The Science of Speed
Oregon’s High-Tech Companies Connect with Champ Car Races
By Lisa Baker

In the olden days, there was a race car and a stopwatch. Every eye was on the track.

Today, Ryan Hunter-Reay is burning up the track at 174 miles per hour, but no one is watching him. In fact, no one is looking at the car at all, even though this is the all- important test run for this summer’s Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway.

Instead, the Rocketsports team huddles shoulder-to-shoulder in a clear plastic tent, focused intently on a battery of computer monitors displaying what looks like a series of brain waves.

And it is. If an engine is the brain of the car.

Far better than eyes on the track are eyes in the engine, eyes that transmit data about the most intimate details of the car’s operation. Sensors record rate of speed at any point on the track, how much fuel is being consumed, how much pressure is being applied to the brakes, and when. How closely are the tires adhering to the track and how much drift is there coming out of a turn? It’s all here, on the monitors, sent from tiny data collectors installed at various checkpoints in the car.

It’s more detail than any doctor could get from an EEG of a human brain.

But data is king in car racing—especially at Champ Car, where performance is about shaving 80/1,000 of a second off the clock while carrying the same engine as the next competitor. As its officials say, it’s not the engine, it’s how you use the engine. Brian Parrott, Portland-based promoter for Champ Car, puts it this way: “They don’t even start a car without at least five laptops attached.”

In a sport whose image has been more tightly linked to beer than baud rate, Champ Car is nevertheless pursuing new partners consistent with its laboratory approach to speed. This spring, it’s chasing down sponsorships in Oregon’s high-tech pantheon, offering the tantalizing specter of a live television audience and worldwide coverage beamed into 180 countries. It’s the kind of exposure that gets a high-tech company noticed.

But will a tech focus go far with a car racing audience?

Look up in the stands on any given race day and see the sun glinting off various tech gadgets, Champ Car promoters say. Cell phones, PDAs, all-in-one BlackBerries, digital cams. They’re all there. Eric Mauk, spokesman for Champ Car, says the sport’s fans are “what you would call early adopters of technology. They’re all outfitted with Palm Pilots and BlackBerries.”

Last year, the series offered Kangeroo TV, a video monitor you rent at the racetrack that supplies live audio and video from inside the Champ Car of your choice during the race. Fans could access live statistics that tell them how each car is operating. “Our fans just gobbled them up,” Mauk says.

Champ Car fans aren’t just fascinated with speed, but with the technology that boosts it, he says. “A year or two ago we talked about dropping turbo charges—our fans just went nuts. There was such a backlash.”

Jake Smith, mobility marketing manager for Oregon-based Intel, says Champ Car fans “are actually the demographic we’ve been seeking. The fans behind Champ Car and performance racing venues are actually a demographic that Intel has targeted for many years. They are tech aware; they have a clear understanding of performance technology, which is really what Champ Car embodies. Intel embodies performance technology products, so there’s a good linkage there.”

Intel has promised $25,000 in cash sponsorship and will build a WiFi network for the series’ PIR race scheduled for June 17 through 19, a connectivity coup Smith believes has not been attempted before. It would make live race statistics accessible via cell phone or computer, whether from the track or from a fan’s home or car. “The Race Director program has the capability to show you what every car is doing, the fuel level, the air intake, how fast it’s running around the track,” Smith says. In-car audio and visual are possibilities as well.

The WiFi attempt “is the goal, if we can pull it off. It’s great to be first, but it’s also a challenge,” Smith says.

If successful, Intel will have an enviable platform for its Centrino wireless mobile computing system, launched in 2003.

Chris Bright, spokesman for Tualatin-based Pixelworks, says that while his company hasn’t yet made a commitment to Champ Car, he’s intrigued with its innovative sponsorship model, which allows a group of midsize Oregon companies to pool resources rather than requiring one company to take on such a large event single-handedly. “As an extension of the state’s branding efforts, it’s out-of-the-box thinking. Usually, consumer brands are the sponsors of events like this. For them to think of it as an economic development effort for Oregon is interesting. And, it gets us some exposure. It’s good for client relations and good for employee relations.”

Debby Kennedy, director of the state’s Brand Oregon committee, which seeks to promote the state and its products, is willing to go a bit further. In fact, she says, the state could use Champ Car’s commercial advertising slots to highlight other Oregon businesses, such as Nike and Columbia Sportswear.

A city fund designed to promote Portland’s creative sector could be tapped on the theory that companies recruited to the state would comprise a customer base for the creative sector. And, she says, arts-based Portland businesses could produce the commercials. “If we have a natural born venue where spots can run and a mayor’s fund that could be used, it could be a perfect marriage of opportunity,” Kennedy says.

Champ Car officials, for their part, are promising a heavier marketing effort than in recent years to ensure that people tune into the race—whether in person, on television or via wireless devices. And they’re choosing classy locations for their events. A sports bar was the backdrop last month for a media/Champ Car meet-and-greet. But it was a sports bar in the upscale Pearl District.

The stakes are high for Champ Car, which needs a commercial success after having lost money in Portland and elsewhere for the past several years and watching its rival, Indy Racing League, make attractive promises to city officials and hoped-for sponsors in attempts to move in on Champ Car turf.

Portland itself entertained a proposal from IRL last year before deciding in the end to continue its association with Champ Car for now.

Tech companies in other states have already committed to Champ Car. SanDisk, a Sunnyvale, California-based company that produces flash memory cards for digital cameras, PDAs and cell phones, is sponsoring a car. Konica and Minolta sponsored a Champ Car race in Long Beach earlier this year.

Stuart Cohen, CEO of Oregon-based Open Source Development Labs, says there is plenty of precedent for the high tech/sports link. Notable example: IBM’s role as official technology supplier to the Olympic Games in the 1990s. Accompanied with an aggressive marketing effort, “IBM was able to link its offerings to the audience in a way that was compelling and tangible,” Cohen says. “Intel is doing the same thing at this year’s Portland Champ Car event. By delivering both the audience and a link between sponsors’ products and the event, Champ Car is providing local high-tech companies with a valuable opportunity.”

With weeks still to go before Portland’s race day, Hunter-Reay takes a break while men with clipboards surround his car. If he wins in Portland, it could be because he’s a young phenom—rookie of the year in 2000 and in 2004 the youngest driver ever to win a Champ Car oval race.

Or it could be the team, liberally salted with tech heads of the highest order.

Take Brian Ma, whose ongoing analysis is heard in every set of earphones on the Rocketsports team. His jargon is clean-room quiet and indecipherable to anyone who didn’t graduate from MIT. He’s not just an engineer. He’s an aerospace engineer who says he’s passionate about cars.

At the end of the day, after sifting through reams of telemetry and crunching the numbers, the team has a plan for custom tweaking Hunter-Reay’s car to fit PIR’s particular curves.

And that, says Kevin Vander Laan, electronics manager for Champ Cars, is what racing is all about. “It’s back to the basics of racing...Everything you need to go fast is in your truck. It’s how you use the parts that matters.”

BrainstormNW - May 2005

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