Computers visualize airflow in Nascar drafting

Chicago (IL) – Computer scientists at the University of Washington have developed software that is incorporated in new technology allowing television audiences to instantaneously see how air flows around speeding cars. The “DraftTrack” application debuted in late July during the Brickyard 400 race in Indianapolis, where the effects were during an ESPN broadcast.


According to Zoran Popović, an associate professor in the UW’s department of computer science and engineering, DraftTrack calculates air flow over the cars and then displays it as colors trailing behind the car. Green, blue, yellow and red correspond to different speeds and directions for air flow when two or more cars approach one another while driving at speeds upward of 200 miles per hour. On TV, the visualization provides clues how drivers are using drafting to build up speed or save gas.

While the TV application as developed and implemented by a company called Sportvision, Popović and two students wrote the original code. The researchers said that their application is special as it can simulate and display complex airflow systems very quickly. To make the simulation work in real time and be interactive, “you kind of need to rethink the math problem,” Popović said. “The method that ended up being used is drastically different from what people have done before.” He explained that the new algorithm first simulates all the ways that objects can behave. Then it runs the simulation for a reduced number of physically possible parameters. This allows the model to run a million times faster than before, he said.

According to Popović, Sportvision approached the researchers back in March to use the software for Nascar applications. He also mentioned that he believes that the results of his research will make their way in video games – or training applications, for example for firefighters, in which smoke and fire is simulated.  

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