In motorsports, it seems that every day you hear about the ‘next big thing.’ From new materials in chassis, to new aerodynamic nose pieces, innovation and ‘the next big thing’ drives the motorsports industry. In fact, if you’re not innovating…then why are you racing? If the old adage that motorsports improves the breed through development is still true today, then the ‘next big thing’ isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s just a normal day in racing.
One area that is often overlooked yet is quietly developing at a rapid pace in motorsports lately is data collection and analysis. In all honesty, it’s something I follow closely compared to other developments, because of how much I tend to use these systems. I’ll also readily admit that I am a bit of a data analysis nerd. In fairness, I am likely not in the same league of nerdiness as a Motec-centric engineer, who dons three layers of Nomex just to sit at his laptop for 24 hours at Le Mans. Still, most modern karting coaches and tuners know that data is a great tool to help ‘fact check’ your suspicions about the driver, an engine, or even the weather. When all other areas of information don’t make sense, look to the data—it can’t lie.
When I first saw the product video for the RacePak CL1, I immediately wanted to write it off as another one of the self-proclaimed game changers; a flashily advertised set of wires and circuit boards that offered little additional value compared to what was already on the market. Like many consumers, I hadn’t even seen the product in use before I was already making judgments of its viability. In retrospect, I regret that rush to judgment. For my opinion very quickly changed when I saw a real demonstration of the product.
Through some of the fun work I do with the team at KartPulse, I was invited to take part in a product demonstration of the Vantage CL1 several weeks ago. Initially, it was pitched to me as a phone demonstration—simply sign on with your email and watch the product in use. At first, I admit it sounded pretty far-fetched to me: how can I see a data analysis tool in action if I’m not at the track? Still, I had some time to kill at work during lunch, so I figured why not check it out? I pulled out my phone, downloaded the application, and tuned in. Within a few minutes, a notification popped up that a driver was about to go on track. And there it was! In real time, I was able to follow a driver around Adams Motorsports Park in California, all while sitting like a bum in my rumpled looking button down at work in Denver, Colorado. Within 30 seconds, Racepak had turned my bemused curiosity into serious attention. I needed to learn more about this system!
RacePak’s approach to the Vantage CL1 system is certainly an interesting departure from traditional data analysis systems. While companies like AIM, Motec, and Off Camber Data utilize a physical device with physical connections to download data, the CL1 is cloud-based in nature. Essentially, this means that RacePak’s system can do something the other guys can’t: show data in real time, on a variety of devices, all of which can access the system’s output at the same time. Think Formula 1 live telemetry, but at a grass roots level in terms of cost and simplicity. Furthermore, the system utilizes a user’s cell phone as the main transmitter and display for the system, which is certainly a clever approach to solving the recording and uploading issues many systems like this have faced in the past. All recorded sessions can be accessed at any time through a subscription based service, kind of like Netflix for racing data. Currently available for kart racing, the system can work for a variety of motorsports applications, many of which will be explored in 2018 by Racepak as they continue to refine the product.
From a driver development perspective, the benefits of the system is extremely clear. As an experience coach, users across the globe could utilize the CL1 to allow me to observe their driving habits from thousands of miles away, in the comfort of my own home. Furthermore, the real-time telemetry ability enhances the ability of a coach at the track in person to observe and track a driver’s progress, as well as areas of the racetrack that they are struggling in. By having the real-time data available on a smart phone or any mobile device, data analysis can be conducted while a driver is on track. This in turn can shorten debrief times, making progress more likely in the fast-paced environment that is a motorsports event.
Within a few days of witnessing the mobile test I had made contact with the team at RacePak, who were quick to respond to my serious interest in getting involved in their final stage testing of the product. In particular, I learned a lot about the initial development of the system from Tim Anderson, president of RacePak, and one of the influencers behind the CL1. From these initial discussions, I was subsequently provided a complete Vantage CL1 unit for product testing. I was excited to hit the track with the system, to really see what it was all about!
A few days later, and the CL1 was on my doorstep. Enclosed in a fairly non-descript shipping box, the Vantage system was surprisingly compact for a product still in final stage testing. Upon opening the actual product packaging, one is presented with an Apple-esque approach to product presentation, with the CL1 central unit displayed proudly in its holder, the wires and accessories placed below in neatly organized packaging.
The primary unit itself is surprisingly small. Weighing in at less than half a pound, and only the size of a couple boxes of matches, the main data logger unit of the CL1 is quite compact compared to some of the chunkier data loggers of the past 10 years (looking at you, MyChron 3). A multitude of fittings and plugs protrude from the main unit, all neatly labeled with their various uses and port assignments. Digging further into the box reveals a variety of wires, plugs, and accessories, again all neatly packaged and ready for assembly.
The instructions presented with the CL1 are intuitive and easy to follow. Upon complete unboxing, the first step was to open up the unit, and insert the rechargeable batteries supplied with the kit. In a pleasant departure from other data units, the fittings and hardware on the main logger was robust and well designed. While the case of the main unit is indeed plastic, the fine-thread machine screws used to hold the logger together thread perfectly into their holes, with little fuss or marring. Opening up the unit presents one unsurprisingly with a brief look into the bowels of the system. Green circuit boards and a variety of delicate looking accessories greets the user. Once the batteries were in and the unit was closed again, powering up the unit was simple—hit the power button, and the logger is pretty much ready to go. Just to be safe, I hooked the unit up to charge for a while as I read further into the instructions and the system.
Creating an account with RacePak’s online web portal is about as easy as signing up for Facebook or Amazon.com, and in many ways less painful regarding time and fields to fill out. Once created, this portal is the central hub for all thing RacePak. From unit instructions, to data review, it can all be done through the portal. While it wasn’t mandatory to do so right away, I did opt for the cloud-based storage subscription to test the unit. At $9.99 a month, the subscription certainly isn’t free, but likely worth a considerable amount to those that will use the CL1 system regularly.
By following the instructions, I was able to hook up the variety of accessories included in my test package. Primarily, this included: a GPS speed and position sensor, and RPM sensor, wheel speed sensor, and engine temperature sensor. It should be noted that the temperature sensor was clearly intended for use in a water-cooled karting engine, as the fitting was reminiscent of the water temp wires for MyChron units. As a result, once hooked up and during the duration of the test, my “engine temperature” reading was closer to thermonuclear meltdown than an actual reading, with it defaulting to 1800+ degrees due to the accessory circuit not being completed. I also unpackaged the phone case holder, which looked beautifully machined and featured some padding in the clamps for the cell phone.
Physically installing the logger onto the kart was surprinsgly easy. In an approach reminiscent of some of the slightly older styles of karting data loggers, the main ‘brain’ of the system is housed under the front fairing, while the display (in this case my iPhone 6) is mounted on the steering wheel in much the manner other karting systems do. With 3 main mounting points accompanied by rubber stanchions, drilling pilot holes and inserting the mounting screws was a brief task, resulting in a neat looking installation for the main unit that was robust and sturdy. Running the accessory cables from the unit around the kart was as easy as ever, with zip ties and electrical tape accompanying the rat’s nest of wires that slowly became neater as I obsessed over each wire location and orientation. While the omission was likely intentional, (as no bracket can fit all vehicles tested) one slight oversight by Racepak was the exclusion of a bracket to affix the wheel speed sensor to such that it sits a scant few millimeters from the revolving magnetic collar on the axle.
Lastly came the nerve wracking part for me—installing the phone holder. Of all the pieces involved in the Racepak system, the ‘leap of faith’ involved in putting my personal phone on a kart going around a track was something that took some courage on my part. Fortunately, with a few washers as spacers, the main clamping bolt for the holder fit neatly into the steering wheel area that would normally be used to affix the display unit for a MyChron 5 or Alfano system. Upon closer inspection, it was clear that the team at Racepak understood the leap of faith I was taking in putting my cell phone on a vehicle capable of hurtling around corners at 3 G’s: the bracket was milled and machined carefully, with a robust clamping system to hold the phone at a certain angle and position on the wheel. Once installed, I did take the extra step to tighten the clamping bolts with a pair of vise grips (not the most graceful thing to do), as the small handles on the bolts did not provide enough leverage for me to be assured they wouldn’t move.
Static System Installation
Once installed, it was time to become familiar with the Vantage CL1. To truly test the system, I wanted to approach the process in stages. First and foremost I wanted to establish that the system could recognize my phone at a race track. After all, it is one thing for a system like Racepak’s to work on a tradeshow floor where the internet and product experts are plentiful, and quite another to function at the track! Next, I hoped to gain some insight into how intuitive the system was to follow from a driver’s perspective. Finally, I wanted to move into the most advanced and challenging portion of testing: looking at the data critically from a professional coaches’ perspective. Would this be a system I could actually use in real life?
For an initial test, I headed down to Unser Karting & Events, Centennial. By following the instructions, I was able to muddle through pairing the device with my phone’s Racepak D3 App, the onboard data logger display interface that is powered by a Bluetooth connection. Through some trial and error, I was eventually able to pair my phone with the logger, albeit after some significant back-and-forth between turning on my phone’s Bluetooth sensor and the D3 Application.
Racepak’s system manual recommends testing on a static kart prior to driving in earnest. So, I elected to run my kart on the stand, to see what the Racepak system did on its own. Within seconds of firing the engine, the D3 App came alive, switching from static telemetry to real time data display. As the kart was simply running and not in motion, all that currently was displayed was the GPS pairing, wheel speed, and RPM. Still, I was pleased by this development, as it was my first opportunity to see the application’s recording and display screen. While not the most aesthetically pleasing, the display is certainly informative. Once on track, it illustrates current speed, lap times of the session, and a ‘time trend’ feature that I was looking forward to testing further. Done for the day due to weather and time, it was decided that the formal driving portion of testing would be conducted at another track the following weekend.
The venue for the on-track testing was IMI Motorsports Park, a sprawling and rural track north east of the Denver-Metro area. As this track is high-speed with a considerable amount of elevation change and rental kart traffic, I hoped it would serve as a solid first place to truly test the device, and really see the data the Vantage CL1 could collect. Prior to the test I took the time to charge the system, reset my account through the D3 App, and become more familiar with the phone/device pairing process, which was still temperamental at times.
Once at the track and ready to test, it did take a bit of time pairing my phone to the logger. Just like before at Centennial, the pairing process took a couple tries, and wasn’t a consistent success. Once paired, it was of course time to drop the kart to the ground, and hit the track! As I began to roll through the pit area, the D3 App display responded to my movement, switching to live telemetry once a speed in excess of 10 mph was achieved. The display immediately began to count up the lap time value, cycling continuously until the end of the very first complete driven lap. To my surprise, the lap time for the first complete lap appeared nearly instantly, before I entered turn 1 for the 2nd lap. This naturally surprised me! Similar systems such as the MyChron 5 utilize pre-loaded track configurations, which can take some time to define a start finish line, even requiring input after the first session is completed. Many GPS-equipped systems can ‘learn’ the track, but not nearly as fast as this unit did. How on earth did the system already know where the start-finish line was?! This development still remains a mystery, and I hope to learn more about the thought behind how this was achieved.
As I ran a handful of additional laps for the initial test, the application continued to function perfectly, with each lap time recorded quickly and intuitively in a manner similar to any modern data logger. On the straights, it was easy to follow the mile-per-hour indicator, RPM read out, and see how the lap time was trending compared to other laps. Despite the rapid movement of the wheel, the connection between the phone display and the main logger appeared to be continuous and uninterrupted, which was something I was curious to see in action. The phone mount was similarly sturdy, and despite the un-refined powerband of the Briggs 206 the phone didn’t appear to shake abnormally as a consequence of the mount
Like the MyChron system, the CL1 has an optional display feature that displays the ‘trending’ lap time as you drive around the track. This in particular is a super useful feature for drivers to ‘self-coach’ themselves on areas of a circuit that they find difficult. Steering through a corner and seeing the lap time trend becoming worse allows the driver to recall and analyze the line or pace held through a corner. If the trend decreases, logically improvement must be attempted. If it is improved, then a certain technique works better than previous. This makes these systems quite empowering to an educated driver in real-time, rather than just leaving analysis to a post-session debrief.
Several miles away, as I was running on track, my friend was able to record a few screenshots through her D3 application. Like me, she was signed into a ‘team account,’ which allows anyone with that account to view the data in real time. So, just like me, she was able to view my driving line as I rounded the track in near-real time (albeit from an office seat, rather than the driver’s seat). With notifications enabled on a cell phone, any activity as a kart begins to head towards the track triggers an alert telling team members of the pending session. This is a useful feature for driver coaches or tuners in particular, as many are often busy with multiple teams or karts.
Upon completing a handful of laps, I pulled off the track to see what the application would display upon session completion. As expected, a list of laps was displayed, noting the best lap time turned first. This display lasted for a few moments, before the application returned to the main pit screen. The first test was now officially a success! Data was immediately uploaded to the cloud for access by a variety of team members. However, the test wasn’t without some issues. In particular, my phone’s battery had dropped significantly (from roughly 60% battery to barely 18%) over the course of only a handful of laps! While not wholly surprising due to the age of my phone, it was disappointing to see just how much energy was consumed by maintaining the Bluetooth connection and also uploading data to a cloud depository in real-time.
Over the course of the rest of the track day, I tested the CL1 an additional handful of sessions. Each time, establishing a connection prior to going out on the track took some perseverance but eventually worked. Once on track, each session was accurately logged with resultant lap times and data uploaded properly to the cloud and team access point. As I became more familiar with the logger I learned how to view it out of the corner of my eye as I drove around the track, which in turn helped me refine areas of weakness in my driving. In particular, this habit became noticeable whenever I had already entered a ‘throw-away lap’ if viewed just from the sidelines with traditional lap timing. With the trend function still active, I found I could attack the portions of the track without traffic even on laps where the ultimate lap time was terrible, and learn from those laps.
By the end of the testing day, the logger had performed flawlessly several times, and I had logged a handful of data sessions with multiple laps in each session. At one point, my phone did turn off while on track due to massive battery drainage. Despite this set back, the application itself had more than proven itself a worthy competitor from the driver’s seat to any modern data logger currently on the market!
From a coaching perspective, analyzing data in real-time through the CL1 while a driver is on track was by far the most appealing opportunity that differed from existing products. From the screenshots shown here, one can see just how neat the live trending features look on the D3 application display. Each trace flows continuously and in a fluid manner, displaying data in a way that allows a coach to follow a driver around on a lap with hard data attached to it. However, this development isn’t without its challenges. In particular, splitting between observing a kart and driver on track versus looking at the data means that both tools for observational intake are used at a percentage of their potential. This splits the attention of a driver coach, which may work well for some, depending on their ability and coaching style.
While intuitive and compelling to follow the logging of data in real-time, post-session analysis in the D3 application for RacePak was at times a bit of a struggle. As someone particularly familiar with the Race Studio suite of analysis applications, I found it at times slightly confusing which data traces I was truly looking at after a driving session. Furthermore, the lack of a basic ability to represent multiple laps on the same graph with different colors denoting the traces was limiting my ability to analyze the differences in each lap. Often, I would have to zoom quite far into a trace to see something that I could likely see much easier if some contrast was present. More than any other flaw in the Cl1 application as it stands now, I believe that RacePak can and must change this feature.
Like other GPS-enabled data analysis tools, Racepak does allow for viewing of recorded driving lines around the track for each lap logged. Unlike Mychron or OCD, however, Racepak integrates the satellite map of a track in both real-time view and post-session view. When you compare this to the tedious process of downloading and converting files to .KML and merging with Google Earth other programs utilize for their approach, it is a clear win for the CL1 unit. The ability to rotate, zoom, and pan the track map further reinforces how cutting-edge and interactive this feature feels to the user. In particular, I was seriously impressed by the gradation and resolution achieved on data traces that showed the engine RPM trace as it rounded the track. For an engine like the Briggs 206 used in this test, rev-limited moments at the end of straightaways were represented in a beautifully simplistic oscillation of acceleration and deceleration, with a color map of ‘red-blue-red-blue’ for several yards along the straightaway. If I were ever a doubter that the rev-limiter being hit in a 206 was a detriment to lap time, the CL1 seems to have confirmed this fact emphatically.
The more I panned through the data from a full day of track testing with the CL1 unit, the more I realized how much progress had been made with the interface over time, and also how much potential was left in the Racepak system for further improvement. On a positive note, it was very clear that all the data was available at any given moment. However, several of the interface modules within the D3 application made it tricky to truly analyze the data, let alone show it to a driver that has little experience looking at data prior to examining the CL1’s outputs.
After spending additional time becoming more familiar with the desktop and mobile versions of the D3 data analysis platform, I came to the conclusion that serious driver analysis was certainly possible through the Racepak Vantage Cl1, albeit with considerable effort. In a race day setting, considerable effort means lost time that could be spent debriefing with the driver. It means less time working on the kart. As a result, the Cl1 is a technology-loaded product with tremendous promise, that will need some additional time to develop a user experience and ease-of-use that is as forward thinking as the technology that is the core of the system.
If the Racepak Vantage line of products represents the future of data analysis in motorsport, then I hope to arrive at that future as soon as possible! While in their infancy, the reality is that “Formula 1 level” analysis tools have arrived at the “grass roots” level of motorsport with the arrival of products like the CL1. It is truly an astounding experience to watch in real time a lap unfold in front of you through the mobile application.
When the driver and kart are performing well, utilizing the real-time analysis features of the CL1 is to data what witnessing a live performance of a symphony orchestra is to music. To a coach, the elements of harmony can be seen in real time, which ads an element of beauty to what has traditionally been a retroactive process—playing the video and data again and again to replay what has already happened, just like looping a favorite song many times to listen to the various elements present. With the Cl1, the performance is live, and you are a witness in the moment. There really is no other experience quite like it currently in motorsport at this price point.
Despite this impressive performance, the reality is that the future of data analysis still needs some work. Ironically, this work lies in focusing on lessons of the present and indeed the past. In particular, matching the impressive capabilities of the Vantage CL1 with a rapid and intuitive user interface to conduct proper, hardcore data analysis will be necessary for Racepak to truly go blow-for-blow with the data giants of today.
By the Numbers: The Karter Rates the Racepak Vantage CL1
Design and Durability: 9.5/10
The Racepak Cl1 from the initial opening of the box to sending it back to the testing team never faltered, and never demonstrated a moment of poor reliability or build quality. All components were immaculately machined and manufactured, with proper and solid connections formed between electronic units. The only thing I would recommend changing is adding a slightly thicker cable to the GPS unit, as it struck me as extremely fragile and small considering the stresses the unit would be subjected to.
Innovative Approach: 10/10
Utilizing a cell phone’s innate abilities and hardware in a motorsports application is not entirely new, but to commit to it so fully is indeed not only bold, but admirable! The fact that I had enough trust in this system to place my personal phone on a mount on my kart for multiple track sessions speaks volumes for how much the system makes you believe the technology is worth setting aside previous assumptions of the risk you are subjecting fragile technology to.
Practical Usability: 7.5/10
With a seamless installation process, excellent user manual, and fantastic amenities and durability of the physical and software pieces of the Racepak Cl1, it is hard to find fault with the system. However, find fault I did. In particular, the demands placed on a cell phone, vibrating at a considerable frequency and rate, all the while being required to maintain a Bluetooth connection and simultaneously stream data output at a rapid, rapid rate to external storage made cell phone battery life a major issue. Furthermore, the connecting process was not always seamless to accomplish. However, once connected, I absolutely loved the display and telemetry delivered both in real time and post session.
Market Potential: 8/10
While I am indeed quite taken and impressed by the Racepak Cl1, the reality is that there are many ‘tried and true’ products on the market today within karting that have been around for decades. While it is indeed true that racers love innovation and spending their money on the ‘next big thing,’ it is also true that racers demand instant results and a quick transition between investments at a level and severity of expectation that is rarely seen among consumer sectors. In short, the likelihood of drivers to rapidly adopt the CL1 is just as probably as those same drivers abandoning the system if it is truly not a ‘wholesale’ change from what they are already familiar with.
Racepak has put a lot of money where their mouth is. The Vantage Cl1 is not a play thing, and will never be considered as such. However, challenges to remain for Team Racepak as they endeavor to bring the CL1 to market and to karting. With the intense development already conducted, and the potential for even more in the future, the prospects of success for Racepak in the near future to further improve the data system is extremely promising. As drivers and teams become more and more ‘tech friendly,’ the Vantage Cl1 is positioned solidly to engage the next wave of racers.