Track Tested: Easy Inexpensive Data Acquisition With Racepak Vantage

Like many of you out there, as I make modifications to my car or alter my driving style, I have to wonder whether I’m improving or if the changes I’m making have any impact at all. For that reason, I decided it’s time to look into a data acquisition system with data logging and OBD2 connectivity, as well as a lap timer for Autocross, Time Trials, and HPDE events.

I have some specific considerations I want this data acquisition system to meet. First off, this is a budget build, so I want to keep costs inline with the project. Second, I’m a rookie, so I don’t need an elaborate system which I would first have to learn to install and then learn how to interpret. In addition, I need a system that would be multi-functional in that it adapts to both race tracks and autocross courses.

I really wanted the data I was pulling to be usable for me as a rookie. I wanted to know where I was fast, where I was slow, and how I compared to other drivers in certain areas of the track. There are many excellent systems available from Racelogic, AiM, and MyChron, but in the end I decided on the Racepak Vantage CL1.

Why Racepak?

I always begin my research by checking out the company’s history. I was pleased to find that Racepak, and its parent company, Competition System Inc. (CSI), was started in 1985 by two racers: Spencer Eisenbarth and Ron Armstrong.

Both men are engineers with strong backgrounds in electrical and mechanical applications. It started when Armstrong, then piloting an Unlimited Hydroplane, required onboard data acquisition. Anyone who’s ever watched hydroplane racing can see what a punishing environment it is, so the challenge was to design a system that could stand up to the rigors of that type of racing. Racepak was born from racing — a brutal type of racing — so I’m confident its products are built to last.

There’s a lot of power packed in that little box! The Racepak Vantage CL1 aggregates your sensor data and sends it via Bluetooth to your phone.

Additionally, the company has maintained an upward trajectory as it has added products and expanded its reach outside of motorsports. CSI now has a large selection of recorder, loggers, software, gauges, and supporting equipment all based on capturing data whether it’s in road racing, karting, drag racing or OEM testing and industrial applications.

The Vantage CL1

Here is the lowdown on the Vantage CL1. It’s Racepak’s most basic system and it’s easy to install and operate. The genius of the system is the CL1 box collects the data, and then delivers it to your smartphone. The data is transferred via Bluetooth for viewing and analysis through the dedicated app. The Track Day/Autocross system includes the data box itself, engine RPM sensor cable, USB charging cable, USB charging cable adapter, OBD2 cable, GPS antenna, four rechargeable batteries, and rubber mounts. Sold separately are a sturdy RAM mount for your phone and a cup holder mount for the CL1 data box.

The CL1 has four external connectors, but using a Y-cable input it can be expanded to eight external sensors, which can be analog (travel, temps) or digital (RPM, wheel speed, engine, etc.). You can also input aftermarket EFI data using the optional CL1 EFI cable.

These are the major components of the Vantage CL1 Track Day/Autocross kit. Everything you need in one neat little package. Not shown are some of the smaller parts.

So, would the Vantage CL1 meet my needs? It was time to check off some boxes on my wish list. Racepak offers three different CL1 kits: Karting, Jr. Dragster, and Track Day/Autocross. I spoke with Tim Anderson in Racepak’s sales and marketing department to learn a little more about the CL1 and if it was right for my needs. My first question to Tim was, how is the CL1 different from other data acquisition systems?

“There are three things that set the CL1 apart: mobile technology, cloud data, and portability,” Tim says. “It really takes advantage of today’s mobile technology to make a robust package that is small, but still intuitive enough to give you meaningful data.”

Mobile technology, cloud data, and portability are what really make the CL1 a powerful little package. Everyone has a cell phone — all you need is an Android or iPhone. You can download the D3 app for free.

Advantages Of The Vantage

It’s true the Vantage CL1 is a data acquisition system, but it is not a data recorder, it is merely a data collection point for the sensor data, which is then transmitted to your smartphone via a Bluetooth connection. The smartphone app is the data recorder, although no phone sensors are used.

There were a few things that really caught my eye about the CL1 which make it different than your standard onboard data recorder/dash. Here are some of the reasons I decided on the CL1 for my data acquisition on CrossTime.

  • I’m sure like many folks, the first aspect was obviously the price point. I’m on a budget and just starting out in racing — I really don’t have the money for a full-blown data acquisition system with unlimited sensors, nor am I comfortable with setting up and utilizing such a sophisticated system. At $595 for the Track Day/Autocross kit, it wouldn’t set me back a couple of grand, just to find out I couldn’t use it.
  • The second advantage is the CL1 allows you to view real-time data on your smartphone. The Vantage CL1 uses your vehicle-mounted mobile phone as your “dash” through its D3 App. Gone are the days of having to download the data from a memory card or hooking up a laptop. You can look at, and analyze, the data as soon as your run is over.
  • Speaking of real-time, although I haven’t had a need to use it yet, live data can be streamed to any internet connected device anywhere in the world with an optional cloud account. If I had a radio and a crew chief, he or she could view the data on their phone or tablet while I was on the track and tell me what he is seeing about my lap times. It will actually send a notification to anyone with the D3 app who has your account information — for example, if you’re working with a driver coach, they can view your data in real time, and provide advice, all without having the expense of traveling to the race track.
  • Portability is a really great aspect of the CL1, especially if you are using OBD2 (for those with 2008 or newer cars, check out the new CL2, which is even more portable). Because it doesn’t have to be hard-wired into the car, you can easily move it from car-to-car. After you setup the account, you can add drivers, then all you need to do is move the box, antenna, and RPM (or OBD2) cable over to the other car. Later, you can overlay your runs with those of another driver and see where you are losing or gaining time. This is a great way to learn a new track. See an example later in the article.
  • The autocross function really drew me in. CrossTime is a dual-purpose car at the moment. I use it for road-course duty as well as autocross competitions. Most standard data acquisition systems don’t have the ability to log autocross runs as the courses are not run on a dedicated track.

Here is how Tim Anderson of Racepak described how it works: “Set in autocross mode, the data starts recording as soon as the unit is powered up,” Tim says. “As soon as the car hits 11 mph it backtracks in the data stream to determine where the car was last at rest (the starting line) then backs up a bit behind that point and starts saving the data. This allows it to capture the entire run and have a consistent ‘zero’ starting point in the data. The GPS is highly accurate within less than one meter. There is even a manual recording mode if you want to record data earlier. You could use this option, if say, you have an engine builder and want him to see data while the car is warming up.”

The screenshot on the left is the Settings screen where you can choose the type of racing you are doing. When you choose Autocross, the screen on the right is what you'll see. If you have an OBD2, there will be more data available. Right now, I have Engine Temp and RPM. Notice the battery gauge in the bottom right — the batteries last an extremely long time before you need to recharge them. I've run several events over a few months and I still have 72 percent left! Don't worry about having to charge it at the track.

Using The CL1 On The Project CrossTime Miata

I’ve been able to use the Racepak Vantage CL1 on Project CrossTime for several events now and I have to say I’m very pleased. Having that lap timer displayed in front of me in real-time along with the predictive lap times have been super helpful. Being able to compare my line versus other drivers has helped me achieve more consistent lap times. And while I’d really had wanted to utilize the OBD2 connection, as a pre-2008 vehicle, the Project CrossTime Miata couldn’t take advantage of that connection. Instead, engine RPMs are transmitted via an easy-to-install cable. I don’t think I gave up any kind of major functionality by not being able to connect through OBD2 and would encourage pre-2008 car owners to keep that in mind.

If you don’t have a way to get a square wave tach signal, you can purchase this RPM/Temp harness which has an inductive wire you can snap onto a spark plug wire as a last resort. Because I can’t pick up the water temp via OBD2, I am using it for the water temp sensor, which plugs into the yellow connector.

In the Sensors screen (Left), I defined Channel 1 to display the Engine RPM on the Digital channel and Engine Temp on the Analog channel. You may have to play around with the Hertz and Pulses to get everything communicating properly (because CrossTime is a four-cylinder the pulses are set to 1). Also, notice Wakeup is set to "Yes." This is a cool feature that will wakeup the unit and turn on the D3 app when it sees an RPM signal. In Settings mode (Right), you can fine-tune how you want your RPM and Temp to alert you to different levels.

One of the coolest aspects of having the CL1 data in real-time on my phone is the predictive lap timer feature which turns the display red or green to tell me how I am doing compared to my best run of the session. This alone has helped me drop lap times as I push to beat the previous best.

On the left is the view in Autocross mode, while the right shows the Circuit mode. When I am on-course, the lap number will show in the upper-left. Speed, RPM, and Engine Temp conveniently show in the bottom-left. My best lap time of the session will show on the bottom-right, and the upper-right will show the current lap in either green or red depending on how I am doing compared to my best lap — the goal is to stay green!

Analyzing Two Laps

I’ve been able to analyze specific laps against each other to see where my inconsistencies lie. I can take two different laps and overlay them to compare where I have lost or gained time. Also, I can have the system mark data points for maximum or minimum values on the track overlay screen. Here is the list of elements the CL1 measures for me: Difference (time), Acceleration Gs, Lateral Gs, Combined Gs, GPS Speed (mph), Engine RPM, and Engine Temp (F).

I recently ran a NASA event at my home track, Memphis International Raceway, and was able to snag a good deal of track time. My best lap to-date was 1.22.21, which I ran late in the day on Sunday on lap 20. In the following screenshots, I’m analyzing it against a 1.24.32-lap earlier in the run.

You open the run by clicking "Analysis" on the D3 home screen, then clicking "Open" in the upper left, then you simply drill down to find the session and lap you want to analyze. The same is done for the second lap and it will overlay that information on the graph. You can change the colors of each for better contrast.

Both laps are shown overlaid in graphical form with the track map on the right. You can open any of the three in full screen by clicking the box with four arrows. The green lap is my best, while the red line is the one I am comparing against. It defaults to Engine RPM, GPS Speed on the top graph, and Acceleration G, and Lateral G on the bottom. You can add or remove things to analyze here using the box with the four bars on the left.

These two screenshots show the different options you can chart to analyze deeper. There are a ton of different ways to analyze the data and you could spend all day looking at it. I decided here to just open the upper graph and look at GPS Speed.

My best lap (1.22.21) is represented by the green graph, while the red line is my 1.24.32 lap. As you can see on my best lap, I carried a little less speed getting into the first corner, but I went in deeper and got back on the throttle sooner. I carried that aggressiveness into the M’s (Turns 4, 5, 6), but I overcooked both 4 and 5, which resulted in less speed out of 6 into the short-chute to 7 and 8 (the 90s). Even though I braked at about the same moment, I carried more speed through those turns on the green lap. I entered Turn 9 at about the same speed, but carried it in deeper and was on the throttle sooner on the green lap. The net result was a little more than two seconds difference for the lap.

Going over to the track map, I changed the attributes to show the time difference with maximum values plotted (Left). It's easy to see that I am pretty much even on the front-straight represented by the yellow color (Right), but go up .12-second into the carousel turn. By the time I am in the M's, I am up 1.61-seconds. I give some back in the next segment through 6, 7, and 8, but make it back up coming out of 8 and start increasing again into (and through) Turn 9 for a total difference of 2.11 seconds.

Final Thoughts

With the Vantage CL1 there is a good bit of valuable data to sift through to really get into the nitty-gritty of what you are doing right and wrong on the track. You can even look closer at a particular corner by spreading your fingers on the screen to zoom in on more detail. This can be done on the graph or the map. This is a great tool if you are having a problem with one corner in particular. You can try a few different lines on-course and overlay them to see which line works best for you. The ability to look at different laps together has not only helped me lower lap times, but it has also helped me be more consistent in areas where I was exercising less control over the car.

I am by no means an expert on the use of the Racepak Vantage CL1 — I’m still learning it myself — but I can tell you the D3 app is an easy program to digest and learn. I have never used any other data acquisition system so I can’t compare how intuitive it is to others, but for my needs, the CL1 definitely meets them. I really like this system as its able to provide the predictive lap timer while you’re on track, and then be able to look at the data right there on your phone as soon as the run is over. I know it will continue to help make me a better driver as it already has.

The Racepak Vantage CL1 with smartphone installed in the Project CrossTime Miata.

If you are looking for a data acquisition system at an outstanding price, the Racepak Vantage CL1 is a powerful device that is easy to install and learn, while being completely portable and fun to use. Also, as I mentioned above, for those of you with a 2008 or newer car, Racepak has released the CL2 which is smaller, more portable, and even less expensive ($249). It uses the very small CL2 data box, OBD2 port, antenna, and your phone with the D3 app and has up to 10 total channels available.

You can keep up-to-date with the latest on Project CrossTime by viewing the project page HERE.

Article Sources

About the author

Shawn Brereton

Shawn is a lifelong car enthusiast who appreciates all things automotive. He is the proud owner of a blown '55 Chevy, a daily-driven '66 Fairlane with an '09 GT500 drivetrain, and a '96 Miata track car.
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