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Flagtronics, is full implementation still on schedule?


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4 hours ago, MoparBoyy said:

I saw they are being required at VIR so i figured i'd get more info.

Serious question;  We asked to try one at RA a couple years ago and it was a complete nightmare.  It stopped working and was just locked on yellow flag for 95% of the race.  But the larger issue is that i wired into a 12 volt supply wire as directed.  the unit back fed current to our electrical system when we flipped the battery switch to the off position.  Its been a while but I think i told them.  I would not want to tie anything that i can't test into my electrical system the day of the race.   These should be run on their own power while still in a test phase.

 

has this issue been resolved? 

The statement did not say it was Required at VIR.

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I had the opportunity to spend this past weekend in the timing tower, which put me in the position to see the flagtronics devices in "full scale" action.   Since I have been a vocal opponent

We are still moving ahead @SonsOfIrony. As @Team Infiniti mentioned, we are working night and day on PPE gear for over a month now and this has pushed back our development cycle on this product and so

Can this system be used to notify us when we are in proximity to MCM so we can make sure to take avoiding action?

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3 hours ago, DEE DEE said:

The statement did not say it was Required at VIR.

Whether or not the info in the VIR thread is accurate or not, thanks for providing absolutely nothing of any value whatsoever. 🙄

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It wasn't required for purchase at VIR, but all teams were provided a flagtronics box to use during the race. Good R & D will help us make sure that we have the bugs worked out as best as possible. The feedback I've gotten back was very positive.

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45 minutes ago, Team Infiniti said:

Can we buy one @ Daytona?

We just had a very successful test at VIR over the weekend.  For the most part, everything worked perfectly. However, there were still a few things we learned and features we would like to add/adjust.  There is still some testing to go, but it is all the small things we are checking off.  The Flagtronics team will be at Daytona with some units (not a full field test like last weekend), and we will be sure to provide test units for those teams that request them.  See you there in a month!

 

 

8 minutes ago, TimS said:

Website shows they are for sale. Don’t know if that means they can ship today but they can be ordered. 

We just updated the website over the weekend.  There is still work to be done, both on Flagtronics testing and website ends.  Right now, the package building process is open, but the checkout feature is not.  This can be used as a tool for team budgeting in the meantime.  We are targeting early summer for the official release for purchasing.

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35 minutes ago, Aleric Sanders said:

We just had a very successful test at VIR over the weekend.  For the most part, everything worked perfectly. However, there were still a few things we learned and features we would like to add/adjust.  There is still some testing to go, but it is all the small things we are checking off.  The Flagtronics team will be at Daytona with some units (not a full field test like last weekend), and we will be sure to provide test units for those teams that request them.  See you there in a month!

 

 

We just updated the website over the weekend.  There is still work to be done, both on Flagtronics testing and website ends.  Right now, the package building process is open, but the checkout feature is not.  This can be used as a tool for team budgeting in the meantime.  We are targeting early summer for the official release for purchasing.

You guys have a SSL certificate issue on the package building page it would seem.

 

Can you explain the difference in the $150 unit and the $250 unit?

 

 

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2 minutes ago, Chris Huggins said:

You guys have a SSL certificate issue on the package building page it would seem.

 

Can you explain the difference in the $150 unit and the $250 unit?

 

 

Yes, the SSL certificate issue will be resolved in "2 buisiness days" from when we updated the site (Saturday evening).

The pricing for the ChampCar Flagtronics package (FT200 Unit, Harness, and GPS) is $150.  Anything more expensive than that is simply a miscommunication between us and our web development guy.  I'll get right on resolving this.

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Had one of the Flagtronics in our car for the VIR race. Easy install. Worked great. None of our drivers looked to it for flagging, instead keeping their eyes up to flagstations. It did excel in the role of pit timer, and the current hardware is a great deal for all the features it can enable the series with going forward.

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I am a huge fan of the system!  It takes all of the guessing out of the end of a FCY, green light means go, regardless of when my teammate yells on the radio to go or if the driver happens to be in a spot to see the yellow go away.

 

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Posted (edited)

I had the opportunity to spend this past weekend in the timing tower, which put me in the position to see the flagtronics devices in "full scale" action.

 

Since I have been a vocal opponent to Champcar mandating teams purchase these boxes in the past, I feel its important I relay my experience this weekend.  I still have concerns, but I also was able to see the benefits first hand, and learned about the boxes capabilities.  This isn't going to be a full scale endorsement of the boxes, but in one weekend, I went from 100% opposed "I dont want it in my car, I dont want to spend the money!" to about 90% convinced "Take my money please".

 

I reached out to James yesterday and got the OK to discuss anything that happened this weekend, but he hasn't read this before it was posted.   This is my opinion as a Champcar racer and as a BOD member, and what I think is the best direction forward for the series.

 

1. Flagging

This is the part of the device I am still not 100% sold on, but I will address it first because its in the name and has been the primary marketing lever.

 

Things that worked well, and are an improvement/benefit over the current system.

 

A. Black Flags:

Champcar was able to call cars in with in-car black flag delivery instead of manual display of the flag/number board at the Start/Finish.  This worked great in a few specific cases, in fact it almost worked too great once.

 

Example 1:  Car was smoking badly, which was called in as the car was about midway around the track.  Instead of having to circulate back to the S/F, receive the flag, and make another entire lap (so 1.5 laps since smoking was called in), the car was immediately delivered the flag via the flagtronics unit, and it came in that lap (so only .5 laps since smoking).  In this case, the car was able to be repaired and sent back out.  Did the unit save the car from running out of oil, or save Champcar from having to clean up a mess on the track?  Maybe, or maybe not, but the potential is there.

 

Example 2:  Car was to be called in for leaking fuel.  Flag was delivered as the car exited the last turn via flagtronics.  Driver immediately saw it and dove onto pit road, probably about 50 feet to late.  In this case, it kept the car from leaking fuel for the next lap.  Lesson to the Champcar team to be cognizant of when the flag is delivered via flagtronics, so as to not create a dangerous dive onto pit road.  Thankfully in this case there was no incident and the car was able to return to track safely after visiting its pit box.

 

B. Track Safety/EMS

The flagtronics team was sitting adjacent to VIR's flagger "control" and VIR's EMS/Wrecker dispatch personnel.  There were multiple times when I saw them turning to the flagtronics display, which showed all cars on a GPS map view, to see exactly where a car was stopped on track.

 

Example 1:  In the first hour of the race, a car lost its brakes and as a result went off track.  WAY off track, all the way down to north course, and outside of the view of the closest flagger on south-course's radio.  Fortunately, VIR's north-flagger channel was able to jump in and help dispatch the wrecker crew.  At the same time, the flagtronics team got its first opportunity to show its locating ability directly to VIR;s safety team, who were all visibly impressed, and were able to give radio calls on the south radio network indicating the car's position.

 

Example 2:  At night, it becomes difficult for the flaggers to identify cars and to reliably identify their location in relation to the track surface in specific situations (like stopped halfway between two flag stations and over a small rise).  This happened multiple times in the dark, and "control" immediately turned around in the tower and looked at the map to accurately make decisions about needing to go FCY or P35 and which wrecker team to dispatch.  

 

C. Purple 35

Flagtronics knows how fast you are going.  It currently does not tell the driver the recorded speed (instead it only shows a purple screen with an inset 35 to indicate the current flag condition), but it has the capability to do so.  

With this, Champcar can bring P35 to almost every track it visits, in addition to enforcing it being actually P35.  This will more accurately mimic the pro-level "virtual safety car" practice, and with every car going the same speed remove the random affects of slow or fast packs during P35 to reduce impact on track position on the leaders.

P35 is a benefit to everyone in my experience, because if the track safety team is willing to work under it, it results in a quicker return to green flag by 1-2 pace car speed laps.  Some tracks will likely not be willing to work under it (WGI for example), but it will help at any track that will, and we can use it even if the track doesn't have P35 flags.

 

In addition, it allowed us to use P35 at night.  At VIR, once it gets dark, its impossible to see the purple flags, so every FCY becomes a double-yellow situation or a pace car situation, or a compromise based on the portable light boxes that Champcar used to use.   Flagtronics lets us use P35 at night, since every car will have a local indicator of P35 even if the flag station is hard to see.

 

 

Things that are still a work in progress, or need improvement

D. Pit Stop Timers:

This isn't really an improvement that the flagtronics team needs to make to the device. This is a communication issue between everyone.  Once the standard is known, I believe this is a non issue.

The flagtronics device has a GPS "gate" at pit in, and starts a timer as the car enters pit road.  Currently, everyone knows we use the small magnetic kitchen timers that a Champcar employee or volunteer sets to 5:00 and hits start.  They then count down to zero and start beeping (if the beeper still works, lol).

The flagtronics box instead starts at 0:00 and counts up.  This way, when it exceeds 5:00, the team will know how much extra pit time they took and have a metric to work on for improvement.

This caused some confusion for drivers and for the Champcar pit-out workers at the first round of stops, even with us still using the kitchen timers.  Once pit out radioed up to the tower and got the correct information, it became a non issue.  

It just needs to be noted so everyone using the device knows how it works and can use that information appropriately.  Since its different from the current standard, it will take some mental re-configuring to get used to.  I believe it to be a superior method, so I look forward to using it.

 

E. Rules Alignment, Driver Perception - Full System Shift

On the basic flagging side of things (display full course yellows, display green flag under normal condition), there are some very specific timing and perception issues that need to be considered. 

I want to be clear that in the race last weekend, the flagtronics device was only being used for full course situations (Green, Yellow, (thankfully never red), Purple), and for single-car black flags.  No local-yellow displays were sent.

 

I do not know the answer to all of this, so I can't make specific criticisms and suggest solutions, but these are what I am thinking about in this point:

 

Example 1:  Flagtronics displays green, but flagger in turn 1 is waving local yellow due to an incident that just occurred.

 

Example 2:  Flagtronics has JUST switched to green after a P35, but the flagger in turn 5 is showing yellow and purple flags still.

 

These situations, and i'm sure many more, need to be considered.  Both of the above definitely happened this past weekend.  Before the existence of flagtronics, a driver had one system of reference to rely on - the person holding the flag.  If the next flag was not yet visible, the driver assumed whatever condition presented by the previous flagger was in effect until the next flag became visible.  Tracks attempted to minimize this portion of "assumed condition" by placing enough flaggers in the correct locations to avoid dead zones.

 

Now, we have a potential 2nd system of record, which makes conflicts possible.  What does a driver do when his two systems of reference disagree?  

 

Part of this issue is a result of system acceptance or saturation issues.  Lets pretend that every car has a flagtronics device, and we are 100% confident that the device is installed correctly and will be reliable for the entire race.  Theoretically, we could pay the flaggers to stand and monitor the race, and instead of pulling out a flag at a sign of incident, they could be supplied with a flagtronics controller which would dispatch the correct signal to approaching cars.  This would eliminate the two systems of reference by eliminating the flag entirely (or replacing it with a local display board at each station which is also controlled by the flagtronics controller).   

 

At some point, I hope we can get there, but until then we need to write the rules so every driver knows how to react when differing commands are received.

 

F. Local Conditions - Yellow, Debris, Pass Flags, etc

These were not attempted during this past race, but we did discuss them.  Part of the debate is determining "zones" around the track (think sectors like in iracing, but more of them - with each "zone" being the responsibility of a flagger.  VIR Full for example has 18 flaggers, plus S/F, so could potentially have 19 or 20 zones).  This also plays into the previous point of "alignment" and driver expectation.  

Example 1.  Car is stopped on track just past station 1, in direct view of station 2.

I attached an image (see bottom of post) trying to indicate the situation, with some hypothetical zones generated.

In my example, SF would be standing yellow, Station 1 would be waving yellow, Station 2 is unoccupied, and station 3 is no flag

Currently, there is the perception that if you are past the incident, and see the next station is green, you can go back to racing.

With flagtronics, its much more complicated to make that work out on the display.  It might be possible using the broken car's location, etc, etc, but thats not realistic to expect at launch.

What we would have to do is change that perception to say, you cant go back racing until the flagtronics says you can, which might be 20-50 yards down the track once you get into station 3's zone.  I know you can see station 3 from the location of the example stopped car, but you cant go again until the box says you can.   

 

Enforcement of that gets even trickier, since the flaggers don't necessarily have a visual indicator of where the zones change or where the lights on the dash change in each car.  

 

 

 

 

 

2. Scoring

The big deal, that Is less visible to teams/drivers but needs to be considered.  This hasn't really be publicly discussed from what I recall, but I got the OK to discuss it here, so I'm going to try and explain it as I understand it.

 

We all know how AMB (the transponder people) aren't really friendly to us racers.  For years we have been holding onto no longer produced transponders to avoid buying the X2 units which were A: unreliable and B: required a subscription, without providing any additional benefit.  Now they have finally released a battery transponder with no subscription, but there is still no solution for wired.

 

Well AMB on the series/track side is just as bad, if not worse.

AMB is discontinuing support for Orbits 4, which is the software most tracks/series use to score races.  Its not been for sale for some time, and on July 30 2020 it was slated for end of support/service.  That got an extension due to covid, but its still coming.

 

What that means, is that if any of the Orbits 4 installs owned by Champcar fail, they cannot be recovered.  If the hard drive dies, the laptop is lost or stolen, etc. - no replacement, since AMB will not authorize a new install. 

 

Potentially, AMB has the power to brick all Orbits 4 installs remotely, since the computer has to be placed online to upload the scoring to mylaps and race hero/race monitor.  Nothing indicates they will do this, but its possible.

 

The intent is to push everyone onto Orbits 5, which you guessed it - has a subscription fee.

 

Well it actually gets worse, because Orbits 5 is "exclusively for X2 devices", meaning it won't work with the current decoder's Champcar owns.

*I think it still works with older transponders - I sure hope so for all of us*  

 

Decoders are the boxes Champcar takes to each track and plugs into the timing loops, which receive the pings from each car and supply it to the timing computer.  Champcar has multiple of these (Each race director has a set - A primary and a Backup, and sometimes a pit-loop one as well).  Replacing these would require purchasing an "X2" server, plus 3 X2 Decoders (Primary, Pit, Backup), for each race director (or at a minimum, one set and risking shipping it around the country as needed, which would prevent us from hosting concurrent races as has happened in the past).

 

So switching to Orbits 5 is an expensive situation.  In order to replace the current equipment Champcar owns (and is in serviceable condition, but would be unlikely to be resold since everyone has this same problem), the price tag would be steep.

Prices and subscription fees for organizations aren't published from what I can see, so I can't quote a price directly, but from what I understand its significant enough that our organization wouldn't be able to absorb the cost without considerable adjustment.

 

 

 

Well, hopefully, Flagtronics will be able to help us (the racing community) solve that.  The capability to do the timing/scoring of the race via the flagtronics devices is already in the hardware.  The software side is what needs to be developed, but the Flagtronics team is working on it as I understand.

 

The software is already there to track the cars in real time via a GPS overview.  It looks just like the track map you see on the TV broadcast for nascar or imsa races, with the cars being placed on a track line map with a bubble showing the car number moving around in real time.  I discussed that above when indicating its usefulness to the track safety teams.

 

The reliability of the worlds GPS network is at an all time high, and the accuracy is down to the sub-meter level as it stands.  I was a bit lost on the technical side as this was being explained, but there is some coming tech that will allow that to be improved to the centimeter level, to the point where flagtronics placement on the car will be visible on the scoring system.  Thats well beyond what is required to make an effective timing/scoring system, as what we have now is placement agnostic (some teams place in the rear, some in the front, etc)

 

From actually working the timing system, this is an exciting prospect, as it has the opportunity to help with a couple of the common issues.

 

Example 1:  Pit loop - when a team's pit stall is on or near the pit loop, and the team is stopped for their pit stop, its common for the car to score multiple laps even though it isn't moving.  The orbits software allows you to set a "minimum lap time" and will flag anything below that, but these short laps still need to be manually removed.  This happened to 3-4 cars this weekend who were pitted near the loop.  One was the eventual race winner, and that team was sharp enough to notice the laps before we were able to get them removed, and came to ask about them.

With GPS technology, these "fake" crossings can be automatically eliminated by requiring a system of "gates" the car must past through to score a full lap (like mario cart), or some error checking based on average speed, or a few other ways to eliminate phantom laps without manual intervention.

 

Example 2:  Paddock Loop - at some tracks, there are multiple paddock-pit entry pathways.  When a team makes pass down the pit lane, they will score a pit loop crossing.  If they then stop and re-enter the paddock near pit out, do some work on the car, and return to the pit near pit-in, as they pass down the pit lane again they will score another pit loop crossing.  These are usually long laps - so orbits will not automatically flag them, and the timing person must notice them and manually remove them.  Same as above, there are ways that GPS technology can be used to score these properly with automation.

 

Example 3: Pit Loop - Some tracks don't have a pit loop.  This means that your lap with the pit will not be scored.  If everyone takes the same number of pit stops, it works out exactly the same.  If teams need to stop more often for fuel or due to issues, the missed crossings can affect the outcome of the race.  This is a track limitation - not something champcar can necessarily change - but switching to GPS based timing would eliminate this issue.  The pit loop could be defined via software and no hardware needs to be buried in the ground.

 

 

To be clear, this portion of the functionality is still in its infancy.  It wasn't tested at VIR, and it still needs development, testing, reliability verification, validation etc before its ready for prime time.  However, the potential is exciting, and I hope my explanation is understandable enough to convey how important it could end up being for the entire racing community.

 

The downside is that the technology needs community acceptance and market saturation to be viable.  It needs a foothold in the market to show everyone the capability.  Everyone has a transponder, so its easy to score races with them.  If everyone doesn't have a Flagtronics, we can't score races with them (or even test-score races to compare against the current method).

 

 

 

Zones.png

Edited by Chris Huggins
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Posted (edited)

This sounds very promising. Especially the accuracy of the GPS so we can display yellows or greens depending on what sector of the track you are in. Also moving away from the subscription based AMB system sounds like a smart move. 

When I see "subscription fee" :

spacer.png

Edited by Andrew D Johnson
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31 minutes ago, tommytipover said:

I had no idea AMB was messing with organizers as well. Dumping AMB as quickly as possible sounds like a great plan. I too was almost 100% opposed to Flagtronics, but not anymore.

If they didn’t reinvent the wheel every few year they would be out of business. After selling tracks and racers the devices and software it would not generate the revenue. They would sell a few transponders here and there and new track systems to new tracks  the subscription based business is a guaranteed steady stream of revenue. It was only a matter of time before they moved this model to the track products. Good for Champcar and the vendor for thinking ahead and adding the timing and scoring function into the unit. I hope they also resist attaching a subscription Fee to there devices in the future.   

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@Chris Huggins, thanks for the very detailed outsider's breakdown! I'm sure this has and will help many understand the system in use and many of the goals. 
 

On 3/9/2021 at 12:16 PM, Chris Huggins said:

Now, we have a potential 2nd system of record, which makes conflicts possible.  What does a driver do when his two systems of reference disagree?  


Currently, the local stand is the reference if there is a disagreement.

Our long term vision is to offer a complete solution with only one system of record. This system would have cars equipped with flagging units & sign boards at every corner station. Race control would have a full track control system and every corner station would be equipped with a corner controller. Our system is capable of this now and was designed for this use case. Full scale implementation of with all equipment and pieces will take time.
 

On 3/9/2021 at 12:16 PM, Chris Huggins said:

The downside is that the technology needs community acceptance and market saturation to be viable.  It needs a foothold in the market to show everyone the capability.  Everyone has a transponder, so its easy to score races with them.  If everyone doesn't have a Flagtronics, we can't score races with them (or even test-score races to compare against the current method).


With respect to ChampCar in isolation, the 2022 mandate means that this issue is moot in series. Outside of Champcar, this is absolutely true. Fortunately, the unit cost is very low and there is no subscription fee in addition to offering a wide variety of other features and capabilities.

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It seems that a flagger will need a partner to manage waving flags, calling it in to the tower and activating the Flagtronics notification.  This is one part that I see being difficult to overcome.  Rarely do you see all stations manned/womanned with 2 people.  It is not a Flagtronics issue, but the system is the reliant on it.

 

As far as overall acceptance, AER sounds like they are heading this way.  I also talked to a fellow who manages a track and they were looking at a similar system not for passing under yellow issues, but for knowing where people are on the track.  They run lapping days and have only a handful of cars but also a reduced flagging crew.  Knowing that someone has stopped on track is pretty useful for them. 

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2 hours ago, MMiskoe said:

It seems that a flagger will need a partner to manage waving flags, calling it in to the tower and activating the Flagtronics notification.  This is one part that I see being difficult to overcome.  Rarely do you see all stations manned/womanned with 2 people.  It is not a Flagtronics issue, but the system is the reliant on it.

Well, you replace the physical flag with a light board. Press a button and it simultaneously turns on your “yellow flag” and tells the system / race control that your corner is now yellow. Then you queue up the radio per usual to say exactly what the issue is, and you have two hands to do that because the board “waves yellow” without you needing to use your arm to wave the yellow.

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1 hour ago, enginerd said:

Well, you replace the physical flag with a light board. Press a button and it simultaneously turns on your “yellow flag” and tells the system / race control that your corner is now yellow. Then you queue up the radio per usual to say exactly what the issue is, and you have two hands to do that because the board “waves yellow” without you needing to use your arm to wave the yellow.

 

This is what i would envision myself, flashing yellow = waving yellow, solid yellow = standing flag. Problem is power could be a concern at a lot of tracks. Nelson Ledges didn't even have power on pit lane much less around the track. 

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8 hours ago, Gkuhn41 said:

 

This is what i would envision myself, flashing yellow = waving yellow, solid yellow = standing flag. Problem is power could be a concern at a lot of tracks. Nelson Ledges didn't even have power on pit lane much less around the track. 


We have a sealed battery pack with solar charging in the works that is capable of powering a panel for 24hr+ races for precisely this scenario. Nelson Ledges is not alone in this. Sunlight not required at the event, only between events to recharge (for clarity).

Edited by vtjballeng
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Once again, I am a huge fan of the system.  One opportunity for improvement would be some sort of hood on the housing itself, or something to help with direct sunlight.  First stint at VIR with direct low sunlight washed out the lighting in a few areas.

 

Just a little feedback.

 

 

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9 hours ago, vtjballeng said:

 


We have a sealed battery pack with solar charging in the works that is capable of powering a panel for 24hr+ races for precisely this scenario. Nelson Ledges is not alone in this. Sunlight not required at the event, only between events to recharge (for clarity).

Good work Mr. Ballenger. I’m excited to use this once I return to racing.

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3 hours ago, Schultz said:

Once again, I am a huge fan of the system.  One opportunity for improvement would be some sort of hood on the housing itself, or something to help with direct sunlight.  First stint at VIR with direct low sunlight washed out the lighting in a few areas.

 

Just a little feedback.

 

 

We had the opposite issue at night, we dimmed it as much as possible but it was still reflecting badly off our windshield.  

I like it a lot, but as Chris said we need 1 system of record for controlling movement of cars.  When this is working correctly it should eliminate most PUY, if you can't see the bright yellow light a foot or so in front of you you might need to pick a new hobby.lol

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