Is More Data Always Better?

Saturday’s race in Richmond was a festival of miscues.  Carl Edwards mistakenly thought he was leading, then he jumped the restart, although he wasn’t the one to lead the restart because he wasn’t the leader.  One would think we have the data that could prevent incidents like this.  We probably do.  But do we want to use it?

NASCAR Timing and Scoring

A transponder is a device that translates one type of signal into another.  For example, the track position of the cars is measured using induction from loops of wire embedded in the track and translated into an electrical signal that is passed along to timing and scoring.

Like computers, timing and scoring systems merely report exactly what they are asked to report.  The official timing and scoring system works on the basis of ‘scoring loops’ – which are literally loops of wire embedded in the track.  The number of loops in the track depends on the track.  There are more loops at longer tracks and fewer at shorter.  The loops are in the main part of the track and embedded in Pit Road (which is how they catch speeders). The two faint lines running along the track at right (from top to bottom of the photo) are a scoring loop in Pit Road at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

When a caution flag appears, everything goes back to the situation at the last scoring loop passed.  Even if car A passes car B, if it happened in-between scoring loops and a caution comes out, car B is still the leader.  Television replay is used in the last laps of the race.  Timing and scoring has a discrete number of measurements around the track.

There are, of course, more measurements available.  Television shows you much more frequently updated data from a different system.  How many times have you watched the tracker on television (or Pit Command) and seen the lead switch back and forth during caution as the drivers sped up and slowed down while scrubbing tires?

If Car A passes Car B, that information is updated immediately on the television system.  The official scoring loop system is updated only after a scoring loop is passed.  This is why there was so much confusion Saturday night.  With a penalty on the 48 team, the 99 team thought they were the leader – as reflected by the scoring pylon and, it seems, the officials on the spotter’s stand.  See Bob Pockrass’s story for a detailed explanation.

We Have the Technology: Why Don’t We Use It?

I received a lot of comments to the effect of “NASCAR has more detailed data – we know that because we see it on television and RaceView/Pit Command.  Why don’t they use it?” Two comments.

1.  The official timing and scoring is based on the track scoring loops.  Television replays are used at the end of the race, but the rest of the data you see on television is informational.  It is not the data of record.

2.  I interviewed some people from SportVision (the company that provides the television with the information you see) earlier this year in the context of whether it was possible for teams to intercept data.  Their tech people repeatedly made the point that they acquire such a huge amount of data that analyzing it in real time in any reliable detail is not feasible at present.  They transmit a subset of that data directly to the television, but I was under the impression that the data you’re getting from Race View may not give you results  accurate enough to base race calls on during a race.

This raises a much larger question:  Do you want a sport where technology contradicts what the audience thinks they saw?  It sure looked at thought Carl Edwards obviously accelerated way before the starting box – but we know that human perception is not objective and not always accurate.  Your perception was affected to a large extent by the fact that Stewart spun his tires and didn’t accelerate.

NASCAR is data intensive like few other sports.  NFL fans don’t need to know how fast two players were going when they collide – they just need to see that player B stopped player A.  Being a data geek, I want to get my hands on all the data I can; however, given the numerical literacy level of the country (A huge number of people can’t understand even basic charts and graphs), basing a sport more and more on technology is dangerous.  Technology can enhance your enjoyment of a game – like seeing the speed at which a fastball hurtles across home plate – but I don’t think most people want to have to follow the numbers that closely just to understand what is going on.



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