Image courtesy of Chevrolet.
In the high stakes world of auto racing, every second counts so whatever a team can do to improve its performance, both on and off the track, is put into play. For the highly successful Corvette Racing team, which competes in endurance races that last 24 hours to the finish, it’s secret weapon is reliable two-way communication between its drivers and crew.
Up against top cars from BMW, Ferrari and Porsche, the team races Corvettes as part of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series in the U.S. and the FIA World Endurance Championship in Europe. Each racing season they enter about 12 events in the U.S. and 2 more endurance races overseas (in Spa in Belgium, in April and 24-hours of Le Mans, France in August) and have consistently won. In fact, the Corvette Racing team is one of the most successful teams in the sport, winning the IMSA championship four of the past five years.
This success has not come easy, but keeping everyone on the same page and in constant communication during a race via Clear-Com intercom and active noise cancelling headset technology from Bose has made a huge difference. Matthew Cummings, Electronics Engineer for Corvette Racing—who has helped design and build the racecars for endurance races that can last from 100 minutes to 24 hours (using three to six drivers)— said it’s the details like choosing the right headset on pit row that make the difference.
“If the driver doesn’t hear you clearly or understand what you are saying, and vice versa, it’s make or break,” he said. “It literally will lose you a race. Being able to communicate with the crew is also critical. If we need to run soft tire for a few laps, we have to tell that to the pit crew so they can get ready for the next pit stop. If they can’t hear you and the wrong tires get put on the car, that’s going to easily cost you a second per lap.”
For every race they run, the Corvette Racing team uses the Bose SoundComm B40 headset with built-in microphone in the pit area. They have 15 1-RU hardwired intercom panels as well as—when available—Bluetooth connectivity. This includes 15 headsets and an additional ten Clear-Com beltpacks. On their designated frequency the team connects the drivers with the crew chief, car engineers (like Cummings) and management. All work in harmony to keep the drivers informed and running fast. During a 24-hour race like Le Mans, drivers change every few hours. Two or more drivers will be sitting in with the team listening in to what’s happening on the track.
Everyone else is on a Kenwood portable RF radio system. Cummings said the Bose headsets plug in seamlessly to the Clear-Com system, making different configurations easy to set up. The dual-earcup headsets have 4-pin XLRF connectors for both binaural or monaural audio environments. They also use repeaters in an onsite truck for times when signal interference from other race teams is strong. These repeaters extend the signals for better reception. In addition to the on-site truck, they sometimes place a repeater on a scissor-lift in the middle of the track oval.
“There’s 60 other cars at the track, so there’s a lot of interference at all times,” Cummings said. “We run digital Kenwood equipment as far as talking to the car and it is all done through the Bose headsets.”
Image courtesy of Chevrolet.
They coordinate certain frequencies with the race series management prior to each race to avoid interference. The team also has contingency plans in place to use a direct channel and not the repeaters if there’s too much interference—moving from a duplex signal to a simplex signal. In addition, each radio has backup channels at the ready if they need to move to a new frequency during a race.
The team first used the SoundComm B40s at the Rolex 24 at Daytona 24-hour professional sports car racing event in January (they finished first!) and Cummings said “it was one of the best technology choices we’ve ever made. People were so happy about it. Passive noise cancellation works pretty good for many things but it’s clearly not as good as the active technology Bose uses in the B40s.”
Active acoustic noise cancellation technology monitors the noise environment and creates an opposite signal to cancel noise instant by instant. This reduces background noise in loud environments, enabling improved communication and intelligibility.
“When you turn on the active noise cancellation, it takes all of the high pitches of the engines driving by and allows us to hear the drivers really well,” he said. “It’s not absolute silence. If someone walks up to you and wants to have a conversation, they can but these headsets are a pleasure to wear and they keep us focused on the race.”
The headset also incorporates Active Equalization circuitry that helps shape and equalize incoming audio signals for clear, intelligible intercom audio.
The microphone on the B40 is also “Environmentally Aware,” meaning it picks up and filters out distant noise. The goal is that it’s not going to pick up all of the far field noise, it’s picking up what’s close to you while preventing all of the distant noise from getting in the way of the main communication channel.
“You have to have the mic close to your mouth in order for it to work most effectively, but we’re wearing masks [due to pandemic protocols] with the mic under it, so that’s not an issue,” he said.
Another headset benefit, says Cummings, is its light weight and comfortable over-ear cups, which make a huge difference when you are tasked with wearing a headset for up to 24 hours. A proprietary Bose design creates an acoustic seal to maximize audio performance and noise reduction without sacrificing comfort. Its design is made to stand up to the rigors of race day use, including in extreme temperature and moisture. Cummings said he can speak to the later personally, as he once unexpectedly had coffee spilled on his head from an above platform while wearing them and they continued to work flawlessly.
“These headsets are built to the same standards that are required by the National Football League, where coaches get Gatorade dumped on them, and they keep working so we knew these would be suitable for our needs,” he said. “I can attest that they stand up to the punishment we put them through.”
And battery life on the B40 is “exceptional,” Cummings said, with the headset’s Communication Bypass feature enabling intercom communication to continue—via electric power—when batteries are depleted. While Bose claims that the headset battery can last up to 48 hours with a dual-earcup headset (using alkaline batteries), he’s used them for the 24-hour Daytona race and never had to change a battery.
So, can a high-quality headset actually make a difference in a sports car’s racing results? Cummings thinks so.
“They help you win a race by being able to clearly communicate with your driver,” he said. “During a race communication between the engineers and the drivers is so important to ensure things go down correctly. We are constantly updating drivers on fuel consumption and other things that keep the car in top performance. For example, saving fuel is a big deal and often gives you another lap. That makes a difference.”
When even the slightest overlooked detail can mean disaster for a professional race team, listening to its crew and providing them with the best tools ensures success. For Corvette Racing, keeping the lines of communication open is an important part of its winning strategy.
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We move on to looking at developments in noise cancelling technology and the role it can play in achieving clarity and comfort within headsets for intercom use.