Champ Car Race Control, the 'Hot Seat Zone'
 by Mark Cipolloni
September 20, 2004

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Race Control's wall of monitors
Mark Cipolloni/AutoRacing1

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 year.

Review Procedures

Some of the computer screens the Race Stewards have to review

The Intellex monitor
Mark Cipolloni/AutoRacing1

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 incident.

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.

The Race
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 period.


Mazzacane is still in the car on the steep corkscrew as safety workers remove him from the 'kitty litter.'
Bob Heathcote/AutoRacing1

The race goes green again. Not long thereafter the bell 'clangs' again on Lap 11. Once again all hell breaks loose. Turn 8, Mazzacane spins in the corkscrew and a few seconds later Nelson Philippe spins in Turn 2 all by himself. Chris Kneifel explains to me that he waited until the last car was past pit-in to throw the full course yellow so no one gained an unfair advantage by pitting one-lap earlier than everyone else.

The race goes green again and we are near the halfway point. Tara has one computer window open and is already calculating whether this will be a timed race or not. (TV needs to know in order to package its broadcast and the competitors are waiting for word.) Lee Dykstra helps her by reviewing some of the historical data for this event to determine how many cautions the race usually has and how long the race runs.

It's getting mighty hot in Race Control and by this time I'm thinking, "man these people are really on the hot seat." Ironically, the air conditioner has been turned off because it was interfering with the walkie-talkie radios, which was making the room uncomfortably warm. In the intensity of Race Control I am the only one who seems to notice the heat rise. Just another day at the office in Champ Car Race Control.

By this time I had to return to the media center to prepare my race reports. I came away with a far greater appreciation for the difficult job Race Control has, and the technology they have at their disposal to ensure that the race is properly run and all incidents are given a reasonable and fair review before any penalty is assessed.

This same Race Control team turns the track around after the race and serves the same roles for the Toyota Atlantics, Formula BMW USA and Trans-Am races. It makes for an extremely busy event, twelve hours per day. 

My personal conclusion - Monday morning quarterbacking is easy compared to the actual job performed by Race Control. The intensity of the continuous on-track action and how to fairly judge aggressive driving as opposed to over aggression, and avoidable incidents, are extremely subjective judgments and difficult to measure. Clearly Race Control has more information (visual, audio, observer, replay, timing) than the teams or the media, regarding what is happening on-track.

To seek a fair and impartial balance is what Race Control tries to do each and every week. The balance is between 'micro management of the chrome horn bullies' and 'let them race.'

I'm glad I don't have their job..

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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