‘It’s still a race car:’ No. 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac racing team talks hybrid technology in sports car racing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When you’re talking about safety in sports car racing, safety starts with the cars themselves, which have changed over the years with development in technology.

One of the top teams in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series right now is the number 31 Whelen Engineering Cadillac team. They finished second at the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway, but lead the Michelin Endurance Cup standings heading into the IMSA Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring next month.

They’ve also won six overall titles in the last nine years, so Trooper Steve went to chat with the Director of Race Operations Chris Mitchum to find out how they’re using new technology on the track safely.

#31 on the track (Copyright 2024 by WKMG ClickOrlando – All rights reserved.)

STEVE: So over the time I’ve been here, my main focus has been safety of racing. So my specialty is traffic safety. And I thought, ‘Why not dive into some serious equipment, fast cars and professional drivers, and see what kind of level that steps are going into making sure that everything is done as safe as it can be done?’

CHRIS: One thing that you’ll find interesting is how close racing is now to the real world. The reason all these top level manufacturers from Cadillac, and Porsche and BMW and Lamborghini all want to be in the series is the learnings they’re getting out of the hybrid system. That’s correlating directly to the real world. Now, all of our knowledge, when we started with the hybrid technology last year, came from a street car base, because in the US, we weren’t racing hybrids. So we took a lot of safety information, similar to what your background would be, and understanding how to deal with different types of fires, how to deal with runaway electricity, and really a whole lot of training for us to understand how to work with a battery.

STEVE: What was like the biggest chance transition for you guys, when you’re electrifying a car in your garage that you’re not used to being around?

CHRIS: It’s process and procedure. We have a number of checks and balances that we go through. So something as simple as an isolation check, we do on a daily basis, the car is constantly monitored. So there’s a lot more procedure involved, it’s not as simple as well, it’s been 10 years since you could walk up to a race car and just start it. Always laptops involved. But now, meters and other things are involved in verifying the system is doing what it can do. Once you know that closed loop is in place, it really truly becomes a race car like we’re used to. But we have many more systems. But there’s also some systems that are gone, we have no starter alternator on the car anymore, because it’s an MGU, a motor generator unit that shoots that power out to the wheels. So it’s instant on power, you’re not waiting for the starter to catch, the car is either running or it’s not.

STEVE: That’s got to be pretty impressive. I’m just thinking about the feel of that in the car.

CHRIS: One of the coolest things that you see with all these cars, I think our car in particular, makes the best noise. When it launches out of the pit box at the end of a pitstop, it’s dead quiet, all you hear is the wheels, tires turning until it gets to speed. And then that big, beautiful V8 fires off. And it’s a real full blown race car. So it’s still a visceral experience. It’s still a race car. But we get all that hybrid performance, to be able to add to it, you’re talking just under 700 horsepower capability with the engine and the hybrid combined. Now with all that performance, yes, there’s a layer of safety. We have remote safety stations that are around, we have everything from what you would expect when you’re dealing with high voltage. We have defibrillators, we have the ability to push someone away from a car if we need to. We have all the special kit to where to touch an electrified vehicle if we need to, to protect our own mechanics. But really all that is is another layer of procedure. And one thing in racing, you do the same thing over and over again and you just try to find a better way to do it. So really, it was how do you implement procedures. So now we’re one year into this class, and it really has become a pretty natural process where we feel comfortable. We’re certainly comfortable being around fans and close them. So they get that same visceral experience they’ve always had, but we’re able to use technology that has real world implications.

#31 car between sessions (Copyright 2024 by WKMG ClickOrlando – All rights reserved.)

STEVE: So we got a very active garage going on here. What’s going on?

CHRIS: Now we’re in between sessions. So this is the time when the mechanics take all the setup information off the car, as it ran, they give it to the engineers, it’s kind of like waiting for your homework to get graded. The engineers come back with changes.

STEVE: So it’s getting downloaded.

CHRIS: Now we’re past the download, and they’re putting all the setup in to run the next session. So what will happen here shortly, they’re gonna fire the car off, make sure everything works, they run through the gears like you always would. And then our hybrid system lights, green lights on the front of the car when it’s safe to touch. Now, after about 15 minutes, when the car is powered off, while we’re waiting for the session to start, that those lights will actually go out because the power tune goes away. So we actually have a very simple straightforward system, we use these green hats, it’s placed on the car so that it’s known what the last reading was off the car. So we got to power the car up again, those lights will light back, right. But with no light without something as simple as this, the average person coming up, say there’s a crew member that’s been off at lunch and he comes back, he wouldn’t know if the car is safe. So it’s how we communicate. When those lights go out. We go to something as simple as this little green hat.

Green hat indicating car is safe to work on (Copyright 2024 by WKMG ClickOrlando – All rights reserved.)

STEVE: So I’m going to ask you the heavy question. If the car was still charged, and someone touched that car, what happens?

CHRIS: So if the car well, charged is one thing, if the car breaks isolation, where it can come out of that loop, that is a very serious risk. That’s where the red lights would be on in the car, someone would take a shot. There’s procedures within the team, not just anybody walks up to these cars anymore. But these little visual clues and what the car does itself, we’ve been very fortunate and haven’t seen any of those issues, not for an entire year of racing so far.

STEVE: I think when you’re in a sport like this, the factors and elements are there for harm. And it’s pretty awesome to see that you guys acknowledge that, you accept it and you do everything you can to prevent any issues.

CHRIS: I think it’s like much like your background, once you understand what the risks really are, and in racing, I’ve been doing it my entire life. The things that you see over time, you learn, you have more respect, and you approach things differently. And I think that’s all it takes is a healthy dose of respect for what we’re doing. And then we’re still able to put on the show we always want to.

Copyright 2024 by WKMG ClickOrlando – All rights reserved.

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