Raceday timing system upgrade

One of the BAA’s biggest goals this year was to use our human and financial resources to improve on the timing system we use in buggy.  After all the work that teams put into buggy, there is nothing more important than accurately and reliably recording their time (ok, safety is always more important … blah blah blah).  We’re running a race against the clock here, we’ve gotta be able to trust the clock.

Last year, the company sweepstakes has paid to do the timing for 20 years showed up to raceday short on staff so the BAA helped out and filled in.  What we got was a close look at the system in use and a big list of things we’d like to see improved.

What we are improving on

Technology weaknesses

  • Starter gun failures : as we’ve all witnessed, the starter gun has a failure rate of 2 -5 times per year.  This results in confusion and inequitable starting conditions for the teams that are affected.
  • Starter gun – timer synchronization : the current system relies on someone pressing “start” on a timer box when the gun goes off.  This introduces unnecessary human error on one end of the timed period.
  • Finish signal failures : the system buggy has relied on for the past 10+ years uses an RF transponder in each buggy and a wire loop (in a mat on the road) that detects those transponders when they pass by.   If a buggy crosses the line and no signal is detected, there is no recourse other than using the manual stopwatch backup times.  Some buggies are more prone to missed signals than others depending on material choice and thickness and transponder location.  Nobody deserves to have their time missed.
  • Transponders are inconvenient : Sweepstakes has to orchestrate the distribution to every team.  Teams have to find a place to secure it that doesn’t interfere with the driver or the steering.  Raceday is no time to add parts to a buggy.
  • Inaccuracy of the crowd-facing clock : the big black and yellow clock is manually matched to the official time as it is running, usually a minute or so into each heat.  This means that the time people see when the buggy crosses the line is highly unofficial, and has been off by large margins in the past.
  • Delay in reporting official times : because it is somewhat time consuming to recall official times from the current system, the times posted on the leader board are usually the backup manual stopwatch times.  In very close races, this could result in a reversal of rankings once the official times are known.

Personnel weaknesses

  • Rotating staff : because the company previously contracted often has other races on the same weekend, the same timers are not always available for prelims and finals.  This discontinuity introduces opportunities for error when it matters most, on finals.
  • False start enforcement : outside timing professionals have not in our experience been sufficiently knowledgeable about the rules and procedures of a buggy race start.  Because none of the sweepstakes committee is in the immediate vicinity of the start line, the starter must be able to manage false start and restart situations in accordance with the rules.

The new solution

The Buggy Alumni Association has been working with sweepstakes since this fall to research, select, and help fund a new and improved system.  Much of the discussion has been held publicly, here on the site, and we thank everyone for their input.  We are, at this point, 95% sure that raceday 2010 will be timed with the FinishLynx digital photofinish and timing system.  This is the technology used at world class track meets, almost all of the Olympic races, the Tour de France, and by our good friends in Ohio at the Soap Box Derby.

In general, the way that it works is by taking a picture of the finish line 1000 times per second.  Each picture is a very narrow slice of exactly what is crossing the finish line at that moment.  When you put all those pictures side by side, you get a still image of the finish line in which the x-axis is time.

This finish line technology, coupled with a more modern and appropriately outfitted overall system will address and improve on every one of the problems we identified above.  Briefly …

  • The start gun will be replaced with an electronic beep that you are familiar with from swimming and ski racing.  This start signal will be electronically linked to the official timer.
  • All finishes will be precisely captured unless the buggy becomes invisible before it crosses the line.  Teams will not have to find a place to tape transponders, and sweepstakes will not have to manage the distribution and tracking of transponders.  All buggies will be equally visible regardless of their construction.
  • There will not need to be a mat at the finish line which should eliminate one jarring bump for the drivers.
  • The crowd-facing clock will be electronically started by the start signal so it will always display an official running time.
  • Official times should be generated quickly enough that the leader board will display only official times, providing accurate and transparent final results (pending DQs of course) to teams and fans.
  • Bonus: each finish generates a cool finish line photo like the one above that we’ll be able to share after raceday!

Of course, both sweepstakes and the BAA understand the importance and risks of changing timing systems.  To alleviate these concerns, the plan is to do a very deliberate roll-out.

  • First, we will be renting the entire system from a timing company in eastern PA for this year.  Purchasing a system for buggy’s exclusive use is always an option for the future if we are happy with the results and it is deemed cost effective.
  • Because March and April are off months for racing, we will be able to rent the core system for the entire spring semester to do some early tests of the system in our sport and get good at using it.  We have no doubts (after reviewing the specs and talking to the vendors), but buggy is unusual, so we want to test it as early as possible.  This will allow us to revert to the old system if it is a total failure.
  • We will rent the entire system (the core system plus display modules) for the whole week from Truck Weekend through Raceday.  On truck weekend we will do a full dress-rehearsal and collect times just as we would on raceday.  These times can be private if teams desire.
  • Of course, we will always still have manual stopwatch backup times on raceday.  The cmuTV footage has also been used as a backup time source in the past, so there is no new risk of completely missing a time.
  • To address the personnel weaknesses described above, we are working on a partnership between Sweepstakes, the BAA, and a potentially a professional timer hired from the firm that rents the equipment.  More information on that as we have it.

We are very excited to bring this huge upgrade in technology to buggy to keep pace with the technological improvements of the buggies themselves.  Comments are closed on this post, but we would like to encourage discussion in the the existing timing thread in the forum for posterity.   We’ll post more updates on the specifics as they are available.