When digital technology took over the mobile phone industry, the change from analog was rather quick. Because service providers would not be offering analog service anymore, analog phones — anyone remember the bag phone? — went away. Once digital was in place, analog went the way of “Hammer pants.”
Digital offers the same benefits in racing radio communications, but its adoption has been much slower until recently. Because prices have been dropping in recent years, bit by bit, racers have been adopting digital technology. We caught up with Shawn Sampson, owner of Sampson Racing Communications to get up to date on the technology.
For racers, nearly every conversation starts with price, and digital racing radios have come down in price, so much so that you can buy a digital system for around $800, which was the cost of an analog system three years ago. Sampson said digital now outsells analog three to one.
“Now, those aren’t Motorola radios, but they’re good quality radios. They’re the same ones I was using with Troy Lindstrom’s truck team last two years,” Sampson said. “We were using those because I wanted to make sure that the quality was good enough. They’re TIDs out of China, but the quality is good.”
If you want Motorola units, that system will cost $999. Of course, racers spend money on what makes the car go faster, but radios don’t do that. Or do they?
You can determine that for yourself, but here are the advantages digital has over analog. One, communication between driver and crew chief is much clearer and travels over much greater distances. For example, analog radios don’t get very far at a track like Road America. If your crew chief is standing Start/Finish along the pit wall, odds are good he can’t speak with or hear the driver on most of the track, and when the car is in range, the transmissions are likely to be filled with static. Check out the YouTube link in the resources box at the end of this story.
Two, your conversations are private. There’s no bleed-over between frequencies, which can happen when other teams use poor-quality radios. There’s no need for scrambling a radio signal because unless you give the frequency to someone, no one can listen in. Scanners don’t pick up digital signals, which is why NASCAR drivers still use analog, so fans and officials can listen in.
Three, digital gets rid of many of the problems associated with analog radios. Yes, the system still needs to be installed properly. That means no coiling of the coaxial antenna cable and trying to put some distance between your radio cables and those of ignition systems and other electronics, but digital systems solve a lot of problems.
For example, the three- and four-rotor racecars in Mazda’s Heritage Collection produce a ton of radio interference, or RF. Because of their coil setups, multiple sparks per revolution, the RF is intrusive to analog signals, not to mention the explosive wail of a three-rotor engine.
“(Mazda) came to me and said, ‘Shawn, we’ve worked with the analogs for years and they’re just not up to speed. Can we try the digitals?’” Sampson said. “So, we put digitals in them and it’s done. No more communication issues. Full communication around the racetrack.”
Because analog has dominated for years, there are lots of racecars out there with analog systems installed. What will it take to convert those cars to digital? Well, less than you might think.
If you have an IMSA-style system — identifiable by the three black rings on the main helmet plug — conversion is, well, easy. You need two new digital radios, of course, the jumper cable that screws into the side of the radio and connects to the in-car harness, and the coiled cord from radio to headset for the crew chief. That’s it. You don’t need to rewire the car or get a new antenna cabling.
So, does a radio make the car go faster? In and of itself, not likely, but missed communications between spotter and driver can lead to missed opportunities, and that can determine which podium step you stand on when the race is over. Clear communication can minimize mistakes, and that is faster.
“Even now, I giggle because I can remember when it was just terrible communication, but now it’s just spot-on,” Sampson said. “It makes a big difference. It’s a long ways from the bag phone.”