UPS Game Changers: Race Control
June 26, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
CONCORD, N.C. -- High above the race track, squirreled away in a surprisingly small room overlooking the frontstretch of Charlotte Motor Speedway, more than a dozen NASCAR officials are keeping tabs on the action down below.
Their conversations are barely discernable over the drone of NASCAR Nationwide Series cars logging laps around the 1.5-mile track.
Numbers continuously scroll across laptop screens. TVs, with 17 pre-determined camera views that can be accessed immediately, provide visual evidence of what's taking place.
Radio contact with officials along pit road, as well as safety and clean-up crews, is sporadic for now.
Officials here in race control (often referred to simply as the tower) are attentive, but breathing easy as the race continues to run under green-flag conditions.
With the May 24 History 300 nearing halfway, the radios begin to crackle. Debris has been spotted in the racing groove. Once it's confirmed, the call goes out to put out the caution flag.
While crew chiefs and drivers are trying to determine what changes -- if any -- their cars might need, officials upstairs already have begun taking action.
"You might want to give them a lap to get caught up," Robin Pemberton, a former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series crew chief who now serves as NASCAR's Vice President of Competition and Racing Development, says casually from his seat in the middle row.
Others, such as chief scorer Kyle McKinney, series director Wayne Auton and race director Scott French, quickly begin to chime in.
"Nineteen is the free pass."
"Car 4 pitted too early."
"Four pitted too soon," comes the confirmation.
"Pit road is closed at this time."
"Keep it closed, I'm going to get this 17 out of the way."
"Pit road is closed."
"Bring the 17 on ..."
"Caution car, just take a look over here on the front, and over there in (Turns) 3 and 4 on the high side; take a good look."
"Pit road will be open to the caution car."
"Ninety-three has not served his penalty under green; he will be tail end of the field for speeding on pit road, section 1, on the next restart."
"Have the 19 pass the caution car."
Most of those in the field have made their way to pit road, and returned to the track. Upstairs, the chatter continues.
"One to go when they get here."
"Nineteen is the free pass; (car No.) 4 tail end of the field, pitting too soon; 9 pitting too soon; 93 too fast off pit road under green, did not serve penalty, tail end of the field. 20 is the control car. Lap-down cars drop back."
In a matter of minutes, the field has been checked and rechecked to make sure everyone is lined up properly. Penalties have been meted out, and the green flag is once again displayed.
Years ago, much of what had just taken place would have been determined visually, with the help of information taken down by hand.
While that's still a part of the process, the bulk of the information needed to determine such things as the running order, penalties and beneficiaries (the first car one lap down at the time of a caution) is now confirmed through the use of computer programs that track the progress of every car on the race track.
Scoring "loops" buried in the race track at various points pick up signals from transponders located on the cars. Those signals are routed to back to the tower, where folks such as Steve Lowery, director of timing and scoring; McKinney, chief scorer and Adam Sheppard, assistant chief scorer, monitor the numbers on individual computer screens.
Scoring loop locations at Charlotte Motor Speedway
"They're sitting there interpreting the data," David Hoots, long-time race director for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, says. "They will confirm the free passes, they'll confirm the wave-around; they're basically the backup, looking at the scoring data to what we're seeing."
Christy May, the replay operator, oversees what is being displayed on the TV screens in the room. Should officials need to see a replay of a particular incident, or one part of the track, May can quickly have those images on the screen.
She also is the direct link to the network's broadcast truck, letting them know of any penalties and keeping them abreast of how many laps before the green flag re-appears.
Cool screen we have in tower showing running order, points, lead changes, leaders, cautions, avg speed, time of race pic.twitter.com/qn5iQitM— Steve O'Donnell (@odsteve) October 22, 2011
Most of the computers in the room have access to the same information, but it could be in a different format depending on what each official is monitoring during the race.
Color coding is used to indicate the status of certain vehicles. The number of the first car a lap down, which would typically be the beneficiary should the caution flag wave, is shown in pink; the boxes of others running a lap or more down to the leaders are shaded. A single glance at the screen can quickly confirm the correct running order of those still on the track, as well as those that might have come to pit road.
With a single keystroke, officials can see pit road speeds (if there's an infraction, the computer will display the car number in red); the running order as cars cross the start/finish line; total number of completed laps; and even when cars should run out of fuel based on their most recent pit stop.
In addition to those keeping track of the position of the cars on the track, others in the room are overseeing things such as clean-up and emergency vehicles.
"Todd (Marshall, manager of track services) is dispatching the fire trucks, wreckers and rollbacks," Hoots says. "He's talking to the care center and the chase vehicle. Jim (Cassidy, vice president of racing operations) is the direct link from the care center to us through the medical liaison. He's also our link to the race track, should there be an issue."
The human element remains firmly in place. While the technological advances that now provide a constant flow of information speed up the process, Hoots says the system isn't that much different from scoring a local Saturday night show at a local weekly track.
"The technology of what we've got and how we are doing it is what has changed," he says. "We're adding more and more to it all the time."
One of the next steps will be to go from loop data to GPS, a move that will eliminate the gaps created by the distance between loops on the track.
"We put in freezing the field (no longer allowing drivers to race back to the start/finish line when the caution appeared), added the free pass, added how we now do pit road speeds," Hoots says. "With the free pass, we knew we were taking away the ability of a car to regain a lap; that was pretty much a function of who was highest (of the lap-down cars). It was easy.
"We went through some growing pains … learning how to incorporate pit road into this. Probably took us six months to really work through a lot of things. Just been enhancements from that point -- the pit road speed, commitment line and all of that."
Down below, the cars continue to work their way toward the finish. The chatter in race control has slowed from the hectic back-and-forth just a few moments earlier to a much calmer pace.
On the laptops, numbers continue to scroll across the screens. A silent record of each vehicle as it makes its way around the track.