Race car driver uses stats software to predict outcomes

For a race car driver, shaving a tenth of a second off his lap time could make the difference between winning and losing a race. And for one rookie driver, statistical software is helping shave tenths off his lap times, while saving potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in testing costs.

It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off for Daniel Herrington, who’s only been racing professionally for two years with AIM Autosport of Woodbridge, Ont. Since using statistical software at the beginning of this year’s race season in the Star Mazda Championship Series, however, he’s placed first in Houston, second in Sebring and set a track record and ran the fastest single lap time in Mid-Ohio in May.

Dr. David Herrington, a physician by trade and owner of DMH Racing, was looking for ways to help his son, Daniel, gain a performance advantage in the highly competitive racing world. “We operate in a world where reducing the lap time by a tenth of a second is a big deal,” he said. “Every tiny advantage we can find is very helpful.”

Part of the challenge is getting race teams and engineers – who aren’t always inclined to think statistically – to go through the cultural change necessary to accept statistical software.

“I do a lot of medical research and a great deal of what I do is analyze data,” he said. “As we became more involved in racing, it became increasingly clear to me that there were some novel ways to use some of the same techniques I use analyzing medical data to analyze data from the race track.”

Through a friend, he found out about JMP statistical discovery software from SAS Institute, which he is using to optimize the way Daniel’s car is set up and predict possible outcomes in various circumstances.

“We’ve been encouraged because very early on it became clear that we really could describe and predict results from the race car based on data we collected and analyzed,” he said. The software helps predict how changes to the car might affect performance on a given track with a given driver. It also helps the team optimize the settings of the car to be as fast as possible – which translates to quicker lap times.

“We will frequently take the car to a track and try one set-up and see how the car performs and we’ll do that multiple times to identify the best set-up possible,” he said. “The software actually gives us some guidance about how to do that in the most efficient way possible.”

Getting this information with less time and effort on the track means huge savings – literally hundreds of thousands of dollars over a racing season, he added.

“There are maybe 30 or so parameters on the car you can adjust,” said driver Daniel Herrington, who spoke to ITbusiness.ca from Salt Lake City, where he’s preparing for a race this weekend. “You’ve got a big spread of different possibilities in terms of setting up the car.” He has a number of upcoming races over the summer, including one in Toronto this September.

“We’ve really just started using it and already we’ve seen lower lap times by a couple tenths (of a second), which is a lot more than I thought we could do in that short amount of time,” he said. “I think it does give us an edge because it tells you what has the biggest effect on lap time.” So far, data is being collected on Daniel’s car, but he points out that driver style will affect the results.

“We feel this gives us a competitive advantage so we’re not tremendously anxious for every other team to start doing what we’re doing, but I think moving forward there is great opportunity here,” said Dr. Herrington. “(Daniel) hasn’t been racing all that long, which is perhaps a bit of a testimony to the value of the software.” He said he hopes the data from the statistical software will help attract sponsors for the second half of the season.

For most businesses today, success depends on the capacity to make the most efficient use of their data, he said, and it’s the same in the racing industry. “We’re using data to give us a very small competitive advantage in a highly competitive domain of activity.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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