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.
A little past one hour into the race, and the first moment where race control needed to act on contact emerged. The dueling pair of Lola-Aston Martins collided at the top of the hill, diving into the Corkscrew. The trailing No. 6 Muscle Milk AMR car hit the factory No. 007 entry – how hard changed depending on who you talked to – but immediately, it triggered a response.
“That to me was cut and dry as they were absolutely nose to tail,” Barfield explains. “When the 6 drove into the Corkscrew behind 007, if he would have backed off immediately, and 007 wouldn't have been affected, there would have been no call. But as he pushed for even a couple car lengths, that to me was an immediate call. Although we did immediately go full-course yellow for something else. After seeing a replay, I got the same gut feeling to verify the call.”
The other talking point in the early stages of the race was some incredibly hard-nosed, or overly aggressive (again, depending on perspective) driving between the Risi Competizione Ferrari F458 Italia and the eventual GT class-winning Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. Toni Vilander and Jorg Bergmeister were beating and banging on each other in the lead-up to and through the Corkscrew.
As it occurred, Barfield and his team monitored the situation, and Barfield decided no further action was required.
“The 45/62 was aggressive driving on both of their parts, but really came down to, ‘No harm, no foul,” he says. “They were racing hard with each other, they were leaning hard on each other, they didn't leave each other a lot of room, but they're both top-notch professional drivers who did not negatively impact each other's day.”
The tone for Risi changed when Jaime Melo drove Bergmeister to the wall while the two were battling for the lead at the end of the race. As Risi had previously been warned for blocking and there was no time for an on-track penalty with the race at its end, Barfield decided to add 90 seconds to Risi's race.
“The reason for the 90-second penalty was that it was the equivalent to a stop plus 60 seconds, a precedent set for avoidable contact,” he says. “The defensive move resulted in contact and forced the vehicle into the wall, and that was the penalty assessed based on precedent.
“We have a pretty clear line about taking somebody to the other side of the track in terms of blocking or being defensive,” Barfield adds. “Earlier in the race, he had been warned for blocking, and he took a block to the point of squeezing someone to the wall and initiating contact with an immediate call. The fact that the 62/45 incident happened in the middle of the front straight, was just unacceptable. At that stage, your responsibility whether passing or being passed is to leave enough room once you've established himself with any other car alongside.”
Barfield says those decisions, along with any others he makes, are largely rooted in his ability to trust himself and not rely too much on other voices.
“I think where my strength comes from is making my decisions on my own,” he admits. “It's me who has to stand in the driver's meeting and say what I will or won't call. If I ask for someone else's opinion, their personal beliefs or opinions might differ wildly from mine.”
Races like this week's Petit Le Mans, a joint round between ALMS and the ACO-sanctioned Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, gives Barfield the chance to learn and understand the officiating rationale across the pond.
“They have grown to respect me and how I run the operation, and totally leave me alone,” he says. “They're a great resource to have. I am still learning and getting my head around how the ACO and Le Mans operates, and those are very important things. Under the ILMC/WEC events, it's important for me to consult with them on some of the calls via their input, or set some precedent for what teams expect at Le Mans and other international events.”
Barfield attended this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans per Elkins and ALMS CEO Scott Atherton's request, in order to further the understanding and background of the global sports car landscape. Understandably, Petit Le Mans poses the largest challenge of the year, with 53 cars trapped on a circuit in Road Atlanta (2.2 miles) less than a quarter of the length of Le Mans!
Any call is dictated strictly on the incident itself, not the individuals involved at that moment.
“With the exception of warnings issued previously, I literally look at incidents without looking at the color of the car, the car number or even considering who's driving it,” he says. “I look at incidents for exactly what each one is.”