LONG BEACH, Calif. – Near the end of a Friday afternoon practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, the tension was spiking.
But this strain went beyond the cars darting around the tight confines of the NTT IndyCar Series’ most famous street circuit.
In a windowless room whose entrance is flanked by a few curtains inside the Long Beach Convention Center, several people were huddled around a bank of a dozen flat-screen monitors and a million-dollar setup of high-tech equipment, where an increasingly animated discussion was happening about whether Josef Newgarden had been released from the pits too early.
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After a few minutes of scrutinizing several replays and camera angles while debating the acceleration, braking points and positioning of the cars driven by Newgarden and Tony Kanaan (whose team had called in a potential penalty after claiming its driver was forced to slow down), the decision was reached.
Race director Kyle Novak turned to steward Max Papis, who relies on his experience as a veteran of IMSA, IndyCar and NASCAR for perspective in divining drivers’ actions behind the wheel, and smiled.
“Max, I see what you’re saying now, and I agree with you,” Novak said. “We’ll talk about it more in depth later. That was a tough one.”
And that was only practice. Two days later, 15 people filled the room to officiate the Long Beach race, which ended with a controversial call that put Scott Dixon on the podium in third place and relegated Graham Rahal to fourth.
As with any professional sport nowadays, replay technology has become essential in race control.
And as with recent super-slow-motion controversies that have marred the NFL, college and professional basketball and even horse racing’s signature event, IndyCar has faced its share of scrutiny and criticism for how replay has been used to adjudicate its races.
There is one important distinction, though: Unlike other sports where replay has been used to retrofit split-second decisions that are always made on the fly, replays are where IndyCar officials begin making the calls that can alter the course of a race.
“In the NFL or the NBA, they make a call in real time with human eyes on the ground, and then they may review it based on whatever the wrinkle to the sport is,” Novak said. “Every call we make is actually a replay call to begin with, so we don’t ever make a real-time call. Some things will stand out as obvious, but we have it as standard practice to review every last little thing because you can get easily tricked in real time.
“One of our biggest challenges is four different angles can tell you four different stories. That’s something we always take into account.”
Also factoring into every decision is safety. While road and street courses such as Long Beach might provide the most fertile ground for calls on blocking because of the preponderance of braking zones and turns, oval races also can draw the involvement of stewards Papis and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk.
In last year’s Indianapolis 500, there were eight penalties issued for pit safety infractions after more than 10 incidents came under review.
“Boys, Have at It” might be a policy that works in stock-car racing, often billed as a “contact sport.” But the stakes are higher for cars racing at speeds well above at 200 mph with greater exposure to the elements, which makes deterrence a nuanced but necessary evil in how drivers and teams are judged.
“Our racing is quite close and needs to be somewhat tempered,” said Sebastien Bourdais, who was involved in one of the most controversial calls by IndyCar last season when his breathtaking three-wide pass at Long Beach was nullified for crossing an out-of-bounds line. “If you don’t, you start to let people have at it. On ovals and superspeedways in particular, there needs to be a certain degree of respect given between drivers. The only way to do that for the most part is to make sure that people are afraid of being penalized.
“I do agree we need to be firmer than relaxed on those because the consequences are too great when we get it wrong, and nothing’s done. This is not NASCAR. We don’t have doors or fenders or bumpers. When we collide wheels, cars fly, and when it flies, God knows what happens from there.”
Though race control can play an important role in shaping the dynamics of a death-defying endeavor, the goal is the same as any umpire: To go as unnoticed as possible.
“That doesn’t meant there’s not penalties,” Novak said. “The best baseball or football games are the ones where the flags stay in the pocket the most.
“Ultimately, how well the game is played and how clean the on-track action is dictates how much we have to be involved, but when we do have those opportunities to not disrupt the natural flow of the race and really have the story be on the strategy, the driver’s performance, the car performance, the setup, the fitness of the drivers, the pit crew. That’s ultimately what we want the story to be.”
Trying to keep the focus on the competitors starts with staying in constant communication with them.
IndyCar’s primary method is a one-way radio channel that broadcasts information on anything involving race structure – where incidents have occurred, penalties and the timing of yellow flags. There is also an instant messaging system in which teams can communicate with Novak and officials, reporting in unsafe conditions or claims of penalties.
Other members of Novak’s staff are responsible solely for monitoring safety vehicles; scoring systems, speeds and transponder signals, and the myriad replays and angles that are available. At Long Beach, one staffer manned a “party line” channel that can be accessed by more than 70 race marshals positioned around the 11-turn, 1.968-mile layout to relay potential safety hazards.
The support staff also has three people keeping an eye on pit windows and strategies to help Novak with overseeing the race’s flow, which can be impacted by the timing of caution flags. During the April 7 race at Barber Motorsports Park, IndyCar stayed on a local yellow flag when Graham Rahal stalled because a green-flag pit cycle hadn’t ended yet. When it did, the full-course caution was called.
“Another factor that comes into play is a situation at the end of the race where we know one or more cars may be close to making it on fuel, and you have to think about possibilities of cars making it all the way to the checkered,” Novak said. “And if they can’t, what’s the race control response? Even with an extended cleanup during the race, full-course yellow cycle, how quickly we can get the pits open because we know cars are short on fuel. All that factors into the bigger picture of what’s going on with all 24 cars during the race.”
While Novak is tasked primarily with overseeing the procedurals, reviewing potential infractions for penalties are the purview of Luyendyk and Papis. If they reach a split decision on whether to penalize during qualifying and the race, IndyCar president Jay Frye makes the final decision.
“They make all the calls on penalties,” Novak said. “If one car hits another in a corner, it’s their job to adjudicate who was at fault, if there was fault, what the penalty is, and they get back to me on the penalty on a procedural standpoint to get it announced, make sure it’s enforced from there.”
Luyendyk and Papis are in their fourth season as IndyCar stewards, and they’ve helped take pressure off the race director, who previously had been more involved in penalty calls.
“With so many data inputs, video and audio, one single person can not possibly keep an eye on all of that while running the race,” Novak said. “It can take up to 2 to 5 minutes to watch all the replays and come up with did someone have a penalty or not. It’s just too much for one person to handle these days. You need as much brainpower as you can for calls so quick in the moment.
“On one hand, I’m trying to keep track of the room and running the session, on the other hand, we have to take a look at that infraction. Sometimes it’s hard to switch gears in your mind. The more minds, the better.”
Practices also are a warmup for officials, who rarely issue penalties but use the sessions to establish parameters for how qualifying and races will be called. After the first practice at Long Beach, Novak sent photos to three teams called for pit lane violations to help elucidate what would have been a penalty during the race. He also fielded a few calls clarifying ground rules provided in a prerace meeting with team managers.
“We try to educate our competitors the best we can so when it comes to race day, they’ve already been through it and know what’s legal and not legal,” Novak said. “We’re not out to penalize necessarily right off the bat from P1.”
The same approach applies for Luyendyk and Papis, who make frequent trips to the paddock for individual visits with penalized drivers and teams.
“We work very hard explaining to our competitors the reason why we do certain things and to take down the barrier between sanctioning body and competitor,” Papis said. “We look at each other equally. We don’t look down. It’s a lot of work. Me and Arie can do that because we have the respect of the paddock. So when we go talk to them, it’s not the guy in the blue IndyCar jacket that goes and talks to them. It’s a race car driver that happens to be helping the sport.”
As in other sports that have encountered the pitfalls of attempting to govern with the help of frame-by-frame evidence, the system can’t be flawless, of course. IndyCar has rescinded some penalties, such as a $10,000 fine and probation given to Bourdais for a 2014 crash at Texas Motor Speedway.
“The biggest problem they have, the resources they have to review depends on the angle provided, and they don’t always get all the facts they have to make the call,” said Bourdais, who drives for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. “And sometimes the facts they have they think is enough. And then they are presented a different view, and that changes to a completely different perspective with a completely different consequence.
“I think it’s true in any sport. When you judge the facts, there’s human error on both sides. They do the best they can. Sometimes they get it wrong. Congratulations, they’re human. Just the way it is.”
Novak, who has a vast background in racing as well as a law degree, became the race director last year, and his style has drawn positive reviews from veterans in the paddock such as 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.
“There was a certain time in IndyCar when there was too much intervention going on from race control,” the Andretti Autosport driver said. “They were getting into the race results too much. And then drivers were almost paranoid to do certain things, to put their car in a certain spot.
“I think it’s going in the right direction. There is less intervention. There’s less of a presence from race control, but they do have to set their limits. You have to know they’re going to enforce them. If it’s an empty threat from race control that they’re going to penalize you, and they don’t do it, well then, the system is broken. They do a good job for the most part.”