Quite often in the technology end of the financial services world we refer to so-called ‘real-time’ data communications and systems. Usually we are talking about some system-to-system interface whereby an action on one system automatically updates or causes action on another system in a relatively short time span (usually measured in seconds or less).

Last Saturday I got the chance to wander the pits during qualifications for this year’s Indy 500 and I couldn’t help but notice that what they call real-time is a lot more real than our real-time. You see, at Indy there are systems that track each car around the 2.5 mile race course at all times – including when sitting in the pits or on entrance and exit lanes to the track.

For those of us who think fractions-of-a-second response time is quick, let’s do a little math. Each car at Indy carries a transponder that passes over a timing loop laid in the track … the width of the timing loop looks to be about 18 inches. The transponder causes a voltage spike each time it crosses the loop and you can calculate the speed of the car by measuring the time delay between spikes.

This year the front runners are averaging about 225 mph around the track and quite a bit faster on the long straights. That means Helio Castroneves crosses the timing loop at the start/finish line at an average speed of 330 feet per second. In other words he crosses that foot and a half stretch and the system interpolates his speed in about 4.5 milliseconds. That’s pretty quick.

OK, now that you’ve got the concept of speed down, let’s extrapolate this into the system implications under race conditions. There are 15 timing loops around the track each measuring Helio’s current speed which is then wirelessly transmitted up and down the pits to display to all race teams just where he is on the track. On race day there will be Helio and 32 of competitors hurtling around the Speedway crossing those timing loops at irregular and overlapping times. Since each car’s transponder has a unique signature they can be kept separate … but just imagine the processing going on to keep the timing and scoring accurate.

Now that’s real-time.