhance the Cup Series product. It also is the conversation starter in a sequence that requires constant monitoring.
Vectors go into the roof of every car. Weemaes points out that much like your home computer home, it has its own operating system. There is a GPS antenna under the top plate of the device, as well as a radio antenna in that fin on the back. The vector also contains an inertial measurement unit and connects to the engine control unit (ECU), which collects braking, throttling and steering data. Weemaes said an IMU, which combines accelerometer and gyroscope data, is inherent to GPS and allows it to be more predictive and precise.
Weemaes stood up and made his way to the front of the truck. He slid open a heavy glass door to enter SMT’s command center, where Nate Karamanski, SMT’s technical production manager, sat in the second row of seats working on his displays. Karamanski then laid out the path for the data that’s being collected.
The vectors in the cars communicate with bay stations around the track. The number of bay stations can vary based on the shape of the course. The Roval, for example, had six. Those bay stations acquired data while cars are within their range, then hand off to the next bay station in the sequence.
From there, all the data comes to this hub and through SMT’s communication control, the key in monitoring the vitals of the entire system. That system lets SMT check the data, fix problems when they arise (or do so as best they can), and then send the data out to produce graphics for the broadcasts. That data also goes to the race teams via data insight tool, Team Analytics. The SMT product allows teams to break down the performances of their drivers and competitors in real time.
SMT’s data was transmitted to an NBC production truck. Race day starts roughly six hours before green flag for the SMT crew. Karamanski said that once cameras are turned on and go through a production check, SMT registers the cameras for data collection. Those cameras help create the 3D presentation in a 2D format, allowing graphics like the pointers with driver and car info to come to life on broadcasts nationwide.
Karamanski says they then go through to check on the health of the bay stations, and also make sure the batteries and their backups are sound. They doublecheck the connection coming into and out of the command center. SMT’s associate producer, who operates all the graphics during an event, will go through the broadcast production meeting to go through specifics regarding the stories around the racetrack and potential focuses that may arise. “From there, we’re usually just hoping and praying the GPS gods are nice to us,” Karamanski said.
“How does it look like right now?” Weemaes perks up.
Karamanski pulled up a map to look at the path of the GPS gods — also known as the GPS satellites in orbit. “It’s not great, but it’s not bad,” he said, hopefully.
Even if the GPS gods aren’t kind, SMT will maintain an accuracy margin of 2½ centimeters while tracking the cars for a high percentage of a race. The Roval proved to be no different.
Live standings, potential finish projections are crucial during playoff time
Nick Rider was posted up at his station in the NBC truck. Rider is SMT’s director of technical support and essentially serves as the handoff recipient from Karamanski’s room. In his space, data feeds from SMT and NASCAR come together and populate NBC’s graphic packages.
Because it’s playoff season, Rider said much more energy is put toward live standings and projecting how potential finishes may affect them. The drama of the postseason becomes an important fixture at this point in the year.
More than 80% of the work around a racetrack, Weemaes estimates, happens before the weekend. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are typically when SMT engineering gets on site to establish connections. The following day is the bigger lift, with fiber line placement, as well as cameras and bay station setup. Racing practice is massively important, as it’s a chance to notice anything that needs to be fixed.
And most races go smoothly, Rider mentioned. But similar to Weemaes’ earlier point, the ability to be flexible around any surprises is a necessity. There is so much tech in communication with each, swirling among a thick of uncontrollable variables. “It happens,” Rider said. “You can get a cable cut in the compound. We could lose GPS on a car. There could be interference like we saw at Daytona which had nothing to do with us. … There’s just so much stuff that we try to work around and figure out where it’s coming from, and how to fix it.”
The Roval came with its own unique challenges, Weemaes says. The mashup of a road course and traditional oval causes the cars to cluster often. A fan bridge near Turn 3 could cause a brief GPS interference, and so did the giant video board at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Weemaes said SMT tried to combat that with more bay stations than they typically use for a standard oval, which might have three or four.
As drivers heard the call to start their engines in Charlotte, Weemaes watched his computer screen light up with stats. He saw what he called “pretty healthy” numbers as the cars woke up and tires warmed up. Those numbers remained healthy as the first lap commenced.