This Saturday night, when the IndyCar teams review all of the weekend’s data to determine final setups and strategies for Sunday’s season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, they will all be using the handiwork of Mill Valley’s Dave McEntee to make your final decisions.
For decades, teams have used all sorts of sensors to see what a car on the limit is doing when going through corners, such as steering wheel position, cornering forces, throttle position, lateral loads on each wheel and downforce numbers at different points along the body. But when you put them all together, what you see on the computer monitor are wavy lines on a graph with subtle differences between turns when one overlaps another.
What McEntee’s company, Infinity Video Systems, now offers, however, is an accurate way to view footage of the car over a segment of its best lap. In this way, the trajectory of a car’s track position, its precise racing line, can be compared to the collected data to see why that small advantage was gained when comparing one lap to another.
The net product is like the “ghost car” image you may have seen during NASCAR qualifying sessions on TV. Those are simulations though, whereas Infinity Video Systems’ automated cameras and RaceTrace software overlay the actual footage of two cars where they appear to intersect depending on who is going faster at that exact moment relative to the previous time sensor in the clue. itself. Circuits can have up to 16 sensors embedded in the tarmac to monitor sector times, and these provide the basis for RaceTrace comparisons.
In addition, IVS will also provide a competitor’s best lap footage for overlaying as part of its unlimited subscription service. And with five drivers still alive in the battle for the NTT Data IndyCar Astor Cup championship, teams will use McEntee’s broadcasts to watch the competition. They can also see how their cars change over the life of a tire and which lines can minimize those traction losses.
Three Team Penske drivers are among the five vying for the title. 2014 champion Will Power has 523 points, while his teammate Josef Newgarden and six-time series champion Scott Dixon are just 20 points behind. Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Marcus Ericsson, winner of this year’s Indy 500, is a further 19 points behind. The winner of the last race at the Portland road course, Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, is two points further back in fifth place for the season.
Points are paid as follows: winner gets 50 points, second gets 40, third pays 35, fourth gets 32, then it’s 30, 28, 26 to last place paying 5 points. There are two bonus points for leading the most laps, one for leading a lap and one for qualifying on pole.
You can bet plenty of eyes in the hot pits will be on RaceTrace clips of Power, Newgarden and Dixon throughout the weekend.
Fortunately, McEntee and his employees don’t have to analyze everything to find the fastest laps for each car.
“Our software runs to find the best sector times for each car for the session,” McEntee said from his Mill Valley office. “That’s the workflow that’s automated. But the teams know that with this system we catch all the cars every lap. Then the teams will write to us with requests. We don’t know why they’re asking, but they know they can apply and we can deliver that.”
This weekend there will be two IVS cameras. One will be placed in an unused television camera box recording from the entrance to Turn 2, the Andretti hairpin, through the exit of that corner to the right-hand turn 3 entry curve.
The images collected will show how effectively the cars compare under hard braking, the different racing lines used in the corner and where and how efficiently power is reduced on exit.
The second camera will show the lines through Turn 9, Rainey Corner, to the entrance of Turn 10.
The automation of these cameras is key to determining how sharp the overlay images can be. Pan and zoom movements are performed identically for each passing car, whereas with human intervention the timing would not be precise.
McEntee’s entire adult life has been focused on racing. As a racing driver, he became an instructor at the Jim Russell School of Racing Drivers at Sonoma Raceway, then known as Sears Point. That led him to become a driving coach, often working with professional drivers looking to hone their craft. He then began to use videos to supplement his analysis.
He and his team then connected with NASCAR in 2008, providing footage to Cup teams after practice and qualifying. The service expanded to IndyCar in 2014. But it still wasn’t its own product.
“Basically, we were a service provider using someone else’s software,” McEntee said. But then they reinvented the software approach to improve the capabilities of their product and RaceTrace was born.
“We started developing this in 2018 as part of our work at NASCAR,” McEntee said. “In 2019 we made it work and reached a maximum of 20 employees. Then we got a big hit in 2020 when everything ground to a halt in March due to the pandemic.
“NASCAR was one of the first racing series to get back up and running, but when they did, they didn’t practice or qualify. They just showed up, took out the cars and ran,” added McEntee.
“That was a problem for us because most of our product was doing screening comparisons during practice and qualifying,” McEntee said. “I had to let a lot of people go. There was no way around it. It was terrible. We have been slowly clawing our way back. It was key to our survival that we had it up and running before the pandemic.”
And now RaceTrace is used by nearly every team in NASCAR and the entire field in IndyCar. Importantly, the IndyCar series itself uses RaceTrace comparison clips in its social media campaign to promote the series. That way, fans can get a glimpse of what makes small differences in performance where a tenth of a second in lap time lost during qualifying can mean starting on the seventh row rather than getting a shot at pole position.
McEntee has a key ally within the IndyCar family who has helped emphasize the value of Dave’s unique service: former IndyCar driver and current NBC broadcaster and analyst James Hinchcliffe.
“He’s a great advocate and we really needed him because the network television establishment hasn’t had a place for this, they don’t know where to fit it in,” McEntee said of Hinchcliffe’s influence. “His attitude from him, from what I’ve heard, is basically, ‘No, we have to deal with this. Find out where’. That is, of course, what we have wanted for a long time.”
But there is more to come from IVS.
“We have risen from the ashes of 2020. The good thing about what we are doing is that it scales quite well. Also, now we can run the system remotely, which is really valuable,” said McEntee. “That will allow us to expand into NASCAR’s short tracks. Where we’re heading now is at the series level. It could be a regional series like the Southwest Tour, a series in the southeast called the CARS Tour. The plan is to work with race tracks essentially all over the world that want to have this camera system installed and can sell it in one track rental day.”
Track owners can present the RaceTrace capability as a value-added package for local race series or track rental clubs. McEntee is even looking to make the service available for autocross competition. Drivers can see what the fastest drivers did in their successful races.
McEntee is enjoying the peak of his creation’s expansion and the stress comes with the territory. Long ago he built the optimal stress relief valve himself: a state-of-the-art racing simulator. He even used part of a Hyashi single-seater chassis that he used to drive as an instructor, including the racing seat and pedal assembly. That way, he could even use his poured foam seat to precisely cradle him while he saws through the steering wheel.
“That has been my one indulgence throughout the course of this,” McEntee said with glee. “I spared no expense on the (simulator) setup I have here. I did it. I have a cool handbrake for when you want to do Rallycross stuff. I get paid to watch other people drive race cars, and every now and then I need some of that for myself.”