Controlling Traction Control

Traction control has become a hot topic among fans of Winston Cup racing. I get a lot of email from folks who want me to tell them who is using this illegal performance enhancer or want to vent because they are sure a driver that don’t like is using it. It’s not hard to find rumors, but finding anything factual out is like hunting Bigfoot. There’s a lot of folks who will swear they’ve seen him, but you can wander through the woods for months without spotting the beast yourself.

Here’s what I was told though I stress that this is still rumor, as the folks who were kind enough to speak with or write me all had this much in common:

A) They don’t want their names used.
B) They say their team isn’t using traction control, doesn’t own any such device and has never tested one.
C) They are equally certain other teams are using traction control.

If traction control is used in NASCAR racing it’s a very different system than has become available on some high-end street cars and started filtering down the food chain to more affordable models. OEM systems typically rely on sensors at all four wheels that measure how fast the wheel is turning. When a driven wheel (rear wheel in a rear wheel drive car) turns faster than a non-driven wheel, that warns the computer that a tire is spinning. (The computer also has to take into account information from other sensors before intervening. For instance while turning an inside wheel is going to rotate slower than an outside wheel because the outside wheels have to travel a greater distance.) Once legitimate wheel spin is detected the computer has various options to help the driver regain traction. The brake at the one spinning wheel can be applied separately from the other three wheels to slow it. The computer can order the ignition to start not firing various spark plugs to reduce power to the driven wheels and hopefully stop the wheelspin. In extreme instances the computer can even reduce the throttle opening in today’s drive by wire cars. I’ve experimented with the traction control in a Lexus in a snowy parking lot and was quite impressed with how well the system worked though it made it difficult to spin doughnuts.

Such a system could never be used in Winston Cup. There are too many sensors, hydraulic lines, and wiring harnesses to hide during pre or post race inspection. Winston Cup cars have mechanical linkages to the throttle on the carb, not an electronic “drive by wire” nanny system that overrides operator control when he does something bone-headed.

So how does traction control work in NASCAR? (Or better, allegedly how does it work?) Let’s look at why traction control gives a driver an advantage. At some tracks, most notably Daytona and Talladega with the plates, traction control would offer absolutely no advantage. Drivers have their foot to the floor the whole way around the track unless they are trying to avoid an incident. But at a track like Martinsville a driver has to lift out of the gas, apply the brakes, then get back onto the throttle and accelerate out of the turn. There’s some ideal throttle pressure there a driver learns through experience. He wants to be as hard on the throttle as he can, as early as he can to out-accelerate other cars. But if too much throttle is applied the rear tires spin. That causes the back end of the car to lose traction. It also heats up and wears out the tires more quickly making it increasingly difficult to accelerate out of the corner. As tires wear and a track surface loses grip it becomes increasingly difficult to accelerate right at the limit of tire slippage.

To work properly a traction control system has to be able to work in increments of time we can put a word to but the human mind can’t really grasp. Who many milliseconds does it take to pronounce “milliseconds.” Most likely a traction control device would be part of the ignition box or tachometer. To express it in terms that are more understandable (though much longer than reality) let’s say testing indicates that coming out of a corner at Martinsville a Winston Cup car can gain 500 RPM every half second and be accelerating right at the edge of wheelspin. Anything more than that and the tires are spinning. So when Ricky Rookie slams his foot to the floor as opposed to applying the throttle in moderation all of a sudden the device registers that the engine is accelerating at a rate of 1000 RPM per half second. Since the device can’t apply the brakes, close the throttle or smack the driver upside the head and tell him to ease up, what does it do? In theory it begins cutting out firing pulses to random spark plugs to slow the rate the engine accelerates at much like a rev limiter does.

That’s what I’ve been told but in mulling it over I have some concerns. The traction control device would have to be specific to each track. Certainly a driver can’t accelerate as hard out of one of Martinsville’s tiny paper clip corners as he can in the expansive turn 3 and 4 area of Dover. Even at the same track, temperature and other atmospheric conditions can radically change the amount of traction the surface offers even during the course of a single event. How would such a device differentiate between the grip offered by a brand new set of tires and a worn out greasy set near the end of a green flag run? How would it compensate for changes made to the cars setup that increased forward bite? No one could answer those questions for me. In a perfect world, you’d want some rheostat type device attached to the traction control so the driver could dial in more or less traction according to conditions. But try hiding an adjusting device somewhere a driver could still reach it.

There are other factors to take into account as well. For instance we’ve all seen Cup drivers leaving the pits rear tires smoking in the race to get to the pit exit first. If some car were to always leave the pits perfectly hooked up, never spinning a tire it would draw unwanted official attention. Thus I’m told the traction control on ovals other than Pocono only works in top gear. But how does it know when the driver hits high gear? There’s no speedometer cable to tap into, and a sensor that detected shifter position would be easy to find. Is there some sort of cut off device a driver activates until he is top gear?

Obviously getting caught with traction control would be a PR disaster for a driver and a team. Even if the driver had only recently started running it any Winston Cup victories he’d scored would fall under a cloud of suspicion. Team owners would have to answer to sponsors not happy about their representatives being labeled “cheaters.” So the device must be very hard to detect. I’m told the original device was about the size of a 30 pack of Juicy-Fruit. Upon getting into the car, the driver would install it between the ignition boxes and the wiring harness. After the race he’d unplug the device, slip it inside his driver’s uniform and hand it off to a crewman. That could be very risky. In a wreck where the driver was knocked cold and unable to remove the device a NASCAR official could spot it. The latest devices are said to be activated by a call to a cell phone number or the use of a key fob transmitter not unlike the alarm systems use on street cars. After the race when the device is disabled NASCAR could check it nine ways to Sunday and find nothing illegal about the ignition boxes.

So let’s accept for a moment some electronic genius has indeed developed a workable traction control system for NASCAR racing which is in fact altering the outcome of some races. What can NASCAR do? I have three proposals, all of them radical and none without problems:

A) Legalize it- CART and F1 eventually gave up trying to police traction control because it was too tough to detect. I’m told the current systems which are sold surreptitiously go for between eight and ten thousand dollars, but if they were legal that might cost only a couple hundred bucks. That would be easier on teams budgets and with everyone running the system there’d be no unfair advantage. Hey, at $200 bucks I’d like to install one in my hot rod so I could just nail the gas when drag racing rather than spinning the tires off the line. I’d put one in my daily (rear-wheel drive) driver as well in case I got caught in an ice storm. But fans by and large don’t want traction control legalized because it takes driver skill out of the equation.

B) Have NASCAR select an approved ignition box manufacturer (They’d like that. More money in their pocket) and prior to the first practice NASCAR would hand out two random boxes to each team to be installed on the car much as they do restrictor plates these days. After practice and after qualifying the boxes would be turned back into NASCAR and a new pair would be randomly assigned to the team for the next session or just prior to the race. The boxes would be carefully marked to ensure no one swapped them for a cheated up unit. The problem here is are we going to do that with tachometers as well? And if a team has ignition failure they’d likely say NASCAR purposely gave them defective boxes to favor another team.

C) Scrap the ignition boxes all together and go back to points type distributors- Many younger fans may never have had the headaches of working on a points type distributor with electronic ignitions being phased into street cars back in the early 70s. Points are simple but imperfect. They won’t run at as high RPM’s. They wear out. Without the ignition amplifiers the engine would not be as efficient or make as much power. I’m all right with that. Less power means less speed. Less speed means lower velocity accidents and better side by side racing. The sheer simplicity of the system would make it harder to cheat. But of course eventually someone would find a way to cheat again.

That’s what I came up with when I went hunting Bigfoot. No, I never got a glimpse at the beast. But I’m told by people I trust they’ve seen some mighty big footprints in these woods no one can identify. The credibility of the sport is in question until NASCAR finds a way to police this issue. And my guess is if anyone is ever caught with a traction control device they better get an application into TRAC quick if they want to keep racing.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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