Race Control's wall of monitors
When fans watch a Champ Car race on TV or from the grandstands
their focus is on the constant heated action on the track where drivers and teams
push the limit to gain any advantage. Many times the action gets a bit too hot and
that's when drivers step over the fine line between aggression and
over-aggression. What the fans don't see is the team of people in Champ Car Race
Control who are responsible for overseeing every aspect of the race, including the
difficult decisions of interpreting and implementing Champ Car's rulebook.
They are the ones who are really on the hot seat....literally.
With all the criticism heaped on the Champ Car race officials these
days, I welcomed the opportunity to watch the Grand Prix of Monterey Champ Car
race at Laguna Seca from Race Control on the top floor of the Pagoda. This was an
incredible experience and gave me a better perspective on what race officials
really do and how they really make the calls.
I arrived about 15 minutes before the start engines command was to
be given and observed the dozen or so men and women already settling in their
respective Race Control stations. Surrounded by some 40 computer monitors and TV
screens the place actually resembles a mini NASA Mission Control in Houston.
After a few moments of gazing at all the sophisticated technology
utilized in Race Control, John Lopes, Champ Car's Executive VP of Operations,
introduced me to the team of people who were about to take control of all aspects
of the race for the next two hours.
Race Control Personnel
Chris Kneifel, Competition and Race Director - Kneifel, a former driver, is
essentially the Commander-In-Chief of Race Control and ultimately responsible for
all final decisions other than judgmental officiating which is overseen by the
Champ Car Stewards.
Champ Car Race Stewards - The Champ Car Stewards are led by
Director of Operations John Anderson, a long-time motorsports veteran and
former manager of Pac West. Beaux Barfield (a former driver who provides
rulebook expertise) and Derek Higgins (the instant replay steward) are both
former drivers. They review all potential infractions and make all decisions
regarding on-track violations. The Stewards coordinate with the Race Director
(Kneifel) in communicating and enforcing the rules.
Paul Leyton - His job is the main liaison between Race
Control and the officials and teams on pit road. He is the “Voice of Channel 1”.
Paul also coordinates the minute-to-minute sequencing of the event from Race
Control, from the singing of the National Anthem, to Gentleman Start Your Engines
and on to the Checkered Flag and podium ceremonies. Paul has an earpiece in each
ear. In one ear is Channel 1 and in the other is his radio communication with the
Pit Lane Officials. With two radios going at one time and with the chatter in Race
Control, Paul is a multi-tasker of the first order.
Jim Swintal - is Clerk of the Course and controls the
starter and marshals around the track. The actual start of the race, i.e. the
go/no-go is the decision of the starter, not Race Control, but pretty much
everything else the starter does is at the direction of Jim Swintal. Jim also
controls a bell in Race Control. He rings it when there is an on-track incident
during the race to alert everyone in Race Control. Jim is in direct contact with
dozens of course observers via a landline. For non-U.S. events, Jim is accompanied
by a translator who translates for Jim back and forth in the language of the local
observers. Jim was brought into Race Control, after years of service as CART’s
starter, due to his experience. Jim coordinates with the local SCCA representative
who assists him with SCCA volunteer observers.
Some may think that "ringing a bell" may be an antiquated form of
communication in our computer driven technological age. Considering the frenzied
activity during the race, with each member of Race Control consumed with a
specific task under extreme pressure, when the bell rings it shatters their focus
and gains the immediate attention of the entire team to the current on-track
incident, instead of relying on the silence of a computer generated e-mail. A
laser pointer from the Stewards further focuses the room on whatever television
monitor the incident is shown on.
Tara Sillert - is a data analyst and tracks everything
electronically around the track. She explained to me that Timing and Scoring runs
on a UPS and backup generator and most communications is done with battery
operated walkie-talkie radios. Therefore, in the event of loss of power they could
still operate, but if power was out for an extended period the race would
eventually have to be red-flagged. Among other things (as will be discussed
later), she reports when one car passes another illegally under the caution, the
result of the start audit and closing speeds of the leader to lapped traffic.
Lee Dykstra - is the Technology Director for Champ Car but during the
race supports Tara Sillert with electronics/data analysis. Lee also monitors
compliance with pit stop and tire related rules during the race.
Joann Jensen - is the safety dispatcher and liaison with all
on-track safety vehicles including the Champ Car safety team, ambulances and other
vehicles. She “talks the Safety Team around the track” and serves as the eyes of
the team who are often blind to oncoming traffic and circumstances impacting their
efforts on the circuit. She also works with local safety to coordinate ambulance,
tow truck, crane and security dispatch.
Shawn Racette - is the pace car dispatcher for the beginning
of the race. He has direct communication with the pace car driver and tells her
when to go and how to position the pace car in front of the leader during
cautions. Shawn hands over his dispatch duties to a pace car driver once they
arrive in race control following their pre-race parade activities. Shawn then
heads to the paddock to assist in post race activities.
Gail Truess - a pace car driver herself, is the pace car
coordinator with other pace car drivers on a race by race basis. Once Shawn Racette dispatches the pace car it is Gail's job to carry on all further
communication including taking specific directives from the Race Director, such as
when to go on-track, when to speed up and slow down, and the one lap to go signal.
Today's pace car driver was Allison Altzman, with Sara Senske the right seat pace
car driver, known as “the hand”. There are a total of eight women pace car drivers
and they all take turns driving the pace car, rotating duties within Race Control
and giving thrilling pace car rides for key guests throughout the weekend.
Bob Pirtle - When he's not serving as a Reverend for
Champ Car, he interfaces with the TV production truck from Race Control during the
race. Since Race Control sees and hears more of the race than television does, this is
Race Control's way of promoting television on the flow of the event and on events
in-progress. This makes for a stronger television presentation. When a driver is
reported off track, for example, he alerts the TV production crew to get some
cameras on the action. Bob often takes his cue from Lopes, who decides what key
information is important for the television producers to know.
The core group of individuals are the same for all races. Other
race organizations, such as Formula One, rotate people in and out depending on
venue. For consistency this team runs all Champ Car sanctioned races throughout
the computer screens the Race Stewards have to review
The Intellex monitor
After all the introductions, Derek Higgins went over all the
electronic gizmos that he, Barfield and Anderson (Race Stewards) have at their
fingertips. The heart of that is the Intellex switch that allows them to switch
between cameras at will. They can stop-action, run slow motion, and do replays.
"We would love to have more onboard cameras, preferably one on each car. That
would help us better review each incident," said Higgins.
Race Control continually records all TV feeds onto massive hard
drives so they can review an incident before assessing a penalty either during or
after the race. While the TV production truck does its own recording, Race Control
itself also does theirs so they do not have to wait on the TV crew to review an
When an incident occurs and a potential penalty may be assessed,
Barfield can talk directly to the race team manager for that driver and advise
them about the potential penalty. By comparison, Formula One does it by email down
to the team in the pits and it is a one-way communication only - protests must
wait until after the race. Champ Car has a much better system. If the team
disagrees, the Race Stewards proceed to describe to them what Race Control has
witnessed on the video replay and why they believe a penalty is warranted.
The goal is to allow both the team and Race Control to air their
side of the incident during the race and take appropriate action during the race
instead of a post-race assessment whenever possible. The team can still decide to
protest, in which case a team representative would come to Race Control after the
race to review the video themselves.
No sooner does the green flag drop......the bell clangs.....and all hell breaks
loose on lap 1 with no less than four separate incidents around the track.
Immediately I am surrounded by chatter. Everyone in Race Control is talking to
their direct contacts, literally hundreds of people all around the track. I feel
like I'm at the Tower of Babel. Michel Jourdain has a flat tire and heads for the
pits, probably as a result of contact; then immediately Haberfeld spins in Turn 4
and continues but throws debris on the track, Tagliani has a flat tire and a
corner worker radios in that there is an accident in the corkscrew involving the
Mi-Jack car of Justin Wilson being punted from behind by the Corona car of Rodolfo
Lavin. Wilson has suspension damage and limps back to the pits. The incidents are
immediately reviewed on replay but no penalties are assessed.
Lap 2 under yellow and race leader Bourdais is reported to have a
flat tire by one of the corner workers and is pitting after a coming together with
Tracy. A review of the replay by the Race Stewards revealed that Tracy's front
wing appeared to have clipped Bourdais' rear tire in Turn 2, but it is deemed a
racing incident, not intentional, and no penalty is assessed.
The race goes green again. Soon thereafter, a corner worker radios
in that there is contact wheel banging between two cars (I missed which cars were
involved). It is reviewed and ruled not intentional.
Lap 8 and Dominguez is off in Turn 4. A full course caution is
called. The race leader passes the pace car that is just exiting the pits. Kneifel
screams at Gail, "Tell the pace car driver to go faster and pass the leader." He
repeats the order with a sense of urgency. At this point, Race Control is blind
and relying on information from its corner workers since the television cameras
have not captured the incident. Lopes yells, "Tell TV to get a camera on that
incident." Bob Pirtle religiously relays the message.
"Reorder problem," Tara yells out. Her software reveals that one
car has passed another car after the caution flew. Paul Leyton instructs the race
team to get their driver to fall back where he belongs. Lee Dykstra explains that
there are nine timing lines placed at key locations around the track such as at
pit entrance and exit to accurately determine the correct running order and to
detect illegal passes under caution. The Pit Lane Officials relay the instruction
and the team complies. The Race Director indicates green next time by and everyone
in the room relays the information to their radio contacts. Television is notified
to come back from commercial knowing that the green flag will fall within a short
still in the car on the steep corkscrew as safety workers remove
him from the 'kitty litter.'