RFID Revs Up Pit-Stop Training for Crews of Two NASCAR Drivers

By Claire Swedberg

Michael Waltrip Racing is launching an ultra-wideband RFID system from Zebra Technologies to track the movements of crew members and equipment during pit-stop training.

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Stock-car racing pit-stop crews play an integral role in NASCAR racers’ wins. Like participants in other sports, they train year-round, often analyzing their every move through videos of their own performance and those of others. Many pit-crew members are, in fact, former professional or college athletes. At its headquarters in Cornelius, N.C., Michael Waltrip Racing trains two six-man NASCAR pit crews that, in the past, served the company’s co-owner, Daytona 500 driver and two-time winner Michael Waltrip, and now serve NASCAR drivers Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers. Two other support crews also train there, providing backup for the first two crews, or contracting out to other racing groups to assist with their training efforts. The training that the four support crews conduct at the North Carolina facility prepares them for NASCAR’s Spring Cup Series.

This week, Michael Waltrip Racing will begin using real-time location system (RTLS) technology provided by Zebra Technologies to better train its crews, by tracking the movements of each individual and the equipment used, in simulated pit stops for racing stock cars. Zebra’s MotionWorks software, managing data culled from the company’s battery-powered Dart ultra-wideband (UWB) RFID tags and readers, will help the company better identify the movements of individuals and equipment, and to reduce the amount of time crew members previously spent painstakingly watching—and often rewatching—videos, examining each action during training. The new solution is intended to augment the use of video in crew-member training, says Tom German, Waltrip Racing’s chief technical officer.

Zebra’s DartTag Badge (left) measures 7.42 by 4.22 by 0.71 centimeters (1.66 by 2.92 by 0.28 inches). The DartTag (right) has a diameter of 4.0 centimeters (1.57 inches) and a thickness of 2.0 centimeters (0.78 inch).

During races, Waltrip Racing’s pit crews average 12.5 seconds per pit stop on stock cars. The pit stops typically require that 20 gallons of fuel and all four wheels be replaced, approximately 10 to 15 times during each race. That fuel and tire change is accomplished by the crew of six, who jump over a wall as the car pulls into the pit lane, carrying all necessary equipment, and provide carefully orchestrated services. Dropping a tool, running into another crew member, or being slow in moving over the wall can impact a driver’s chances of winning.

To ensure they are fast in carrying out their tasks, the crew members train by working out with weights, conducting endurance training, practicing pit stops and watching the resulting video footage to analyze their performance. With the Zebra solution, they will now also be able to obtain feedback from the MotionWorks software that could reduce the amount of time they spend watching videos, and help them home in on areas in which they need to improve performance.

The crew is employing Zebra’s MotionWorks Sports Solution—which includes DartTag and DartTag Badge tags and the Dart reader—to identify the locations of crew members and equipment within six inches, according to Jill Stelfox, Zebra Technologies’ general manager of location solutions. During training sessions, she says, Zebra’s Dart tags will be attached to crew members’ uniforms, including on the shoulders or backs of their shirts, or on their trousers, in order to identify their movements. Equipment and tools will also be fitted with Dart tags, German says, including on the tires and the various tools used to change them, as well as on gear used to empty and refill fuel tanks. In that way, Waltrip Racing’s trainers can analyze not only how efficiently individuals perform their tasks, but also where equipment is located and how it is being utilized.

The tags pulse a 6.35 GHz to 6.75 GHz UWB signal approximately 25 times per second, and have a read range of up to about 325 feet. Each tag’s battery has a lifespan of about seven years.

Zebra intends to install one or two of its UWB readers around the pit-stop area, to receive all of those tags’ signals and forward the collected read data back to a local server, where the MotionWorks software analyzes that location data. Zebra has configured the software, Stelfox says, to screen the motion data based on Waltrip Racing’s business rules, which include when and within how much time each crew member must moves over the wall, as well as which services should be provided and when allotted time has been exceeded. The software can then issue a real-time alert to management or trainers equipped with tablet computers or phones, indicating when a rule has been broken, as well as which individual was involved.

“If you can show the error to an athlete quickly [immediately after the error has happened], you can get a better response,” Stelfox explains, since that person can then better understand exactly which action caused that error.

Zebra’s Jill Stelfox

By collecting data regarding the movements of people and equipment, German says, Waltrip Racing can better identify what video will be useful to watch. If the system finds that certain individuals accomplished their work especially well, for example, examining footage of that pit stop could help better train them and others—just as identifying a specific error can lead athletes and trainers to the point in the video at which the error can be viewed and studied.

“We’re going to gain a better pit crew,” German states, noting that the point of the technology “is to win more races.”

Stelfox adds, “We want these two teams to be the best in NASCAR.”

In the future, German says, Waltrip may work with Zebra to use the Dart tags and readers and MotionWorks software during races, so Waltrip can offer pit-stop data to NSACAR fans during competitions, since a crew’s speed can often be part of the overall race performance. No specific plans have yet been made, however.