12 June, 2015

Disaster (Rhythm of Racing, Part 5)

(Note: this post follows "Break. Fix. Repeat." in the Rhythm of Racing series.)

This is the flag that you never want to see at a race track. The other colors are, by and large, to be expected. Green flag when the race is underway. Yellow for localized incidents or disabled vehicles (spins, stalls, lost wheels, etc.). Striped red/yellow for debris on the racetrack (parts, dirt, oil, etc.). Blue with yellow cross when faster traffic is approaching.

There are more, but the flags are all about keeping the race going. About letting drivers know about forthcoming track situations and conditions so that the cars can continue circulating. Letting individual drivers know that they need to come in for a penalty. And so on.

The red flag means "stop on track immediately." Something happened which is more important than the continuation of the race.

The Calm

Near as I could tell, there was nothing special about the Sector Purple Racing #71 car. The morning of the race, the team went through their morning routine just like any other team.
Once on track, the car was running fairly well. According to the final scoring sheet, the RJ Racing #23 Miata, which finished first among the Miatas in the race, turned 587 laps in 24.5 hours, for ~23.9 laps per hour. For the 9 hours that it was on track, the #71 averaged ~23.3 laps per hour; slower, but pretty much on-pace.

Somewhere after the 9-hour mark, when the sun had already set, the #71 ran out of fuel, and subsequently lost its lights. It came to a stop on-track, toward the right side of the track, in the middle of the back stretch between turns 13 and 14.

I talked to a member of the Sector Purple Racing team, who recounted what he heard over the radio. "Where are the flashers? Never mind, I found them." About thirty seconds later, the team-member estimated, the #55 Mazda 6 Diesel would hit the #71 at full race speed.

The Storm

After I saw the red flag, nobody around me seemed to know what had happened. I followed the emergency lights, and this is what the scene looked like when I arrived. By this point, the driver of the #71 was already out of the car and in some other emergency vehicle.

Immediately after I took this photo, one of the emergency personnel asked me (and some other photographers) to stop taking pictures of the scene. I watched for awhile, and then moved to take pictures of a different part of the cleanup.
This appears to be where the #55 car came to a rest, about 200-300 feet down the track from where the #71 had stopped against a barrier. The #55 itself had been moved before I showed up.

Prior to the collision, the #55 was closing on a slower car while coming down toward the back straight, where the #71 was stopped. The driver attempted to pass the slow vehicle on the right and then struck the #71. A member of the Mazda Dealers race team would later share that, "We all watched the video. He moves along, then he goes right and suddenly there's this white thing. Everybody flinched. Even though you know what's coming, you still flinch."


While continuing to talk to people about the collision, I heard the unmistakeable sound of an approaching helicopter. Police had blocked off the entrance to the racetrack and turned the area into an ad-hoc landing zone.

I was initially surprised about the helicopter evacuation, since I had initially heard that the driver was conscious and able to walk after the incident. I heard later that the driver was in and out of consciousness while in EMT care, and that he had complained of neck pain, which would explain the increased urgency of the situation.
A paramedic leans on the now-empty gurney after the driver was loaded into the medevac helicopter.
The helicopter hovers above the Thunderhill entrance for a moment before setting a course for Enloe Medical Center, in Chico, CA. A post on the Sector Purple Racing Facebook page noted that the driver had suffered a collapsed lung and a concussion, and was scheduled to spend 1-2 days in the hospital for observation.


I found this story particularly interesting to consider, because it simultaneously demonstrates how dangerous motorsports can be, but also how safe motorsports has become. I've been unable to get a status update on the #71 driver, but judging by the Facebook post, he wasn't doing too badly. And I asked a person on the #55 team how their driver was doing, and got the response that "oh, he's fine. He'll definitely feel it in the morning, but he's fine."
But that's how it goes. Risk is an inherent part of motorsports. You do what you can to lower the risk to a manageable level, and then you manage it. Sometimes disaster strikes, but with luck, everyone makes it out and the entire community learns what it can from the situation in order to continue managing that risk.

And then you get back out there and race some more.

04 May, 2015

Break. Fix. Repeat. (Rhythm of Racing, Part 4)

(Note: this post follows "Stop and Go, Mostly Go" in the Rhythm of Racing series.)

First, it breaks…

The last post discussed the idea of a clean race, where everything goes perfectly, nothing breaks, the car never goes off track, and so on. That mostly doesn't happen. What's more likely is that you'll be racing along, and then suddenly you see a cloud of steam as the temperature gauge shoots for the moon. Time to pull off-track and wait for a tow.
Maybe you're in the groove heading toward turn 8, when BANG! Suddenly you have a see-through engine. The giant puff of smoke makes it seem like a magic trick, sometimes, but the punchline is always sad. And if you don't have a spare, then that's how the story ends. First with a bang, and then a whimper.
Sometimes your wheel comes off. Maybe a bump or jostle earlier in the race had a delayed effect. Maybe the driver went off-track, the wheel got sucked into a mud puddle, and the rest of the car kept going. Maybe the part was poorly-designed, or had a manufacturing defect. Whatever the reason, it's not fun, but it's generally fixable.

First it breaks, then ya fix it…

I love endurance races in part because the teams have time to encounter problems, fix them, and get back on their way. Things can go wrong and then go right in the same race, and there's always some light at the end of the tunnel.

In this case, the Prototype Development Group #4 car (the same one that was rebuilt after bursting into flames during the prior year's race) ran into a situation where an errant bolt caused the unexpected disassembly of their clutch plate. In the photo, the team examines the deconstructed clutch, as well as a damaged spare, which showed evidence of the same kind of problem.

In the spirit of endurance racing, the team threw the spare in, crossed their fingers, and hoped for the best.
The Twini — a twin-engine Mini Cooper — had a recurring issue where oil would get past some gaskets and end up in the spark plug wells of the front engine. In the photo, a team-member uses a hammer and an upside-down socket to re-install one of the spark plug wells after another a teammate had coated the bottom end in silicone gasket-maker. This wasn't the last time the team would pore over one of their engines, and they would end the race many laps down on their competitors, but still managed to roll across the finish.
The #17 Davidson Racing Eagle, sister car of the winning #16, had no such luck. After multiple paddock stops for recurring electrical issues, and hours of discussions and diagnostics, the team retired the car and focused their efforts on the #16.

…Then ya get back out there

Every team has a routine for getting back on track, and they're also interesting to watch. The switch from the exploratory "diagnostics and repair" mode to the "get back on track" process is somewhat similar to a musician transitioning from an improvised solo back to the sheet music.

At first, the teams are improvising left and right as they try to fix whatever needs fixing. Then you start to see inklings of pre-planned order, even before the resolution is complete. The driver gets back in the car (if they ever got out); the engine starts; the car is dropped back on the ground. Strewn tools are moved to make a path. A crew member stands next to any removed bodywork, waiting for a signal.

With an engine problem, the bodywork is always last. For the JFC Racing #52 car in the photograph, the bodywork pieces attach with small spring-clips, which are fastened into place with a screwdriver, and the reattachment itself is a frequently-rehearsed procedure. The more automatic each step in the transition becomes, the easier it is to move that step around in the resolution process.
For a street-style car with a hinged hood, like this Grip Racing #95 BMW 330i, the hood closes and then is fastened using hood pins (red) with a flip-up actuator lever (black, attached to the hood).
As the final bodywork is still being installed, a team member runs out to block traffic. Having the driver back into something or someone would be a disaster, and the faster they can get out of the paddock space, the faster they can get back on track.
And finally, away! The resolution is complete.

02 March, 2015

MITSFS: Unity by Reorganization

Two years after a similar undertaking in 2013, the MIT Science Fiction Society (MITSFS) closed over a weekend in January to perform another phase of reorganization. The overarching goal was to make books easier to find in the library. The group attempted to accomplish this by moving shelving units to improve consistency and continuity, and by packing the already-shelved books more densely, so as to make space for books that couldn't yet fit in the library's main location at W20-473.

In the photo, Cathy Zhang '09 (left), the person who organized and oversaw both this and the 2013 reorganization projects, prepares to pass books to Benjamin J. Kaduk G, as they reshelve items which had been pulled by D.W. Rowlands G and James M. Penna '15 (not pictured). Zhang estimated that MITSFS now circulates around 46,000 books, not including a total of around 4,000 reserve books which can be read in the library.
Kaduk disassembles a bookshelf that was no longer needed. After the 2013 reorganization the library was left with a multi-aisle jump in the middle of the paperback section — comics, magazines, references, and paperback anthologies filled the gap. Because of the differing heights of the paperbacks and the other items, the shelves needed to be completely emptied so that they could be physically moved and/or reconfigured to reunite the paperback section. That process was among the work that transpired over the weekend.
The reorganization allowed MITSFS to shelve some of the hardcover books which had been sitting in boxes until space could be made. Here, (left to right) Yelena Tsitkin '06, Jennifer Chung '02, D.W. Rowlands G, and Laura A. McKnight '15 work together to add custom-sized protective covers to the dust-covers of those books before they are shelved. Chung explained of the covers, "it's why library books look shiny!"
As part of the effort to defragment the paperback section, James K. Hobin '16 re-shelves an armful of books which were pulled by Jade Wang G (not pictured). As Hobin and Wang finished, the defragmentation of the paperback section was mostly complete.
Monday evening found the reopened MITSFS library in this state. The now-contiguous paperback section extends off to the right, and the taller-spaced shelves of comics, magazines, and references occupy the area to the left. Over 300 books were added to the circulating collection, split between the shelves in the adjoining room — home of the hardcovers and large paperbacks — and the "to be shelved" shelf elsewhere in the library. Slightly over 100 books went back into boxes, perhaps to circulate another day.

Note: A redacted version of this essay appeared on page 7 of the January 14, 2015 issue of MIT's student newspaper, The Tech. The prior reorganization was covered in MITSFS Reorganization Touches 40K Books, which appeared on page 6 of the January 16, 2013 issue.

20 February, 2015

Stop and Go, Mostly Go (Rhythm of Racing, Part 3)

(Note: this post follows "On-Track Prep" in the Rhythm of Racing series.)

What happens after the green flag flies is a series of balancing acts. When all's said and done, performance is judged by the vehicle positions as the checkered flag waves, 25 hours after the start. In between, you have to pace yourself.

If you drive too slowly, your competitors catch and pass you, and you lose the ability to place competitively at the end of the race. But if you drive too quickly, you increase the risk of mistakes and collisions, you increase fuel consumption (requiring earlier and more frequent pit stops), and you increase tire and brake wear (both of which cause slower lap times, and also require earlier and more frequent pit stops).

So the challenge is to strike a dynamic balance — a strategy that takes into account the state of the race at any point in time — and to find a way to be ahead of your competitors at the finish line.
An ideal race (a "clean" race) has two states: racing and pit stops. Ideally, you avoid all contact (either hitting other vehicles or being hit), the drivers make no mistakes, every pit stop runs perfectly with no mistakes, and the car itself is fast and perfectly reliable.

Of course, that ideal is mostly a fairytale, and particularly so during overnight endurance races. Driver fatigue and crew fatigue lead to mistakes of all varieties and of all levels of severity. Spill fuel on the track during a pit stop? That's an unplanned stop for a penalty. Driver is distracted and misses the braking point? Maybe the car ends up off-track with damaged bodywork. Everything running fine, but your alternator kicks the bucket? Even the Mazda diesels can't run overnight without lights.
So the name of the game is to manage those risks, which is another balancing act. Pit stops need to be well-choreographed. Functions need to be slightly redundant. Each individual needs to have responsibilities, but if they have too many responsibilities — if their head is in too many places at once — that's a recipe for mistakes. People end up needing to check each others' work, because it's a lot easier for one person to make an error, especially when they've been on the grind for 12 hours already, than it is for another person to overlook that same error.
And the most common form of redundancy is the checklist. Run through it in order, add a checkmark when any task is done, and erase after the car is back on track.

Did the driver complain about a funky vibration that's not bad enough to take an unplanned stop? Add it to the checklist. Shift knob getting loose? Checklist. Motorsports can include a whole host of unexpected distractions (such as if a friend's car is involved in a serious incident), and those kinds of surprises can cause you to overlook an "obvious" issue that you were supposed to check. Checklists don't forget.
Okay, so you've made it through the night. You met the brilliant red tones of a Thunderhill dawn and you're still on track, still turning laps, still in the race. The overnight stretch is particularly dangerous because of reduced visibility, and the early morning is equally dangerous, when the sun hangs low above the horizon, shining directly into the drivers' eyes at points around the track. 2014 was the second year running that a car has raced full-speed into a stopped vehicle under cover of darkness.

But you made it. Well done. I have to imagine that surviving the night and seeing the sun shine again is an amazing feeling. But there's still a long way to go. You and your co-drivers haven't gotten much sleep, and it's still a good four hours until the checker. Anything can happen.
…and you've got to be prepared for when it does. Put yourself in this situation. Twenty-four grueling hours down, just one hour to go. You're running second place overall in the race, and you've got a 10+-lap lead on third place. That was the situation when the #00 Award Motorsports / Ehret Family Winery car came in for a routine pit stop, which would be their last of the race. Fuel, tires, driver swap, and then the checkered flag.

But surprises can happen even when it feels like you're out of danger. When it feels like you've already beaten the beast. During the pit stop, a piece of worn-off rubber caught fire under the car (probably after falling onto the hot brake rotor). At the precise moment when the fire was slowly starting to build, the final driver was still stopped, adjusting his rear-view mirror, and completely unaware that anything was amiss.

At this point, remember: brake fluid is flammable. Oil is flammable. Gasoline is (obviously) flammable. Heated rubbers (such as the seals and gaskets in the brake caliper and suspension components) are flammable. Though unlikely, there was the potential for the fire to become a big deal. And any kinds of leaks, after 24 hours of hard racing, would increase the likelihood of the fire continuing to grow. At under 2 minutes per lap, it only takes a 20-minute delay for the third-place team to make up that 10 lap difference and pass you.

But that's not how this one ends. The crew was on the ball, and moments after I spotted the burning piece of rubber, a crew member grabbed a nearby extinguisher and doused the wheel. The team would go on to take the second step on the podium.