No matter how closely any fan watches an American Le Mans Series race, the sharpest scanning of the how the race unfolds comes from inside ALMS race control.
With four or more classes on track at all times, and the likelihood of contact lurking at every corner, the attention to detail is magnified for series race director Beaux Barfield and his team of assistants watching from above. Monitoring 35 or more cars on track with so many various levels of performance sounds like a nightmare on the surface.
The funny thing is, when you're invited inside the room, it's barely louder than a church service. We discovered that when IMSA offered us the opportunity to view race control at the series' most recent race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca two weeks ago.
“That's the first thing people say when they're in there – ‘It's so quiet!'” says IMSA chief operating officer Scot Elkins. “But it allows everyone to have a correct thought process. Everyone doesn't jump in all at once, but they feed their info to Beaux.”
Elkins helps oversee the inner workings in the room, but is far removed from decision making. That falls strictly to Barfield, who has full authority on calls.
“The key in terms of competition is that Beaux is the chief executive,” Elkins says. “He makes those (competition) decisions. There's a relative church and state separation.”
Barfield's operating mechanism with which to work is an impressive one. The series has a set of monitors displaying all possible views of the track.
Cameras at Monterey were fixated live on all 11 corners and the start/finish line, each with its own monitor on the display. Three timing and scoring screens revealed the running order from start to finish. A separate monitor showed the TV feed, which compiles all live shots and changes based on the director and production side. A track map shows every car's position on track (again, all 36 in Monterey shown as circular dots), with each car carrying an on-board camera also given its own monitor.
From all angles, Barfield and his team can witness every conceivable scenario as it plays out. Each of Barfield's assistants has his or her own designated task.
“I try to keep everything calm in terms of how I address people in race control,” Barfield says. “Everyone in that room with an IMSA or ALMS shirt on knows exactly what their role is, and doesn't try to perform outside of it. That's the largest factor that allows me to be calm, make quick decisions and keep that level of control for what goes on in there.”
Jim Ohanesian, an official closest to the set of monitors on this occasion, speaks directly to the corner workers. To his left sits Dan Kenber, who is the safety dispatcher and relays communication with the safety trucks.
Switching to the other side of the table, also closest to the monitors, is Brian Hughes. All teams monitor his channel with the highest frequency; Hughes is race control communication to officials on the ground for all officials and teams.
Paul Walter (ABOVE, LEFT), clerk of the course, sat next to Hughes. Walter manages the officials and serves as Barfield's right-hand man in helping support, but not influence, Barfield's decisions.
Mike Simons works with the TV producer for all commercial breaks, and Tyler Norling is the designated replay official. Norling has a DVR recording on all cameras at all times, and immediately goes to his computer to bring up a replay when needed for Barfield to make a ruling.
Finally, Lindsay Fox (black jacket, ABOVE), to Barfield's immediate left, is the liaison between race control and the team instant messaging communication. Instituted in 2009, IM in the ALMS allows direct communication between each team manager and race control, with Fox relaying all information to Barfield, and Barfield providing his insight.
Elkins explained the importance of using IM for all on-track sessions, from their prior work together in the Champ Car World Series.
“Lindsay is Beaux's filter; he can't oversee everything,” Elkins says. “She points things out and he tells her what to answer. We started using this in 2009. Beaux and I had experience using this from Champ Car – and discovered there was an absolute necessity for contact with teams at all times.”
During morning warm-up, we were able to witness an even calmer environment, although we got the first taste of what happens when a violation occurs.
Four cars passed under yellow while two cars, one with a blown engine, were stationary on track. The violators were assessed a $500 fine for their transgressions.
The race began just past 1:30 p.m. PST, with Hughes relaying the information. “Pair up going to green,” was the call sent out. Barfield explained that the TV coverage doesn't affect race control, but the producer is having to put together two shows simultaneously – one live for the ESPN3.com web stream, and one tape-delayed 1.5-2 hour package for next day TV viewing.
The green flag flew and immediately there was an issue when an LMP Challenge car spun exiting Turn 11. Out of the racing line, the call was to stay green.