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Earnhardt en-gauged

The Baltimore Sun

When Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. drive in the 50th running of the Daytona 500 tomorrow, they will have some help from a Baltimore company.

For the first time in NASCAR history, computerized gauges that monitor such things as oil and fuel pressure will be used in the racecars and enable dashboard warning lights to alert drivers about their engine needs.

Only mechanical monitors were allowed in the past because NASCAR officials feared that crews could gain an unfair advantage with the technology known as microcontrollers.

But Baltimore gauge maker ProParts and others persuaded NASCAR to rewrite its rulebook for the 2008 racing season. And by signing on the Gordon and Earnhardt teams to use its devices, ProParts gained entry into a market dominated by Illinois-based Autometer, which has mounted its gauges on NASCAR dashboards for about 25 years.

"The gauges will catch the drivers' attention, saying, 'You need to look at me now,' " said John T. Sullivan, president of privately owned ProParts. "When you're behind someone at 200 mph and you want to pass them, you can't always look at your gauges. It's a big safety feature."

ProParts' new SPEK gauges are designed to warn drivers if a stock car's oil pressure is too low, among other things. For instance, the car's dashboard lights could turn from green to red if a car's oil pressure is dropping too fast. Sullivan and others said the new devices could also better protect costly engines by alerting drivers that their vehicle needs immediate maintenance. The gauges cost about $250 apiece.

"In the past, we have not approved gauges like that because they were microprocessor-based gauges that could potentially be reprogrammed for purposes that we don't want," said Steve Peterson, NASCAR's technical director.

NASCAR opened the door to microcontrollers in 2003 when teams were allowed to use the technology to power a car's gauge needles. But race officials were wary of using computerized components, saying teams could potentially reprogram a device to control the ignition timing and change a car's rear-wheel traction.

"We want the driver to be the traction control, not an automatic device to be the traction control," Peterson said.

After getting assurances from companies such as ProParts and Autometer that the gauges were tamperproof, NASCAR officials decided to allow racing teams to use them this year.

"Once you have two competitors doing the same thing, you re-evaluate what is best," Peterson said. "We're also always concerned with driver safety goals."

Gauge giant Autometer said its new devices would be in several cars tomorrow as well, including Jimmie Johnson's and the Toyota racing fleet.

"We wish them [ProParts] the best in the industry, but we'll be doing our best to be the dominant player," said Todd Westberg, Autometer's director of engineering. "There hardly is a form of racing that we're not in."

But NASCAR officials said ProParts' ability to sign Gordon and Earnhardt was a key move in gaining entry into the closely knit racing circuit.

"The best example is that they're on Jeff Gordon's car," Peterson said. "That's a pretty big step forward for a new company."

Sullivan and Peterson said a ProParts gauge recently alerted Gordon to an engine problem during a test run of his car in California. The car began losing oil pressure, and before Gordon was aware of the malfunction his gauges changed colors letting him know he should stop the car.

"It probably would have thrown parts out on the track, and oil would have gone everywhere," Sullivan said.

Earnhardt has not lost a race this season. ProParts gauges were used in his car when Earnhardt won the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race last weekend at Daytona. Sullivan said Earnhardt asked ProParts to build green gauges to match the driver's car, which is sponsored by Amp Energy drink.

ProParts was established in 2002 and has about 80 distributors across the country. Its line of performance auto parts, such as a boost turbo controller, is used in various cars and trucks. The company has eight employees in its offices in Southwest Baltimore.

Sullivan said he has started several companies and has more than 30 patents to his name. But he fell into the gauge-making business by "accident" after doing some work for a plastics manufacturer owned by a relative.

The company produced plastic parts that surround auto gauges, and Sullivan said he saw an opportunity to develop his own electronics. That's how ProParts was born, he said.

After a couple of years, Sullivan began lobbying NASCAR officials to change their technology rules so gauges powered by microcontrollers could be approved for use in racecars.

"We didn't dream that we'd be in NASCAR three years ago," said Sullivan, who will attend his first race this weekend. "The fact that we are testing with the top drivers is really starting to get attention from other teams."

megan.hartley@baltsun.com

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