By Joe Lemire, SportTechie
February 18, 2022
The prevailing wisdom on NASCAR’s superspeedway races has long suggested that luck plays an outsized role and anyone could win by being in the right place at the right time. Michael McDowell, however, saw it differently. He saw the same half-dozen drivers routinely winning at Daytona and Talladega. Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick all have three or more wins at those tracks.
To glean some insight into their process, McDowell scoured through SMT’s Team Analytics tool, a dashboard of granular data collected from satellite positioning (GPS), inertial measurement units (IMU) and the engine control unit (ECU). He reviewed video and matched up the statistics to become, as he put it, “a student of superspeedway racing.”
“I started to study those guys,” McDowell says, “and started to figure out, ‘What do they do? How do they process it?’ And then you try to get into the psychology of, ‘What's making them make that decision? What are they thinking about? What are they processing that maybe I'm not processing or doing something different?’ So I just watched a lot of film, looked at a lot of data and studied the guys that were really good at it. And [that] took me a few years, but I feel like now I'm one of those guys that's good at it.”
McDowell, who mans the No. 34 Ford for Front Row Motorsports, received the ultimate validation last year: He won the 2021 Daytona 500, his first Cup Series win in 358 career starts. All five of his career top-five finishes have been on superspeedway ovals, results that can be attributed in part to his use of the SMT tool.
“It's not clear black and white—you’ve got to kind of sift through it a little bit to get the information you need,’’ McDowell says. “But if you're patient and diligent, you can kind of find the answers you're looking for.’’
This dataset is produced via a vector unit created by SMT, whose installation on the cars is mandated by NASCAR. That box contains the IMUs such as accelerometers and the GPS hardware, which pulls not only from the American global satellite system but also the Russian Glonass system to ensure 10 to 12 satellites are used to triangulate position with an accuracy of 2.5 centimeters, or about one inch. Data from the ECUs—such as brake, throttle and steering—has been available since 2014.
In a sport littered with acronyms, SMT has become part of the vernacular. Logano, Harvick, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Matt DiBenedetto, Christopher Bell, Ross Chastain are among the drivers to namecheck SMT in interviews over the past year and a half. As of 2018, all of the SMT data from every driver has been made available to everyone in the Cup Series as NASCAR has its own Moneyball moment.
“This day and age, it’s a lot easier to learn these things because you have all of the data, you have SMT and you can see what everybody’s doing,” Truex said in a news conference on Wednesday. “Back in the day when I started, it was all a big mystery. You didn’t know. You had to figure it out. You could kind of watch a guy and think you know what he was doing, but you may not have known exactly what it was, and now you can see all of that stuff. So, I think that just brings the field closer. It’s hard to have secrets, it’s hard to not see somebody’s driving style or a guy that’s faster than you—how’s he doing it?”
Not every driver has embraced this change. When NASCAR announced the widespread distribution of this data, Kyle Busch was outspoken against it, saying at the time, “Because I’ve spent 13 years in this sport to figure out how to drive a race car, to make it go fast and the do the things that I do to make it go fast and win championships, and now you are going to hand all of that to a young driver on a piece of paper and they are going to figure it out as long as they know how to read it. . . . I don’t see it as being positive to this sport. When we are all driving the same, that is not a positive thing.”
Busch said NASCAR’s reply was that this was saving the OEMs—Original Equipment Manufacturers Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota—money because they were already paying to scrape this information from an earlier consumer product called RaceView.
SMT and NASCAR initially had collaborated on a consumer product called RaceView that first launched a decade ago, enabling fans to closely follow the telemetry and audio communication of any driver they chose during a race—particularly helpful for the less prominent competitors who received little broadcast TV coverage. Especially once the ECU data was included, the OEMs saw tremendous value in it.
"They knew that this information was floating around in our system that we were handing it off to the broadcast,” says Paulus Weemaes, SMT’s senior director of motorsports, "and they're like, ‘Hold on a second. This is really great information that we need to actually analyze our own drivers and our cars, as well.’ So there was a pretty strong push by the OEMs, by the teams, towards NASCAR to actually make that data available to them.”
The very same data that the drivers and teams receive is also distributed to Fox and NBC for their coverage, though, of course, what they present to a TV audience will be of a different subset than the data analyzed by the OEMs—all of whom ingest the information into their own proprietary software for further analysis.
At this point, SMT Team Analytics is not only used by every Cup Series team but by multiple individuals—drivers, engineers, crew chiefs—within each team. Several Xfinity teams have subscribed, and there is a likely expansion into the Craftsman Truck Series down the road. Input from those clients now dictate future iterations of Team Analytics, which is already on version 5.0.
“We have a back end that kind of keeps tabs on user management, and we can see who's using the tool and how often they're using it and it's pretty amazing to see just the time spent in application, what they're looking at, how many sessions they're looking at,” says SMT digital product manager AJ Mead. “That data that I look at in our dashboard has just continued to rise consistently year over year, and we're onboarding more and more members of the teams, it seems like, every season."
Team Analytics is more than just a database; it uses Unity’s gaming engine to render immersive virtual worlds that enable races to be viewed from every conceivable angle—much like MLB’s Statcast 3D does and the Brooklyn Nets’ Netaverse aspires to be. During single-car qualifying, broadcasters can show the SMT-developed “Ghost Car” on screen, which places the progress of another competitor onto the same track as a current driver.
As for this weekend’s Daytona, McDowell only gave a broad overview of the data he reviews, such as when Hamlin drags the brake or how the other drivers manipulate the wheel and throttle. Mead can only speculate about areas of interest, but suggests that the prominence of drafting is critical at superspeedways.
“In a pack, you can see how the draft is working,” Mead says. “Because in a draft, you can see when you're behind the car, you can see how they're lifting and how they're actually interacting with each other within the pack. So that visualization, I can see as compelling. And you can see what drivers are doing, whether they be second, third in line versus where they are as the leader and different handling components.”