Nate Ryan

Inside the room where IndyCar makes all the critical calls during races

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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.

GANASSI FRONT ROW: Rookie Felix Rosenqvist scores his first pole position

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.

No infraction.

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.”

The main bank of monitors used for replays in IndyCar race control at the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

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.

Kyle Novak has been IndyCar’s race director since last year.

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.”

Max Papis observes a practice session at Long Beach in IndyCar race control.

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.”

Rossi remains ‘The Story’ in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”