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.

05 February, 2015

Restroom Retrospective

My X-T1 stays by my side in most situations, which means that it's accompanied me into a fair number of restrooms. While the vast majority of those visits were unexceptional, there were a few sights and situations that caught my eye, and I pulled out my camera to capture them.
In the bathroom of a small Japanese restaurant in San Francisco, I encountered some sort of incense-producing device. It would turn on and off at regular intervals. I really liked how the stream of smoke was backlit by a lighted box which I found very reminiscent of a vintage radio.
This was in a deli somewhere around the Nut Tree Parkway, during a road trip from the Bay Area to Reno, Nevada for this year's National Pole Vault Summit.
Another Japanese restaurant; this time in San Mateo, while I was visiting with my friend Karena. Big Bunny is watching you.
I'm not positive, but I believe this was the bathroom of a Whole Foods Market, somewhere in San Francisco.
And finally, some wall art in the bathroom of my friend Matt's race shop.