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RFID Gives Racing a Winning Edge

Using active RFID tags, the Indy Racing League not only times and scores 16 events, it also provides critical data to drivers and race crews, and helps engine, tire and chassis makers develop products.
By Patrick Karle
Here’s how the system works.

Every car that tests, practices, qualifies or races at any IRL track, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, carries an AMB battery-powered transponder, approximately 2 inches square and 1 inch thick. The transponder is fixed 33 inches from the nose on the car’s left side, so it rides 1 foot above the track’s surface. The race teams install the transponders, and IRL technical inspection officials ensure the installations are done correctly. When covered with a protective Kevlar cowling, the transponder is completely tamper-proof and incorporated into the race car’s aerodynamic design.

Each transponder constantly emits a seven-digit identification code on an extremely low-frequency signal to a series of detection loops embedded in the track surface at the start-finish line and at other strategic positions around the racecourse. A detection loop consists of a pair of parallel copper wires installed 2 feet apart across the track and joined to a termination box, explains Kevin Oonk, president of AMB US, in Atlanta. The loops are installed to specification in each track using a special saw to cut the asphalt. After the wires are laid, they are covered with epoxy to secure them in the asphalt.

The loops divide an oval racecourse into eighth- or quarter-mile segments that enable race teams to see how fast a car is as it arrives at each loop around the track. The 2.5-mile track at Indianapolis has the most detection loops: 23 (10 for the track, six for the warm-up lanes, and seven for the pit stops). The .75-mile Richmond International Speedway, in Virginia, has the fewest: six (three track, three pits). The typical track configuration has 12 loops (eight track, four pits). Koskey says some of the most critical information for racing performance and timing and scoring happens in the pits. The typical pit configuration has one detection loop embedded at the pit area’s entrance, one at the pit box and one at the pit area’s exit.

A coax cable attaches each loop to its own AMB Trackside decoder unit—an RFID reader that receives a transponder’s signal from the loop, interprets the ID code and puts a time stamp to 10,000ths of a second on the car's passing. A decoder is capable of picking up as many as eight cars side by side as they cross the wires of single detection loop. “The loops will pick up all transponders,” says Oonk, “even if seven or eight vehicles pass the loop at exactly the same time.”

Because each decoder’s timer can drift from the correct time, AMB uses GPS receivers to synchronize all the decoders around the track, to make sure that they all have the exact same time, accurate to 1/10,000th of a second. “It’s like setting all the clocks and watches in your house,” says Oonk. “After a couple of days, one is running fast while the other is running slow, so they don’t show the same time. The GPS time offers the possibility to make sure that all timers are accurately synchronized.”

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