How To Demystify Data Acquisition

J.G.
By J.G. Pasterjak
Mar 25, 2021 | Data Acquisition, data | Posted in Data & Communication | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Motorsport Media

If you look at any sport contested at the highest level, the raw skill and execution of the players are going to be far more similar than different. The top MLB pitchers are all throwing fastballs within a few mph of each other. Top NFL offensive linemen can probably bench-press similar weights, and most NHL stars have likely lost the same number of teeth. 

So if the raw materials are all the same, what separates the superstars from the ham-’n’-eggers whose jerseys collect dust in the gift shop all season until they get traded?

The answer is knowledge. Also maybe steroids, but mostly knowledge. Knowing precisely when and how to engage those raw skills is ultimately the deciding factor between superstardom and toiling in anonymity.

Luckily, we motorsport enthusiasts live in a world that thrives on repeatability and objectively measurable metrics. Even those of us without the blessings of innate talent can attain higher abilities through studying our lap data.

And that’s where the fun starts.

Currently, we’re experiencing a bit of a data acquisition renaissance. The hardware and software needed to measure on-track performance are more affordable, more powerful, more available and more versatile than ever. There are so many choices out there that a bit of option paralysis develops. What if you buy the wrong product?

So that’s why we’re here: to help you through those decisions to form a battle plan for winning the war of data collection.

What Do You Want to Accomplish?

The likely answer to this question is “I want to go faster.” The likely path to that is through improved driving technique, although improved car setup is also a key factor in speed. For the purposes of this story, though, we’re going to focus on the former, but we’ll address the latter briefly here. 

Data acquisition that focuses on chassis development can be exceptionally complex and time-consuming. Like most data acquisition, it’s more affordable and accessible than ever, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to recommend that everyone go out and buy shock transducers and aero pressure load cells immediately. 

Operating as a team of one? Today’s market offers so many easily digestible data options, including those that are phone-based. Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

Yes, you can get a lot of great info from those inputs, but there’s a strong likelihood that someone has used them already and done a better job at integrating that data into technology you can apply to the car in the form of shock valving or spring rates or aero bits that you can buy off the shelf. So we’re not saying this isn’t for you (and if it is for you, please make it for you from one of our friendly advertisers), but it’s very easy to bury yourself in the data weeds when you start collecting chassis info.

For this story, we’re going to focus on driver development, because that’s most definitely today’s market sweet spot. There are numerous systems out there at or below the $1000 mark–and some way under that–that can give you an edge when it comes to cutting your lap times through self-coaching.

Driver coach and data guru Peter Krause sums it up nicely: “What most people need is a simple interface and something that can give them quick insight on their execution of fundamental skills.” 

So the first mission is to not overthink how you’re going to use the data. Unless you have a dedicated individual analyzing that data between sessions and debriefing you on its implications, all the information in the world does you no good during a track weekend. 

Next, look at how you’re ingesting that data. Some data acquisition systems require a dedicated PC interface to graphically view your logged data. Others leverage mobile devices, like your phone, iPad or Android tablet. Some are completely self-contained within a single box, while others are merely modules that add functionality to other components of a data acquisition suite. 

These varying levels of complexity will define how quickly and efficiently you’re able to retrieve and analyze your data, whether you’re doing it in the hours between sessions or the minutes between autocross runs.

What Do You Need to Know?

When Krause talks about “self-coaching,” he’s talking about the idea of being able to look at objective data from a session and incorporate evidence from that data into a plan of action for subsequent sessions. 

For most drivers, the “big three” data channels that are easy to log, display and digest are acceleration, braking and cornering. Acceleration and braking are typically monitored by a speed graph displayed over time. Changes in speed over time represent acceleration or deceleration. Cornering can be displayed as lateral g-force or simply by analyzing speed at various parts of a corner. 

“Someone that’s never used data before is going to get so much information from just a speed trace,” says Jeremy Lucas of FastTech Limited. “It’ll be like a revelation.”

Lucas is a racer and dealer for several brands of data systems, and he handles the option paralysis inherent in the market by taking a personalized approach. “There’s a reason I don’t have direct ordering on my web page: because there’s just so many options,” he explains. “The chances someone new to the scene will get what they need and can use after reading a description next to an order button are slim. 

“So I have a conversation with everyone to figure out what they’re trying to accomplish. A lot of times, I’ll even recommend someone start out by buying a used unit. Maybe I need to work on my marketing skills, but I’d rather have a long-term customer that gets what they need than a short-term customer who walks away confused and frustrated.” 

Autocross presents its own challenges: How can you quickly use that data in time for the next run? Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

All that said, Lucas ends up steering most of his customers toward some variant of an AiM system. “I like the AiM Solo lineup of systems because they’re scalable. You can use it as a zero-effort lap timer or expand it and bring in data right from the car. For someone just starting out, speed and g-traces are great and hugely beneficial, but the next step is being able to bring in things like throttle position, brake pressure and steering angle. In many cases, you can get that directly from the car by leveraging built-in sensors available through the OBD II or CAN connections.”

Lawson Mollica of AEM Performance Electronics also recommends thinking ahead. “Once you start looking at more comprehensive logging solutions, my best advice in one word is expandability,” he says. “There will be an inherent learning curve with any high-level logging system, but once you get a taste for data, we find that people want to add channels.” 

CAN connectivity will be your friend, he adds, noting how it’s basically the USB of automotive data. “Any channels a racer may want that are not coming from CAN devices can be added using CAN converter modules,” he adds, “which also reduces wiring complexity.”

How Do You Want to Absorb Data?

“Not everyone wants to use a PC laptop after each session,” Lucas adds. Indeed, the need for a dedicated computer to download and decipher your post-session data colors the decisions for many people entering the market.

We polled the members of the Beginner Data Facebook group–intended for novices yet frequented by pros like Krause, Lucas, and Andrew Rains of Apex Pro–and overwhelmingly their first exposure to data was via a phone-based app like Harry’s LapTimer. Many, though, had an even more rudimentary introduction: After recording their driving experiences, they realized those recordings could have meaning beyond just nostalgia. “I just wanted cool autox videos at first. Now the squiggly lines actually mean something” was the first response to our prompt.

Many users wanting to get more involved in data capture but not wanting to make the PC plunge moved to tablet-based systems–like SoloStorm from Petrel Data, which runs on Android devices, or the Apex Pro, which has an iOS-based interface.

One respondent became a dedicated Apex Pro user after having a bad experience with a previous high-end purchase: “I also got the Apex simply because I wanted to know more about it. I love the simplicity of it, and its ability to work in both AutoX and track days is a big plus. Less peripherals too is a win for jumping between cars.”

Photography Credit: Perry Bennet

After talking with several developers, coaches and dealers in the industry, we got the general feeling that the democratization of data is most dramatic at the communication end. “Ultimately all systems are essentially producing the same data streams or exporting the same CSV files,” explains Brent Picasso of Autosport Labs, manufacturer of the RaceCapture lineup of systems. “The difference is how easy it is to then absorb that data and integrate it into whatever you’re doing.

“We build our own systems,” he continues, “from simple one-box, plug-and-play setups like the RaceCapture Track, which does predictive lap timing and has lots of data and OBD II integration functions, to the RaceCapture Pro, which is highly scalable and can accept multiple channels. But ultimately, it’ll come down to how the user is absorbing that data.” 

Autosport Labs’ entry into the ease-of-use derby is the PodiumConnect system, which turns its data systems–or most any other brand of data system–into a real-time data stream that can be received back in the pits. “We see a lot of endurance teams using the system to take the information load off of the drivers during stints,” says Picasso.

“Additionally, we see it being used a lot as a real-time driver development tool by driving coaches who can monitor dynamic data and provide real-time radio feedback. So that takes a lot of load off of a post-session debrief and data analysis, where you’re trying to remember specific incidents, then integrate them maybe hours later in another track session.”

The next development for the PodiumConnect platform is multiplatform access via an app than runs on any operating system. This will allow teams to access their data stream in real time or to analyze it later via their iOS devices, Android devices, Macs or PCs. 

This data is also shareable within the broader community of PodiumConnect users. “We have over 2million laps in our PodiumConnect database that our users can reference, compare or use for their own analysis,” Picasso notes. 

Add It On or Bring It Together?

Even some of the most rudimentary data systems have modular features so you can upgrade GPS receivers to outboard units, integrate video from third-party devices like action cams, or add sensors to monitor as many dynamic and vehicle parameters as you have wire for. 

Some add-ons, like RaceVoice, interface with existing data loggers to provide additional functions. In the case of RaceVoice, this unit provides audible, real-time feedback on whatever parameters you want to monitor, like speeds at certain points of the track or engine function warnings. RaceVoice is also working on a standalone unit, further simplifying integration of its technology into your driving.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Owing to the generally modular nature of most data systems, many systems work well with each other to provide additional functionality or even greater resolution. Petrel Data’s SoloStorm app, which runs on Android, can accept data from outboard GPS units and integrates cleanly with RaceCapture systems. The result: more accurate accelerometer data and additional video integration. 

Meanwhile, some companies are combining many of the disparate functions performed by modular boxes into single units. Garmin just introduced the Catalyst, a $1000 do-it-all box that provides GPS and accelerometer data, video, predictive lap timing, and AI-enhanced, real-time audible driver coaching. All of those features are available in other systems, but with the Catalyst there are no adapters or multiple boxes to set up, and very few gatekeepers stand between you and your data. Call it an easy, Mac-like solution. 

Let’s Talk Data

Look, there’s a ton of options out there, and there’s no one right solution for every driver. But a common theme we heard from all the industry folks we talked to was one of community. Between social media and manufacturers’ own platforms, there are very few barriers between users and developers. 

Jeremy Lucas even praised many of the developers of systems he doesn’t sell at FastTech. “Andrew at Apex Pro does a great job at keeping in touch with the users and making sure they’re getting value from the product,” Lucas says. “And if you look at social media and forums, you’ll see a lot of people here–like me and RaceCapture and Peter Krause and others–being directly involved with end users. That’s going to make their experience more fulfilling.”

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