NASCAR Media Conference
Topics: NASCAR, MBNA 400 "A Salute to Heroes"
June 11, 2004
MIKE HELTON: We thought it might be a good idea to stop by and talk about Dover last weekend a little bit and to tell you that in particular the 24-lap caution that occurred is unacceptable. And I think everybody in the industry agrees that it's unacceptable. We'd admit that to you. We can't go back and change that. All we can do is work through it and go forward with every effort possible to avoid that happening again. I could sit here and explain why it happened. I could sit here and tell you the process of what all happened in that 24-lap window, but it has no merit. The ultimate point that we'd like to get across to you is that it is unacceptable. We all agree on that. We'll do whatever we can to hopefully avoid that ever happening again. To that point, what we will begin doing this weekend in NASCAR is to depend on the electronics that we use to determine the positions of the cars on the racetrack. I would like to point out that the long caution in Dover was not necessarily an element of freezing the field or racing back. That was a series of circumstances that occurred after or at the end of green flag pit stops where the last car that had not pitted had assumed the lead, and that particular vehicle was the one that caused the caution at the entry of pit road, and then there were several incidents throughout that caution period that continued to extend that, most of which was explanations of why we did what we did. To that point, though, if I could go back to last fall when we announced racing back was going to be eliminated, and that we would freeze the field, and remind everybody we did it for a real solid, sound, even today absolute good reason, and that was for the safety of the competitors on the racetrack. What kept us from doing it long before that was the complexities of being able to do that correctly and fairly. As we announced last fall, we were going to do away racing back, we admitted there was going to be some challenges. As '03 unfolded, we realized you cannot be manually fair to the sport and try to freeze the field. Even before the conclusion of the '03 season, we were in discussions with different groups on how to electronically assist us in doing that. We landed in the course of those conversations with AMB, which was a current partner working on scoring and timing issues, to develop a multi-loop system for us that allowed us to electronically technically freeze the field, if you will, when the caution come out, beginning with the race in Daytona in February. That's the electronics that we have been using throughout this season where, when the caution comes out, the computer, the software, once the button is pushed, aligns the field based on the last loop that the cars had crossed over prior to the caution. Through the evolution of that electronic process, we gained more and more confidence to the point that I'd point out in Dover last weekend, as an example, I think we might have had 10 cautions. We had the one long one that started this conversation today. The others averaged six or seven laps, which have been fairly standard this year. Through the freezing of the field, not racing back program, we began some new elements of leaving the pit road closed the first time the pace car went by, the free pass car that is determined to get to move up a lap after the caution comes out. Those processes and procedures have we think added to the number of laps that can occur under a caution, so we're also, in addition to depending completely on the electronic system beginning this weekend, we also announced in a drivers meeting that instead of using the pace car as the determining vehicle that opens up pit road the second time it comes by, we're going to yield to the leader, the race leader, when the caution comes out. As he comes by the pit road the second time, unless circumstances prevent it from happening, he'll be the trigger to open up pit road. What that means is that is not always going to benefit the number of laps. But in a place like Pocono, as an example, if a caution was to come out, and the leader is at the tunnel turn, he comes by the opening of pit road before the pace vehicle can pick him up. So the first time he come by pit road would count as the first time. Everybody here still has ample time to slow down and close up, which is the reason we started that. But it would help us possibly eliminate one lap on the front end. The other thing that we're going to do different beginning this weekend is once we determine who the free pass vehicle is, which is instantaneous now electronically, then that vehicle will be moved up as the normal process of the caution pit road pit stops are occurring, instead of waiting till everything is over with and then doing that right before we go back to green, and in essence adding a lap to the caution period. So we're going to try those two procedure changes this weekend to help expedite cautions in general. But the biggest thing that comes out of this conversation is that the evolution of the electronic systems that we developed over the winter with AMB and put into play early this year have gained enough confidence internally that we feel like we can eliminate the human element that led a lot in part to the extended caution last weekend, and depend and score the race and determine who's in what position, in what lap they're in, electronically. Now, we'll keep the redundant systems, which includes a complete human manual system to score races in the event of what failures can or may occur. But with the electronics we now have at our access today, we think that that should be a more efficient use and a more efficient way to do things. Again, I hope it will eliminate the possibility of another 24-lap caution like we did in Dover last weekend. Again, that's unacceptable. We agree with everybody that it's unacceptable. We'll go to work to try to eliminate the possibility of that happening again.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. When you acquired all this technology in the off-season, why did you not publicize that?
MIKE HELTON: To get the bugs out of it. Quite frankly, it was new to us. If we went into great detail about the equipment itself, the software, what it was supposed to do, it gave that equipment authority automatically and probably prior to when we wanted it to have authority. So the idea was to install it, use it, get the bugs out of it, be sure of it, be confident with it before we would tell the world about it.
Q. Instead of using a red flag, could you use yellow to determine the scoring issue?
MIKE HELTON: Yes, we could. Now, the ideal situation is not to have a situation where it's that confusing anymore. If we depend on the electronics that we have confidence in, we should be able to eliminate that. But the sequence of what happened in Dover, there was occurrences during the caution that extended it. I don't know that there was a point last week in Dover's incident where a red flag would have helped that. But that's a possibility. If I may, I will take the opportunity to say that the dependency on electronics to determine the frozen field, the running position, the running order, the lap that a particular car may be in, is fairly common. What we're saying today is that we're telling the competitors this weekend that that is what we're using. We could still be in a debate with a competitor on where they think they should be, but the electronic system should ultimately prove itself. We'll have those conversations and debates in the truck after the race is over with, not as the events unfold and up and down pit road. I will also tell you that the two incidents that I can think of quickly this year, the end of the Nashville Busch race and the Talladega Cup race, as those two events finished on a caution, we also used video to help us to be sure about the finishing order. We will continue to do that at the end of the race, particularly at a place like Talladega where a lot of things can happen between loops. If we feel like we need to add additional loops for the credibility of freezing fields, we'll do that. We put in nearly a million dollars over the winter in this current system buying decoders, installing loops, adding more personnel to the timing and scoring staff to do this. So we'll do what's necessary to do it, and to do it as right as we can. But we'll still have the human element of us running races involved. But the electronic scoring is what we'll become dependent on this weekend.
Q. What things in the past were relied on to make decisions with?
MIKE HELTON: What this sport used to run on, that's basically people seeing what they saw on the racetrack and saying, "Here's what I saw." Motorsports, and I'm not going to get on my soapbox and tell you how different it is than any other sport, and certainly in NASCAR with the level of competition, particularly in the Cup garages, can offer up a lot of challenges. So what historically in short tracks today, the NASCAR regional series, you don't have the electronics. You have a group of people that are saying, "Here's what happened. Here is where you belong. Go on, get back in line, let's go." But the stakes that exist particularly in the Cup series, but all three of our national series, but the stakes, at the level of competition, there should be more proof of that. The electronics can now offer that. The technology today, it will only get better, more sophisticated every year. But what we have available to us today, we'll continue to explore the next generation of those. In the meantime, the human elements of visually saying, "Okay, this car is here, this guy was on pit road, this guy went by this other guy, this guy was at the end of the pit road," there will still be some of those elements, like the paddle guy at the end of pit road deciding when the guy ran the paddle and when he didn't. We also have video cameras down there to help us with that. But the electronic scoring eliminates the human eye of determining where a car belongs. It now will depend on the electronics to say, "This is where he was."
Q. The oil on the track and Kenseth's contention about the ambulance.
MIKE HELTON: The caution was brought out based on the 41 car, not on the 9 car. We called the caution based on the smoke and the resulting effects of the 41 car. I don't know exactly the timing of the 9 car spinning out in relationship, but to clear this up, we called the caution because of the 41 car. The spotters in turn four alerted us. We could see looking from the tower ourselves, see the smoke in turn four. The 41 car comes by the start/finish line smoking, and that's when the caution was called. In exact relationship to where the 9 car was, it was only a matter of a couple of seconds at most when we saw the 41 car and called the caution because of what the 41 car was doing. In relationship to Matt Kenseth being involved in that accident, coming down to rest on the frontstretch against the pit road wall, he climbs out of the car, he walks down pit road. In the meantime the folks from pit road were following him, trying to get to him. They obviously didn't get there quick enough, in his opinion. We realize he was frustrated. We've investigated trying to figure out if there was a shortfall somewhere. We have not found that. They were moving in the proper amount of the command to go. Don't have an answer past the point that if it took too long to get to him, we'll fix that.
Q. Question not repeated.
MIKE HELTON: If I recall correctly, we red flagged the race very quickly. I don't know that it's fair to relate it to two laps. I also recall him saying it took us 30 laps on the caution to get the scoring right. His thinking, again, I think is driven by frustration more than anything. So I don't know that it is fair to say it was two laps. But if it took too long, then we'll fix that. In relationship, we cannot find a fallacy there. The track did everything they were supposed to do. The workers at the track did everything they were asked to do when they were asked to do it. I think we all can agree, at least I hope we can, that the response time and the quality of response today is as good as it's ever been. We'll keep working on making it as good as we can make it and as quick as we can make it.
Q. Are we going to actually have more wires around the track to possibly track the cars better?
MIKE HELTON: Let me first of all clarify something. The current multi-loop system that I referred to that we began to use for positioning of vehicles this weekend is the same antenna that's at the start/finish line is now at multiple locations around the racetrack. It's the same thing. For several years now, NASCAR has been using an AMB scoring system, electronically, from the start/finish line. There's a little black box, in addition to the data recorder, that we've been using on cars to record that antenna signal at the start/finish line for I think eight or nine years now. The modern version of that box is a multiple reading box. It can read multiple antennas. It gives us the ability to use what we now call the multiple loop system, which means there's an antenna at the start/finish line to support what happens there, but there's additional loops around the racetrack that does the exact same thing that happens at the start/finish line. That's what I was mentioning earlier. If we feel like we need to add more of those to be more efficient, then we'll do that. So it's possible that there can be. You won't see wires because they're buried, but it's possible there could be more of those antennas going forward. But currently we're in the process of putting those antennas ahead of us. We've had them at every track we've been to so far this year. That's part of the process. If we need to add more, we'll add more. We've talked about the possibilities of doing that to shrink the distance between those loops and everything.
Q. Question not repeated.
MIKE HELTON: No. We've had additional loops around the track all year long. We froze the field in Dover last week with multiple loops. We pushed the button and it froze the field electronically last weekend. Started doing that in February in Daytona. We used that multiple loop system at Nashville in the Busch race, we used it at the Talladega Cup race. Those antennas have been here all year long. We have used this in a beta program, if you will, but we have used this to be confident understanding how it works, understanding how it's to be used and officiated by. What I'm telling you today is that that is going to be the determining factor for freezing the field in determining the positions on the racetrack this weekend.
Q. Newman, his pit road situations last week.
MIKE HELTON: With that being in the details of that 24-lap sequence last weekend, I will tell you that we have 43 teams up and down pit road who argue on behalf of their universe, which is 1/43rd of the field. It's NASCAR's responsibility to police the sport with the entire field in its vision. And we feel like, and we think, and we have confidence in making this statement, that we have done that correctly most of the time, the biggest part of the time, majority of the time. We still believe we did a lot of correct things last weekend. But each team is going to argue their universe, and they have their thought process and vision based on their universe. But all of our timing and scoring equipment didn't agree with Don. I'm not going to say "at the end of the day" because I've been beat up on saying that. Ultimately, there has to be an authority in sports. And actually in life there has to be an authority, whether it was your parents when you were growing up, the mayor of the city or the President of the United States. There has to be an authority. But in sports there has to be an authority. And in stock car racing, there has to be an authority. In NASCAR's form of stock car racing, there has to be an authority. What we have done over the past 50 plus years is try to operate with a certain amount of benevolence to explain our decisions and our processes and procedures. But if there's a little bit here or there that you can't explain, it's just like your dad saying, "Look, it is because I said so, let's get on and go on down the road." There has to be final authority, and in NASCAR it's us. We try not to abuse that, we try not to be arrogant about it, we try our best to be as benevolent as we can so the entire industry understands what we're doing when we're doing it. But if there's a gray area left, there has to be an authority, and that has to be us. Sometimes we have to go to an extent to prove that. Sometimes we have to remind people of that. Sometimes we even have to remind ourselves of that. But there has to be an authority, and that's us.
Q. How exactly do the loops work?
MIKE HELTON: Let me say this first, then I'll answer your question. What David is working on now is a presentation that we're going to make to the competitors in the garage area and very quickly after that presentation make to you, the media, so that we can explain to you exactly what you're asking. But I'll try to do this without the benefit of that presentation at hand. You're correct, the loop and the antenna is the same thing. We call them "a loop" because it's a continual wire that goes up, loops around and comes back down. It's got about 8 or 10 inches between the wires. We call it a loop, but it's an antenna. Every car in the field has a transponder on it that that antenna reads as it goes over. The software that complements the multi-loop system identifies the position of each car on the racetrack after it has crossed one of those antennas. So now the leader could be over at the tunnel turn, and the 20th place guy could be crossing the start/finish line, and the leader could have crossed the loop or the antenna back going into the tunnel turn while the 20th place crossed the one at the start/finish line. But the software using an internal timing code system records them identically so that it recognizes the leader at an antenna back there, while it's recognizing other cars as they're scattered across the field as they crossed the different antennas. That's a very rough layman's explanation.
Q. How many loops are here at Pocono?
MIKE HELTON: I'll have to ask you to get that correct information from David. It varies from track to track. I don't know the exact number here.
Q. Doc may know.
MIKE HELTON: We have 14 here. Thanks, Doc.
Q. Question not repeated.
MIKE HELTON: What happens after you pass the loop and in turn the caution comes out? If there's a change in position after of pass the loop, before the caution comes out, what happens then? What happens during the course of the race itself, we will use the electronic scoring to determine where you were. So it's based on the last time you passed the loop. So it doesn't matter what happened between the two loops. Now, at the end of the race, as in the case of Talladega, when we finished under caution and we went back to the TV cameras, because a lot of things happened very quick in Talladega, we used a TV camera to help us confirm or sort out anything that happened between the loops -- not between the loops, but between the loop prior to the caution and the moment of the caution. So at the end of the race, we will continue to use video. When I say "the end of the race," that's better defined as that window where we've said we will not bring out a red.
Q. If someone passes someone after the caution, technically it wouldn't have been frozen, you could make a pass after the yellow flag.
MIKE HELTON: Let me back up just a second. Let's keep in mind that this is a sport, okay? Things happen very quickly. In officiating the sport, you make decisions. They're human decisions, but they're decisions. What I'm saying to you today is we're going to be dependent upon the electronic scoring system to record where cars belong on the racetrack when a caution comes out. What happens after the electronic system has made up its mind where you belong is not at issue. We'll debate that with guys after the race is over with, if he thinks he passed so-and-so before the caution came out after the last antenna. Look, it can happen. It's possible that it's going to happen. But what I'm telling you is to simplify running the races and be efficient in the caution periods, and to deliver the NASCAR product the best we can to the garage area, to the fans in the grandstands, to the promoters, fans at home, media and everybody else, we're going to score the races electronically. We're going to take the human element out of it. It will take a human element to determine if someone passed -- somebody passed an antenna before the caution came out. So it's very likely that that can happen. But the garage area will know and will have to understand that we're freezing the field based on what the electronic antenna has told us.
Q. Is there a standard distance for loop spacing?
MIKE HELTON: There is. It's whatever 14 into two and a half is. Actually, I'll take that back. At Daytona and Talladega, we may have more than we have here. It's not just a spacing as much as what can happen in time, too. I think we have 18 loops in Daytona and Talladega. It does vary from racetrack to racetrack. Again, we're 12 races into using this system. In 54 years, it's not a lot of time. We're 12 races into using this system. It will change. We may come back here next year and have 20 loops here next year, I don't know. We may come back here and have 14 again. I can't tell you that as we sit here. Currently it differs from track to track based on the size of the track and the speed of cars at the track.
Q. Is it an objective to have a GPS system down the road?
MIKE HELTON: We continue to work with different groups out there, including the current knowledge we have of GPS, that gives us the best possible scenario. I'm careful of how I'm saying that because I don't want everybody to walk out thinking, "Well, NASCAR is hanging its hat on GPS for the future." There could be something better than GPS, I don't know. But what we do know from Sport Vision and the universe the GPS programs they use to do the TV production stuff with is that if we were completely 100% confident that they did deliver a signal lap after lap for every foot of the racetrack, we would use the GPS tomorrow. But there's some idiosyncrasies in the GPS system that have voids in them that doesn't give us that confidence. That's why we're using the loops in the ground with the antennas on the racetrack. But GPS would absolutely be a bona fide way of doing it one day when they have all the idiosyncrasies conquered.
Q. Free pass car is the question.
MIKE HELTON: Currently, he is moved around the pace vehicle at the end of the pit cycles. So the last thing that happens before we go to green is sending the free pass car past the field. What we would do now is send that free pass car past the pace vehicle between the first and second laps of pitting. We'll move him past the pace car while the leaders are pitting before he has to come back to pit. He'll still have to field with the lap down cars.
Q. Ryan Newman when he hit the pit road wall, judgment calls involved in that?
MIKE HELTON: I think most of the judgment that played in that moment was who was on pit road, who had already left pit road, and where they were in the cycle of leaving pit road, that played into that, if I understand your question correctly. Yeah, the judgment that came out at that moment was, number one, did we need to throw the caution. The tires pushed up, all the water that came out, we deemed it necessary to go to caution.
Q. Was the leader the leader when he hit the pit wall?
MIKE HELTON: I suspect that there should have been judgment on that call.
Q. A lot of fans get confused. We're all sitting in front of monitors, TVs. You are, too. There's radios. What can you say to the fans watching TV, just trying to understand all these things that you have to go through?
MIKE HELTON: I'm not sure that it can be. It's a fair question. I don't have an answer for it, other than the fact that we need to rethink our procedures and policies that are forwarded to the competitors but are simple enough for the people to follow. I think that's something that we are address as we speak, and we have all year long, actually as we have done for the entire history of the sport. Once we announced no racing back to the yellow, we've been challenged with situations of, "How do you balance that?" We still need to figure out how to keep it simple. The best thing in sports is to keep it as simple as you can keep it so that everybody can follow it, and you spend a lot less time explaining things.
Q. Clarification on when a car is going to be scored when it's passes the loops?
MIKE HELTON: The software determines the frozen field based on where they're at after they passed the last antenna. The moment the yellow comes out, it's based on where they were relative to all the other cars when they passed that last antenna. I go back to, number one, why we did this. Remember, for 50 years we didn't do it. That's one of the challenges we had when we decided last fall to say, "Look, there's no racing back." It made all the sense in the world to say that. It still does. There's strong, obvious reasons why we did what we did. Now the challenge is to police the sport with that as part of the procedure. That's where we're going through the last seven races of '03 and the first 12 races of '04, is coming up with the right balance of procedures and policies that fit in our product.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
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