Rich grayscale_1

Love those street racers!

Oct. 15, 2003
Grass-roots instrumentation and control expertise is alive, well, and burning rubber, according to CONTROL Senior Technical Editor Rich Merritt.
 By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor


our next instrument or control engineER might today be a high school kid who is driving a funny looking car with neon lights underneath, a four-inch coffee can exhaust, and some of the most advanced sensing and control technology this side of an Indy car.

Those of you who grew up with muscle cars from the '70s and '80s, such as GTOs, Corvettes, and Mustangs, come from an era when cubic inches ruled. Engines such as the Chevrolet 454 and the Ford 427 side oiler made tremendous horsepower because they were so big. To make a car with a lot of cubic inches go really fast, all it took was rectangular dollars and a parts catalog from Jeggs or Edelbrock. Back then, it was easy to bolt on power.

Today's engines make huge horsepower through technology. The four-cylinder, 2.0 L engine in an Eagle Talon or Mitsubishi Eclipse (a favorite of street racers), for example, is easily capable of 400 streetable horsepower. Six-cylinder, 3.0 L engines in 3000GTs and Supras can make over 500 hp. All-out race engines of the same ilk make hundreds more.

"When I hear America's youth discussing thermocouples, pressure sensors, and data acquisition systems, I think there is hope for our profession after all."

It's all done with turbochargers, sensors, and advanced control technology. Like a compressor that runs more efficiently the closer you can get to the surge line, a turbocharged engine runs best on the hairy edge of disaster, at maximum boost, and tuned to run as lean as possible without burning the pistons or breaking ring lands. That requires exquisite sensing and control technology, the likes of which you would expect from engineers at Porsche, BMW, and Ferrari... or from process control engineers at Dow, Monsanto, and Exxon.

"When I hear America's youth discussing thermocouples, pressure sensors, and data acquisition systems, I think there is hope for our profession after all." You don't just buy horsepower out of a catalog these days. You must be very, very careful to balance boost, air flow, fuel flow, and knock. It's a classic multivariable control problem, and young kids understand the dynamics of it all. While you saved your money to buy a set of Hedmann headers for your 327, today's kids might save money to buy a wide-band oxygen sensor for their Honda. Street racers at the forefront of sensing and control technology are -- more often than you would expect -- the youth of America. Kids, aged 18-25, some with engineering degrees but most without, are capable of building street racing cars that can run with the best, most advanced, ultra-expensive vehicles coming out of Germany, Japan, and Italy. A young friend of mine, a mere 20 years old, recently pulled 610 hp at the wheels from a four-cylinder, 2.0 L Eclipse. That's 300-plus horsepower per liter! My 10-year-old 3000GT enjoys some of this street racer technology. We've gotten it over 400 hp so far, and are considering taking it up to 500 or so. As it is now, it often shames rich doctors in new BMW M3s, Porsche 911s, and Corvette Z06s at road course events. When I hear America's youth discussing thermocouples, pressure sensors, and data acquisition systems, I think there is hope for our profession after all. Discussions with these kids often involve how to apply wide-band oxygen sensors, tap into the output of a knock sensor, build multi-pin cables to plug into the cars computer, obtain real-time data for logging and data acquisition, read a turbocharger output map, tune gain and reset in an air-fuel controller, and so on.Want to relate to a high school kid? Ask him, "What's a good EGT (exhaust gas temperature) sensor?" Be prepared for a lecture on thermocouples vs. RTDs, sensor survival at high temps, and response time problems. Some of these kids with the backward baseball caps know more than you do about automotive sensors and controls. In most cases, however, they dont know diddly about what we do in process control. They don't realize that they could use their knowledge of sensors and controls in an actual career. Maybe we should tell them, because the street racers of America would make excellent control and instrumentation engineers, operators, and technicians. Some of what process control professionals do is taught in school, and some of it is picked up on the job, but you can't teach a person to love it. Street racers are using control and instrumentation tools, technology, and advanced tuning techniques to make their cars go very, very fast because they love it. If we could convince high school kids that process control is a pretty sweet profession, maybe we could lure more of them into our industry. Imagine what a street racer might do with the control system for a distillation column: You'd have the fastest trays in six states!

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