If Ever There Was a Hot Topic, It's TRACTION CONTROL

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Sidebar Article by Warren Johnson

Taking a Stand on Traction Control

Let's face it, anytime a racer is successful and seemingly runs away from the pack, people think he must be cheating. This attitude is not only unfair, but can also be pretty dangerous, especially when combined with the pressure and adrenaline of later rounds.

When it comes to the issue of cheating, possibly one of the hottest topics in racing today is traction control. Since engineers first found that by sensing wheel speed, as they do with anti-lock brake systems , they could write software to control wheel spin. Traction control has been an option, and often standard, on most foreign and domestic production cars.

MSD's 7531 Programmable Plus ignition box has the capabilit y of plotting an engine rpm ramp speed. This is the box that the sanctioning bodies have taken a stand against.

These units work essentially by way of a sensor mounted on each wheel to measure excess spin. When the on-board computer senses it, the brake is applied on that wheel only. Some units will also retard ignition timing to reduce engine power, but the principles are the same.

When a drag racing car spin s its tires during the course of a run, the driver could control it manually by pull on the brake slightly to try to slow down the tire, or lift off the throttle. However, the driver has to: a) feel the spin; and b) react quick ly enough to try to control it. There are drivers who are very good in doing just that, but with the increased speeds at which today's cars run, it's easy to see how tough the task really is. With an electronic device, on the other hand, excess wheel speed can be measured and controlled much more quickly, efficiently, and predictably .

MSD's 7531 Programmable Plus ignition box, for example , can actually plot a ramp speed that the engine rpm rises against. It's this box that the sanctioning bodies (NHRA and IHRA) have taken a stand against. If engine rpm's exceed that speed, the engine will be electronically limited very much like a rev limiter, whereby random cylinders are killed in order to take some power out.

The programmable boxes have an internal data logging system. This allows the racer to download his ignition file to be viewed as a graph, allowing a number of variables to be tuned . NHRA has also been downloading runs from certain Pro cars in order to get a handle on what is actually supposed to take place during a run.

Yes, this does make the car run slower , but because it allow s the car to get down the track without spinning, it can thereby transform a wasted run into a salvageable one. There is no way that a driver can even react as fast as a computer can. Although, Joe Pando of MSD Ignitions says, “With a fuel car traveling at upwards of 450 feet per second, I don't even think the computer can react that fast.”

Because of this clear advantage offered by the system , the sanctioning bodies take a rather hard stance when it comes to the use of traction control. NHRA's Rulebook states, “….no vehicles may be equipped with computers that in any way affect the operation of the vehicle.” Certainly new cars with OEM computers may compete, but any aftermarket one is strictly prohibited. Under the heading of “ Brakes ” , the Rulebook goes on to say, “Application and release of brakes must be a direct function of the driver; electronics, pneumatics, or any other device may in no way affect or assist brake operation.” While the book doesn't necessarily mention traction control, you can bet it's fairly well understood and implied.

Of course, there are places where traction control is legal. Formula 1 racing is one arena that has tried valiantly to outlaw it before finally throwing in the towel and deeming it legal. (Read more about their efforts in NHRA/POWERade Pro Stock racer, Warren Johnson's sidebar) One circle track engine builder noted to us that while traction control is illegal there also, it's his belief that it's still being used.

These two devices make up the basis for a traction control system that was reverse engineered from an anti-lock brake system (ABS). The brake disc on the left has a reluctor ring that is read by a sensor to plot wheel speed. The ABS unit on the right, mounted in conjunction with the brake master cylinder, receives information from the car's on-board computer to apply or release a wheel's brakes during lock up or wheel spin conditions.

In an effort to enforce this rule , throughout 2003, it was NHRA's policy to download the ignition file from Pro class cars for further review. This allowed them to view the file afterward and determine if anything funny was going on. If it were, the competitor was brought back for further review. Pando says, "To my knowledge, no one has ever been caught using traction control of any nature.” Pando went on to say, “It's more of a political issue than anything else. And there is a certain amount of finger-pointing going on when it comes to traction control.”

This screen shot of MSD's computer software shows just some of the things that can be monitored and programmed. The major benefit of it is the ability to change the ignition timing of an individual cylinder.

Ignition companies receive the bulk of the complaints, questions, and even accusations that they produce these prohibited devices. However, Pando insists, “We have never produced a traction control device, and as long as it remains illegal, we never will. In fact, we've been working with tracks and sanctioning bodies to identify and/or control these devices.” MSD engineers actually designed a Traction Control Detection (TCD) system program right into their newest ignition, the programmable 7530T. The TCD constantly monitors all available signals of the ignition. If it determines that an internal or external device has modified any signal, it sets off a chain of events that starts by causing the engine rpm to drop to a default of 4,000.

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This new Graphic Editor will be a major benefit to fuel car teams. In the past, making ignition or clutch lock-up changes required the crew chief to carry several different timing chips in his pocket, to be changed just prior to a run. Now , with this box hooked up to the ignition control box, changes can be programmed very easily. It also has an integrated Traction Control Detection (TCD) , which will set off red flags everywhere in the event that the ignition system was modified illegally.

Mike Golding of Mallory Ignitions says, “During the development stages of any of our new products, we intentionally DO NOT build in any features that could be used or construed as a traction control device. This is far too sensitive of an area with all of the various motorsports sanctioning bodies for our company, and I'm sure others, to get involved with.”

Another feature of the MSD TCD designed to indicate the possibility of foul play involves a little red light on the side of the unit. If the TCD determines that the ignition signal was tampered with, the red light will flash. I t will continue flashing until it is powered on for over 24 continuous hours. This light alerts the tech inspector that the ignition signal was interrupted or modified , thereby giving them a reason to further inspect the vehicle. The sanctioning bodies will then use a specially designed device that they connect to the ignition for a little closer look at what took place during the run.



Does all of this technology work? Is it even worth all the effort to thwart something that has never been found anyway? As Pando put it, no one has been caught so far, and as long as no one does in the future, the technology will be accepted as a success.

NHRA and IHRA keep a close watch on every car in order to try to maintain a level playing field amongst all the competitors. Much like their ruling where fueling of the car must take place in the staging lanes, in front of their eyes, a watchful eye is also kept over other areas as well.



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