From analogue to digital

Using modern technology to improve racing car performance

By Philippa Martin-King

This is the success story of a family team of car enthusiasts who set out to win a vintage car race. They integrated modern technology into their 1929 racing car in order to be able to record and analyse precisely data about its performance. Using state-of-the-art sensors, they were able to fine tune and make additional adjustments and thus gain the necessary track advantage to win the speed race.

The four Auto Meter analogue gauges that were used before setup of the digital data logger setup. The four Auto Meter analogue gauges that were used before setup of the digital data logger setup.

Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats

"Imagine a place so flat you seem to see the curvature of the planet, so barren not even the simplest life forms can exist. Imagine the passing thunder of strange vehicles hurtling by on a vast dazzling white plain. This is not an alien world far from earth; it is Utah's famous Bonneville Salt Flats," as described by Bonneville Salt Flats is home to Racing at Bonneville, where attempts to break land speed records have been going on since 1896. Since the late 1800s there have been racers out on the salt trying to better their land speed record or that of their opponent in their class of racing. Through the decades of racing, the technology has advanced beyond the wildest dreams of those first racers at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

When the Volk Brothers Racing and teamed up for Speed Week 2010 and World of Speed down the Bonneville Salt Flats, they realized that their Ford 1929 Model A roadster with its fuel-injected big block 1200hp (895kW) Chevrolet engine needed a little modern technology to help it along its way.

The move from analogue to the precision of digital data tracking

That's when they decided to make the move from tracking the analogue data of the vehicle's 'old-school' gauges to the accuracy, speed and ease of digital data logging. Based on this more accurate data they could then modify and update their engine setup to enable the car to go faster and break a record.

"Our tuning for the last 40 years has been 'old-school'", says Dallas Volk, the son of Larry Volk. "We've been using analogue gauges for temperature and oil and fuel pressure. After every run we used to read plugs to check air/fuel condition (rich or lean), then decide if we needed to retard or advance timing. We’d rely on the driver's memory of the analogue gauge readings to give us oil pressure and water temp data throughout the run while trying to keep the 200 mph [320 km/h] rolling brick on a straight line for 5 miles. Needless to say, the data’s not as accurate as an engine tuner would desire…".

It gave the Volk family an obvious reason to install a data acquisition system and they carried out research and obtained guidance from suppliers before choosing a high-tech data logging system.

Faster and easier to read – safer too

First they had to manufacture a new dashboard to house the single gauge that replaced the previous four analogue ones. Then they installed an easy-to-read LED display Auto Meter data logger interface that allowed the driver to monitor up to four different inputs clearly while driving at racing speeds. The data logger also gave warning alarms for other critical measurements such as low oil pressure. Finally, they wired it up to the various sensors: two for pressure, one for oil and one for fuel at the nozzles, one water temperature sensor, one drive line RPM, and two O2 sensors – one for each collector. 

In order to use the race car data acquisition system they then had to programme the sensors in relation to the data logger. Analysing the data was tremendously helpful. Thanks to the precision of the sensors, they were able to see the mixture of air and fuel, the oil pressure, the water temperature, fuel pressure and the clutch slip recorded side by side throughout the entire run. Their driver also noted how really easy it was to read the digital display in the darkness of the cockpit rather than searching for a needle on an analogue dial.

Additional control

The team realized what they had been missing in using the old-school tuning and troubleshooting system. The new digital system provided them a means of programming an alarm to go off at a certain temperature so the driver knew when to turn on the water pump without having to monitor the temperature gauge, and another alarm for low oil pressure –  a potential engine saver! Having these alarm features and the improved visibility of the tachometer allowed the driver to focus on driving – a great improvement both in terms of safety and performance.

In future, because the data logger can handle multiple sensors, they plan to add O2 sensors on each exhaust pipe rather than just at the collector, so that they are able to tune each cylinder. They will put another fuel pressure sensor onto the pump too, to compare between pressure at the pump and the nozzles.

Sensors – the first link in a chain of data communication

Normally one associates sensors and computerized systems with today's modern cars, which rely almost exclusively on them for the vehicle's performance and real-time information. This story shows how sensors can also be used in a vehicle that dates back almost to the founding of the IEC itself. Yet, even in a vehicle of this age, they still provide state-of-the-art information and greater driver safety.

A great number of the components used to create sensor systems rely on IEC International Standards for their precision and measurements. These include the publication issued last year, ISO/IEC 24753, which defines RFID protocols for sensor-based monitoring, and IEC 60747-14-1,Semiconductor devices - Part 14-1: Semiconductor sensors - Generic specification for sensors, which describes sensors made from semiconductors and is additionally applicable to dielectric and ferroelectric based sensors. In between there are a whole host of other standards detailing crucial aspects of sensor deployment, such as wiring, batteries and electrical connections.

The four Auto Meter analogue gauges that were used before setup of the digital data logger setup. The four Auto Meter analogue gauges that were used before setup of the digital data logger setup.
Larry Volk (left) installing sensors and bundling the wiring alongside son Pat. Larry Volk (left) installing sensors and bundling the wiring alongside son Pat.
Rear view shows wiring and sensors. Rear view shows wiring and sensors.