Notes & Quotes: AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge at COTA
Tim Trowbridge is one of the data acquisition engineers on A.J. Foyt Racing. He is also an avid iRacer who enthusiastically embraced the iRacing INDYCAR Challenge Series currently entertaining fans in lieu of actual racing on track. This weekend the Series travels to the virtual Circuit of the Americas (COTA), which in the real world is outside of Austin, Texas. We wanted to tap into Tim’s expertise on iRacing, so we asked him a few questions…
Q: During a normal racing season, you serve as the Data Acquisition Engineer (DAG) on the No. 14 – what does that entail?
TT: “As a data acquisition engineer (DAG), I handle the data acquisition system and electronics of the Indy car, which includes all of the sensors on the car as well as the steering wheel. During an on-track session, I monitor all the electronic systems and troubleshoot any issues that arise. I also handle the fuel during practice sessions, which means I manage how much fuel is in the car during the session, communicate with the mechanics as to how much fuel needs to be added based on the race engineer's and driver's preferences, and calculate the fuel error throughout the weekend.”
Q: What are you doing in iRacing for the team and how has your real-life job helped? Who else on the team is involved besides the drivers?
TT: “To be honest, an easier question to answer is what I'm not doing with the team in iRacing! Joking aside, I've done many different jobs since this started. I've managed the "IT" front, sorting out all the different software packages (fuel management, timing and scoring, communication, etc.) and making sure all necessary team members had access to these. I've helped out PR and social media with taking in-game photos for both car paint schemes and social media posts. Most importantly, I've also been both on the box (crew chief/strategy) and on the tower (spotting) for TK in the 14 car for practice sessions and all of the races. The crew chief/strategist aspect is the most relatable to my real-life job, as one of the biggest challenges is managing the fuel load during the race.
“From the beginning of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge season, there have been a few people involved in the program (besides the drivers): Chris Wheeler, Darren Manning, Dwight Brown, Benito Santos and Marie Fornoro. Since then, we've had some additions to that list, including some of the other engineers.”
Q: How long have you been iRacing as a hobby and to what extent are you
TT: “I've been on iRacing since August of 2018. When I started using iRacing, dirt racing was still fairly new, so I used it to get my fix of racing for myself, as I wasn't able to run the local dirt track any longer after I started college and then started working in the IndyCar industry. Since then, I've become super involved in iRacing. I started running with a coworker (now out of the series) running in a 'throwback' Cup series league, and then agreed to start our own team, Imperial Motorsports. Since then, we've grown from two to nine drivers. We run in many different leagues (road, oval, and dirt) and at least one, if not two races a night when they're all in season! I've even come to manage our own social media presence on Facebook and Instagram.”
Q: What has it been like working with the drivers during this “virtual season?” What’s your biggest challenge?
TT: “Working with the drivers in this 'virtual season' has been both challenging and interesting! Obviously, all of the drivers are competitive, so trying to keep the drivers calm when something happens (software bug, crashes, etc.) has been a challenge. One of my biggest struggles has been dealing with all of the issues that we've had on the 14 car. As professional drivers, all of these guys tend to push the limit of whatever they drive, be it real or virtual, and we've definitely pushed the limits in the 14 car, as we've found many bugs since this season started! Luckily, the people over at iRacing have been able to solve most of the issues after the fact, so it's less likely to happen at the next race, but it's still frustrating to see the DNF on the final results. In the end, I'm always reminding everyone (including myself) that, even though it can be frustrating, in the end it's all about putting on a show the fans!”
Q: What has been the most fun part of the entire experience? Has anything surprised you?
TT: “The most fun part of the entire experience has been having the ability to run some laps with the AJ Foyt Racing drivers! It was fun in the beginning, as I was the most experienced guy in our team sessions, so I was able to run laps a tick faster than these guys (I have a few screenshots to prove it!). However, as you would expect, my advantage quickly disappeared as the drivers spent more time on the simulator.
“I've been surprised at how large the grids have grown! It was very exciting to be in the servers with some non-IndyCar regulars (Jimmie Johnson, Scott Speed, Dale Jr., Kyle Busch, etc.), while also watching how competitive these non-regulars can be."
Q: iRacing runs on both road courses and ovals – what are the main differences between the two driving styles?
TT: “Other than the obvious differences of turning only left versus turning left and right, road course and oval racing require a lot of adapting in iRacing. With the way that the IndyCar iRacing Challenge is set up, all of the competitors run the same vehicle setup. Given that each driver has a unique driving style, it's quite difficult to create one setup for all drivers to feel comfortable in. It seems to be more difficult for the road course races, as iRacing doesn't have a 'baseline' setup, as they do with the oval racing. Luckily, IndyCar and iRacing have been good about getting the fixed setups out to the drivers and teams pretty early on in the week, so the drivers are able to get plenty of practice to become comfortable with the race setup before the official race session.
“In the virtual race sessions, road course races are more about being able to consistently run clean, fast laps and playing out pit strategy to gain time whenever possible (pit sequences, traffic, local yellow flags, etc.). Oval races are more about staying out of trouble, managing track position, and managing your fuel and tires.”
Q: Both from a driver’s perspective and a strategist/team perspective – which do you prefer, road courses or ovals in iRacing?
TT: “From a driver's perspective, I prefer oval racing in iRacing. Growing up, I've always been more of a fan of ovals, and with the lack of G-forces in iRacing, I've always struggled to succeed in road course races in iRacing. Plus, oval racing tends to have the close quarters racing that is always great for the fans!"
“From a strategist/team perspective, I'm torn between oval and road courses. In terms of close, competitive racing, I'd lean towards ovals, but due to some of the limitations in iRacing (netcode), road course races tend to be safer and cleaner between all the cars.”
Q: We’re racing at COTA this week – the only track we’ve been able to test the new aeroscreen at in real life – have the drivers had a chance to practice virtually, too? If so, how does it compare (from your perspective in the engineering role)?
TT: “Each time I log into iRacing, I see the drivers online, so I would say they have definitely been turning some laps at the virtual COTA!
“From what I've gotten from the drivers, it's quite a bit different than the real track, but that's not too surprising! If I recall correctly, the last laser scan of COTA was in 2014, so I'd say the track is a bit different from when our drivers ran on it in February 2020. It's also a little difficult to compare the two, as noted by the drivers after most of the virtual races, as the way the car handles in iRacing is difficult to 'feel' without the natural forces you get while in the real racecar.”
Q: What are some things that viewers should watch for in this weekend’s
race at COTA?
TT: “It should be another exciting race at COTA, so for any viewers, I would recommend watching the first time everyone goes through T1 as a group! Always a tight place to go through by yourself, and now the whole grid will be there at the same time!
“Other than that, I'd recommend watching how the 'track limits' are enforced. As was mentioned in the iRacing Infographic or 'Cheat Sheet' (Cutting Course), the iRacing software manages the track limits, as opposed to Race Control, so I would watch out for competitors slowing down to serve the time penalty, while trying to minimize the track position loss.”
Q: Outside of iRacing, how have you been staying busy / safe during the quarantine?
TT: “Wait, there are options outside of iRacing? Kidding! In reality, I've been working on my cooking skills. I've learned through this experience that one cannot survive alone on mac 'n' cheese and hot dogs!”
Tony Kanaan, who was scheduled to run at only the oval tracks this season, will be in
the No. 14 Big Machine Hand Sanitizer Chevrolet at the virtual Circuit of the Americas. The 23-year INDYCAR veteran is a rookie in iRacing and has experienced more technical issues than most in this series which has caused him considerable frustration. However, he has not pitched a computer yet unlike his boss.
Tony Kanaan: “About COTA…we will be in Texas so the boss will be watching (laughs). Not really. I’m excited to be back there. I was actually there this year spectating when we had the Spring Training, so it will be nice to drive around the track. Let’s see what happens if we get a little better luck this time.”
Sebastien Bourdais, who was to drive the No. 14 in the first three races of the season before the pandemic altered those plans, has been piloting the No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet in iRacing as Charlie Kimball and wife Kathleen are keeping pretty busy with their newborn son and 18-month old daughter. Like Kanaan, Bourdais is a rookie iRacer.
Sebastien Bourdais: "COTA is a tough track with lots of hard braking zones, and with my limited skills on iRacing, I am struggling pretty good. I will do my best for the #4 AJ Foyt Racing Tresiba/Chevy crew and keep turning laps to up my game."
Dalton Kellett is currently 11th in the iRacing INDYCAR Challenge Series standings and has been the most consistent performer on the team.
Dalton Kellett: “When we were at COTA for Spring Training, we had rain and freezing temperatures. Thankfully, we can set the weather in iRacing and the conditions look great! It is a challenging track, almost more so without being able to feel the car under you. The combination of high and low speed sections is a great mix. With the long straights and a few hard brake zones, there are good passing opportunities, it should be an exciting race. This weekend would have been my IndyCar debut, so it is somewhat bittersweet, but I am thankful that my family and friends are all healthy and safe in these trying times. Looking forward to another fast and consistent run in the #41 K-Line Insulators USA Chevrolet.”
The AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge iRace will be broadcast live on NBCSN on April 25, Saturday afternoon starting at 2:30 p.m. ET.