NASCAR goes high tech to crack down on pit-road violations
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Of all the high-tech trailers at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR has one that's more elaborate, sophisticated and specialized than the rest.
It's like a top-of-the-line laptop compared to a Commodore 64.
And it could play a significant role in determining the outcome of the Daytona 500 — and maybe even the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
The 53-foot trailer houses much of NASCAR's new pit-road technology, which includes real-time feeds from 45 high-definition cameras that record every pit stop made during Cup races. The multimillion dollar transporter will travel from track to track, providing video footage and computer software programming that will determine penalties.
Think of it as NASCAR's version of instant replay with the kind of intelligence that rivals pitch-tracking.
"We have people come in here who are launching bombs on guys hiding under bushes in Afghanistan and they're impressed," said Shawn Rogers, NASCAR's managing director of business operations.
Rogers provided a tour of the facility Thursday, five days after its official debut in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.
"It's very important for us to have an automated system as much as we can, but to also have the human element in there to make the close calls," Rogers said. "We needed the real element of reasonableness and common sense in there.
"We want the benefit of the doubt — if it's not really clear — to go to the team at all times."
NASCAR virtually guaranteed more accuracy with the new system, especially with the enforcement of two pit-road rules: Drivers can't pass through a pit box that's more than three stalls away while entering or exiting their pit; and crew members (not including the gas man) can't have their feet on the ground in the pit stall until the approaching car is one stall away.
Each suspected violation flagged by the computer will be reviewed by one of eight NASCAR officials sitting in the trailer before penalties are assessed.
"We don't have any new rules," Hall of Fame driver and Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip said. "These rules have been in existence ever since we've been making pit stops. They're just being monitored, looked at and called a lot closer than they've ever been before with this new technology."
In the past, an official assigned to a pit stall would have to identify penalties. Now the software program will detect violations much easier and with more consistency. It also keeps officials out of harm's way and out of the crew's way. It also could eliminate accusations that NASCAR is playing favorites and being lenient on certain teams or drivers.
"I think it's going to be great," said former Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte, who is now working for NBC Sports. "All you look for as a competitor in any sport is just consistency. You don't care how big or small the strike zone is, just as long as it's consistent for both sides.
"I think this makes it pretty black and white. Anytime you can make competition black and white I think it helps. It's going to be a change. I'm sure teams will have to get used to it, but crew chiefs are pretty smart. They'll figure it out."
Maybe so, but the new system could wreak havoc on the Daytona 500.
Several teams were busted for violations during the Sprint Unlimited, and that was with a 25-car field. More offenses could be levied after 43 cars take the green flag Sunday.
"These teams, these drivers, these pit crew coaches, they've been educated and now this is something they truly have to pay attention to," retired crew chief and Fox Sports analyst Larry McReynolds said.
Officials say the system has 9,000 times more processing power than the most recent space shuttle, has enough bandwidth to move 18,000 songs per second and has enough storage capacity to maintain 10,000 full-length HD movies.
The monitoring system was created by using a digital layout of each track's pit road. Those were measured by lasers, and the dimensions were used to create a three-dimensional image of pit road, including every square inch of each wall, nook and cranny.
The system was tested during the final 11 races last season, and teams were given detailed demonstrations of how the technology works. Teams responded by asking for a more clear indicator of where each pit stall begins, and NASCAR painted extra hash marks on pit road for better visibility.
The Daytona 500 will showcase the system — and it might determine the outcome.
"Fortune 500 companies sponsor this sport, and big decisions of funding and sponsorship are made based on outcome of races," Rogers said. "We want to be right and we want to show that it's crystal clear."