Karen Roby talks with Chris Newsome of Hendrick Motorsports about how NASCAR has embraced digital transformation.
TechRepublic’s Karen Roby talked to Chris Newsome, director of infrastructure, IT, and facilities at Hendrick Motorsports, about the changes in NASCAR and the digital transformation that Hendrick has been through. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Chris Newsome: The technology of any sports you’re watching today–football, basketball, baseball–it doesn’t matter: Technology’s playing a big part, and it’s been a big part of, especially, the racing industry… our sport as technology totally drives what we do today. Starting back in the early 2000s, I know our sport was using pen and a pencil, a lot of paper and, not tablets, but notebooks and things like that. No technology involved whatsoever. Our digital transformation really started in the early 2000s, so we were the first team to do wireless connected with the racetrack, the first team to do satellite communications at the racetrack. It’s all about being on the leading edge of technology, rolling out laptops, just trying to make the crew chiefs and their engineers more productive back in those days.
SEE: Digital transformation road map (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
We’re going to fast forward because for our viewers that know this sport, there are a lot of changes constantly going on in NASCAR. Every year, our environment is just constantly growing, not only as employees but also technology growth. We’re going to fast forward up to 2015, where the sport started making some major changes. Yes, we’re still using the same technology, satellite communications, but for the first time in the history of the sport, they were letting us gather engine data off the race car. That just changed the whole format of how we had to handle this business. That means engineers at the track want to see this information in real-time. Obviously, we had to make a lot of changes from a technology standpoint to make that happen.
Then, we’re receiving data off the engine, so we had people back at corporate who want to see this data, also. So there’s more changes. There’s the major transformation on how we get this data back to corporate, and you got to remember, at this time, we’re dealing with small bandwidth and the use of satellite communications. But as that adjusted, over the years, we’re making it work because we’re Hendrick Motorsports, one of the top racing organizations in the world. Through all this time of change, we won five championships in a row. How many sports organizations can say that? I think we won seven championships out of 10, 11 years. It’s very successful. But major changes came about, and we worked a lot with NASCAR.
Not only were we receiving data off the engine, then NASCAR around 2017 said, “We’re going to open up the car.” What I mean by that is, we could gather data off this car from one end to the other. Now I’m exaggerating a little bit, but I mean everything from an in-car camera to any kind of data we could retrieve. We’re talking digital, we’re talking VBO [files], we’re talking pictures. Our data just doubled. Actually, it probably tripled. How are we going to communicate, and how are we going to transmit this data back to corporate? Not only that, the data for the individuals at the racetrack. Also during this time, NASCAR is making changes to us… the growth and the amount of people we take to the racetrack. There’s 100 plus people, and there’s a certain amount of people that’s allowed to, say, work on the car, they call it the crew.
Anybody that can lay hands on the car or make decisions on the car is part of that crew, and that includes my IT staff that we send to the track every single weekend. So as a part of these major changes of NASCAR, they started reducing that number of people. That means part of our major transformation is that we’ve got to share information. We’ve got to share this data. No matter where they’re at, we’ve got individuals in those four race teams, and there’s four separate rigs, what we call race haulers. There’s an RV they use as a mobile data center. So, no matter where we’re at, we are constantly sharing this information. Obviously, sharing this information means getting it back to corporate.
All of these individuals who used to be at the racetracks who… NASCAR, again made these changes. The engineers that used to be at the racetrack, now they’re back at corporate. “Hey, we won’t see this information. We’ve got to see this information.” At the same time of all these changes at the track, we’re making all these changes at Motorsports. In-house of Motorsports, we have all different types of technology where we’re gathering information. We’re constantly with 70 plus engineers on campus, they’re always looking at ways to make the cars run better, faster, setups. So not only are we sharing this information from the track back to corporate, and now we’re sharing this information from corporate back to the track. It’s just being online constantly. From a technology standpoint, we’re all about being at the leading edge of technology. This transformation that we’re going through caused us to make major changes as an organization.
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Karen Roby: Chris, you’ve definitely covered why it was necessary, why you guys needed to go through this digital transformation. Talk a little bit about the importance of some of the vendors that you’ve had to partner with, and how that has helped move things forward.
Chris Newsome: We cannot do this without our technology partners. Some of our key partners during this whole transformation were Microsoft and Ricoh. We started working with a division on Microsoft and hey, all this data we’ve got, Microsoft came on board. And then working with them and using Microsoft Azure cloud services, well that helped us right there to be able to move this data around and helped us roll out Windows 10, Office 365, along with artificial intelligence and machine learning. That was a great help to us. Plus, we rolled out Microsoft Teams. Microsoft Teams was big for us from a chat, meetings, calling, collaboration [standpoint]. We rolled out Microsoft Teams to some of our four teams, and had some of the engineers using it before we rolled it out to our organization.
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Karen Roby: It sounds like you guys have made some really great changes and have gone through a number of years here of big changes to respond to what’s been going on in the industry. I’m sure that you’re seeing much more efficiency as well.
Chris Newsome: Yes, we are, and with all the changes, we’re prepared. I mean, we planned for the 2020 season. We knew we were going to struggle a little bit in ’18 and ’19 to do all the changes we’re making, and young drivers, things like that. So we’re very excited for the 2020 season. Everything’s working great, working with our partners, the collaboration environment is awesome. So for 2020, we’re excited. We want to get back to where we have been in the past. Our goal every year, we come to work every day, 600 employees at this campus. We have one goal in mind, and that’s to win championships. I’m really looking forward to this year, and hopefully by the end of the 2020 race season, we will be celebrating a championship with our technology partners.