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NASCAR Keeps Races Safe With RFID

Low-frequency passive tags ensure that vehicles in the Sprint Cup Series use NASCAR-issued fuel cells, and that their approved chassis are not altered, making them more vulnerable in a crash.
By Claire Swedberg
Each handheld runs an application that Franwell developed with Microsoft Visual C# software, using Microsoft SQL Server 2005, a platform that operates on mobile devices. When the handheld interrogator reads the first tag, its software then displays a list of the other RFID tags that should be on the chassis, as well as where each is attached. If an incorrect ID number is read, an alert is displayed. According to NASCAR, vehicles are not allowed to participate in the race unless all 10 tags, encoded with the correct ID numbers, are read.

As wings were issued at the race itself, their RFID tags were read by NASCAR's staff, and the driving team's identities were input and linked to that tag's unique ID number. The association's employees then inspected the vehicles, using the handheld device to capture the unique ID numbers of all 10 tags on the chassis, to confirm it had not been tampered with.

Jerry Kaproth, NASCAR's safety coordinator
At the end of the race, the wings were returned and read once more to verify that the teams had returned them. (In March 2010, the wings were replaced by aluminum spoilers that are neither tagged nor tracked.)

Once the tags are read, transaction data is stored on the handheld. When the device comes within in range of a Wi-Fi Internet access point, it transmits the information to the SQL server database at NASCAR's data center. The Franwell software also enables the association to generate reports from the data showing, for instance, a breakdown of which certified items were verified at a particular race.

Because the installation was a success, NASCAR reports, it has been tagging fuel cells since February 2007. Each fuel cell contains a rubber bladder, foam and other structures to keep gasoline from leaking out in the event of an accident or other vehicular damage, and possibly igniting a fire. The tag attached to each fuel cell's metal exterior is read at the time it is issued to a team, and the team's identity is stored with that fuel cell's RFID tag ID number. The tags are again read at the initial inspection, before the first race, at which time the Franwell system is used to verify that the team has installed a certified fuel cell in the car. Finally, they are read one last time once the fuel cell is returned.

The system has been very successful, Kaproth says. The COT vehicles with tagged chassis ran in 16 races in 2007, as well as in all 38 events of the 2008 and 2009 Sprint Cup Series. NASCAR, he indicates, is now exploring other ways in which it can use RFID to improve the race processes, though he declines to identify any specific plans at this time. Franwell intends to soon provide the association with ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 tags, to replace the LF tags it currently utilizes, according to Terri Crawford, Franwell's VP and COO. The LF tags were chosen, in large part, because of their ability to be read when embedded in the wings—but since NASCAR no long uses the wings, she says, a UHF tag is a better choice, due to its longer read range.

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