IRL: Oldsmobile trackside support story

FAST AID FOR FAST CARS Oldsmobile's Trackside Support Trailer is a First Aid Station for Engines Las Vegas; October 11, 1998 - The plain white trailer is easy to overlook among the rows of brightly painted transporters in the Pep Boys Indy ...


Oldsmobile's Trackside Support Trailer is a First Aid Station for Engines

Las Vegas; October 11, 1998 - The plain white trailer is easy to overlook among the rows of brightly painted transporters in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League paddock. The only identification on its glistening flanks is an "Aurora V8" emblem and a discrete Oldsmobile logo. In fact, this inconspicuous 18-wheeler is a "fast aid station" for IRL teams using Oldsmobile engines.

Staffed by GM Motorsports engineers, the Oldsmobile trailer is a rolling parts warehouse, a road-going diagnostic center, and a mobile laboratory. The rig is on the road throughout the season, providing technical support at every event and open test session on the IRL schedule. Over the course of a typical race weekend, a stream of engine builders, computer specialists, crew chiefs, and mechanics flows continuously through the door of the anonymous trailer.

The soft glow of computer screens illuminates its interior, producing an electronic atmosphere that resembles mission control for a rocket launch. The quiet hum of disk drives and the insistent ring of a cell phone punctuate serious discussions of fuel maps, spark curves, and engine calibrations.

The Oldsmobile trailer is a steel-and-aluminum example of GM's commitment to IRL teams. "At the beginning of the IRL Aurora V8 program, we recognized that providing a high level of service and technical support would give Oldsmobile a competitive advantage," recalls Joe Negri, IRL/road racing group manager. "It takes more than hardware to make an engine program successful."

The trailer's conference room is a quiet refuge where engine builders and engineers can talk candidly about problems, solutions, and future improvements. Informal discussions over cups of coffee have led to solid advances in engine reliability and performance, making this space as vital to the IRL Aurora V8's success as any dyno cell or machine shop.

"The independent builders are our partners in developing the IRL Aurora V8 engine," explains Dave Spitzer, GM Motorsports trackside support engineer. "They have been willing to share information with us and with each other to improve reliability. One of the fundamental reasons for the success of the program has been the cooperation and communication between GM Motorsports, the teams, the builders, and aftermarket suppliers. We have developed a system to distribute information rapidly among the builders. Naturally, they are less willing to talk about power gains - and we understand and respect their position because they are competing with each other for customers."

The rig carries an inventory of spare parts, occassionally including complete motors. With an abundance of Oldsmobile engines in the IRL garages, electronic concerns are more common than mechanical issues. Along with tools and wrenches, the Oldsmobile trailer is outfitted with a variety of ingenious equipment to evaluate the performance of electronic components - devices known simply as "The Simulator," "The Shaker," and "The Bomb."

"The Simulator" is an aluminum briefcase that bristles with dozens of dials, switches, LEDs, and terminals. "The Simulator tests the engine management system by recreating the signals from every sensor and input on the car," explains Ned Baker, GM Motorsports' resident electronics specialist. "The Simulator essentially 'tricks' the ECM by generating an rpm signal that is identical to a running engine, with temperature and pressure inputs from the fuel system, induction system, and cooling system. It can even recreate the input from the pit lane speed limiter. If a team suspects a problem in the ECM, we can check its response to these inputs and determine whether the cause is in the box, in a faulty sensor, or in the wiring harness. It's a valuable tool for diagnostics and verification of hardware.

"The Bomb is a fixture we use to test the ignition module and coils," Baker continues. "Eight spark plugs are installed in a pressurized chamber that recreates the conditions inside the cylinders of a running engine. The idea is to raise the pressure across the spark plug gap, which increases the voltage requirement and the load on the ignition system. We can test the ignition system at any simulated speed from idle to redline. Any weakness in the cables or filters will also increase radio frequency interference, so we can check for those problems as well.

"You could think of 'The Shaker' as a faster, more sophisticated version of the paint can shakers you see in hardware stores," Baker observes. "Intermittent electrical problems can be caused by faulty connections that only appear when the unit is vibrated. The Shaker moves the ECM in three axes at 600 cycles per second, which is similar to a race car running on the track. In the design laboratory we have shakers that are as big as this trailer, but this portable unit allows us to diagnose most intermittent problems at the track."

The "Scope" allows a mechanic to literally look inside an assembled engine by inserting a fiber optic probe through a spark plug hole. A high-intensity light source illuminates the cylinder while the mechanic inspects the cylinder wall and piston through an eyepiece. The bore scope's viewing lens can be rotated by remote control to provide a panoramic view of the engine's internal parts.

Taking care of the customer is an essential part of doing business. The anonymous white trailer with its payload of spare parts and specialized tools is one of the ways that Oldsmobile takes care of its customers - the teams and drivers who have won two consecutive Manufacturers Championships with the IRL Aurora V8 - in the arena of auto racing.

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Series IndyCar