Revenge Of The Nerds

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Earlier this week Rusty Wallace came to the same troubling conclusion I had a number of years ago. The war is over. While we enjoyed spectacular victories in our youth, in the end the other side has prevailed. In the savanna of high school the car guys were many rungs higher than the computer nerds but in the end they won. Hell, they even beat the jocks and cheerleaders.

There was once a time where cars and computers had about as much in common as convents and brothels. On sunny spring afternoons, the gearheads would be outside at lunch wrenching on their cars, racing their cars, or cruising up to McDonalds with a Springsteen 8-track jammed in the dash. Meanwhile the pasty complexioned little computer nerds gathered around either of the two computers (each the size of a phone booth) in the “computer lab” (an old Janitor’s closet) making those prehistoric machines do “stupid computer tricks” that neither impressed or amused most of us, and certainly didn’t set the hearts of maidens fair afluttering. The computer guys didn’t go on many dates. They didn’t attend a lot of parties. In fact they got beat up a lot if I recall. My senior year I was forced to take one computer course, the first time that was required at the school, and learn a few lines of Basic. I passed the course. That’s about all I remember. Rusty Wallace didn’t get that degree of computer training. His level of computer literacy was raised a notch last week when he learned to turn one on he says.

And that, Rusty now admits, has been a hindrance to his aspiration at a second Winston Cup title to go along with the one he earned in the (Pre-computer) 1989 season. Oh, Wallace is still saying that he’s got a shot at the title and that’s why he’s embracing technology as of late, but while his words may have the defiance of John Paul Jones’ (the naval guy not the dude from Led Zep) immortal “I have not begun to fight!” in the end Jones was forced to jump ship as the Bonhomme Richard sank too.

The problem to date is Wallace hadn’t trusted the computers. Nowadays Winston Cup teams have incredibly detailed and accurate programs that can accurately predict lap times for a simulated car. Oh, ten years ago crew chiefs would have killed for your NASCAR 2003 PC game, but that’s a toy compared to what the Cup guys have at their disposal. Rather than using wrenches to change shocks, springs and swaybars, Cup team’s computer experts change the cars set up with a few strokes of the keyboard and clicks on the mouse. It’s easier, faster and cheaper to do it that way once you have a reliable simulation program that’s stood up to real world testing. And in their constant quest to find the ideal setup, the computer guys are thinking outside the box, not relying on what Junior Johnson told them back in 1992. Eventually the computer people come up with the ideal setup and therein lies the problem. On one hand you Ryan Newman, a 24-year-old engineering student who is as comfortable with computers as my generation is with a TV. The computer says this is the way to go so Newman jumps in the car, feels it out and drives it like that. Then “Old Man” Wallace jumps in the 2 car with a similar setup and within a couple laps he’s screaming over the radio “This thing is junk. Nobody could drive this car. What sort of springs do you have in it?” So they tell him and up until recently Rusty would tell them the computer was “wrong.” He knew what a good car was supposed to feel like, he knew what had worked in the past, and the team was going to make the car comfortable for him and that would be the ideal setup. Sometime this season while Rusty was driving around noting that Newman was many positions ahead of him in a car with the “Wrong” setup, it apparently dawned on Mr. Wallace, hey maybe these computers are onto something.

And it doesn’t stop just at having the computer predict a fast setup. Other racing series have had complex telemetry that monitors what a driver does at the wheel and relays it to computers in the pits for years. Winston Cup team are finally catching up and while many such devices are illegal on race day they’re used in testing. Nowadays a driver might come in and say “I had it flat to the floor entering turn one…” at which point the team’s resident computer geek can tell him, “No, you didn’t either. You lifted to 89 percent throttle for .8643 seconds twenty-two feet before you reached the corner. The computer says you’re getting on the throttle too fast out of four, and making your entry too late into turn three. You’ll go faster if you do it this way.” At which point doubtless and older driver like Rusty Wallace (or Bill Elliott or Mark Martin, not to pick on Rusty) no doubt hollers “son, I been driving racecars since before you were a grin on your daddy’s face, and I know what I’m doing. I’ve won five races at this damn track and ain’t no computer going to tell me how to drive.” But if the driver would in fact take the computer’s advice he would in fact be faster. It hearkens back to the stormy early days of the relationship between crew chief Harry Hyde and his driver Tim Richmond. Harry told Tim he was attacking the corners too aggressively and he needed to ease up. “Ease up” wasn’t defined in Tim’s dictionary so Hyde called for an experiment. For fifty laps he allowed Tim to run just as hard and fast as he wanted to against the stopwatch. Of course lap times fell off as the tires wore down, but Tim was still mighty fast. They put new tires on the car, and Tim went back out and ran fifty laps driving the way Hyde said it should be done. And when a stunned Richmond saw how much faster he’d been doing it Harry’s way, he began to accept Hyde’s input. But that was crusty old Harry Hyde who’d been around since they invented mud giving the advice, not some bastard-cousin of a digital toaster oven, right? Some drivers will say so. The one’s finishing behind these young drivers who accept computers as normally being correct.

There was a time when fast cars and computers had little to do with one another. Nowadays the late model and import guys are out there tuning their cars with a laptop computer instead of an open end wrench. For us old guys whose backs get a little sore changing the jets on a Holley these days it looks tempting to be able to perform the same function with a keyboard inside the car, but the price for these fuel injection systems for V8s is set high enough to make sure those who can afford them are the computer guys making all the money who know what to do with them. Yep, the world has turned so upside down the computer guys even have faster cars than the gearheads these days. Like I said, the war is over and we lost. Bill Gates gives away more money in a year than Rusty Wallace has earned in his career. So my advice to Mr. Wallace as he starts down the road to becoming computer literate; as John Paul Jones (the dude from Led Zep not the naval guy) once played, “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.” Oh, and if you get an error message that ends with “Press any key to continue” don’t waste a lot of time looking for the “any” key. Just use the “enter” key at the bottom right hand side of your keyboard. Why that one? Cause usually you can brush it with your thumb while grabbing your beer.

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