What follows is part two of Frontstretch’s visit with Gene Stefanyshyn, the Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development for NASCAR. Last week, we learned about the attempts to reduce horsepower, decrease downforce and driver adjustments. Stefanyshyn’s vision is to improve the racing while also improving the experience for fans and teams at the race track.
This week, we explore the implementation of digital gauges and dashboards, automated officiating, and the elimination of testing. Stefanyshyn worked with more than just the teams in leading the effort to make the largest adjustment to the rules package since the Car of Tomorrow. The fact that NASCAR has tasked him with this challenge shows that the organization realizes the product needs to be improved. Whether the alterations that are being enacted for 2015 will head the racing in the right direction will only be confirmed over the schedule next season. If they do, then Stefanyshyn and his team will be applauded. If they don’t, then they will be faced with an even tougher task to try and win the fans over again.
Mike Neff: The series is going to allow digital gauges, which used to be taboo in the past. Was there a reason for a change in course on that or is it just part of moving forward with technology in the sport?
Gene Stefanyshyn: There are three reasons there that won’t be readily apparent to everyone. One of the reasons was that, when people look into the car we want them to be able to look at it and feel that it is modern and moving with the times. We will have the ability with those, because they are highly reconfigurable, to make the cluster look like a modern car, although we haven’t quite landed with this concept yet. There is the whole cosmetic, modern element of it. There is the element of cost. We wanted to make sure we weren’t putting a system into the car that was more costly. That is very critical for us. It is roughly the same cost for the current set of installed gauges, although costs can vary. The nice thing about this though is that, essentially, you just have to plug in one wire with two fasteners. So, the teams can, just like they do with the ECU, they don’t have to have one for every car. They can purchase one cluster for two cars and move them from car to car. The teams will therefore have the ability to reduce cost with this system if they so choose. That is critical. The third element, which is probably the most important, is that it now sets us up to the point where the display will be able to accept information that we send into the car telematically. That is where we want to go in the future. What we want to do in the future is give all drivers instantaneous officiating information from the tower. If a caution light goes on we want them all to see it instantaneously. If pit road is open or closed, where they will line up for restarts, when they have been assessed a penalty, information like that. We want to be able to send, to the car from race control, officiating data in real time, very fast, so that everyone can see it instantaneously. Without something like this that would not be possible. This is the first step in a journey to bring a more modern form of officiating to the drivers. Critical with that is, at the same time, sending information to the crew chief so that everyone is synced up and seeing everything at the same time. This is the first step in a bigger strategy.
Neff: We are also going to be implementing automated officiating starting in 2015. That is going to reduce the number of officials on pit road but we are going to have a camera on every pit stall. Will there be any gray area or ability to appeal a decision by the camera or is it cut and dried when the camera makes the call?
Stefanyshyn: We’ve been running the system in the background this season while we’re still officiating the way we always have. We have 43 officials on pit road but we’ve had the automated system running in the background, shaking it down and checking it and making sure it all works well. When we get to next year we’ll still have people on pit road, we just won’t have as many. We’ll be relying on the video analytics technology to help us. It isn’t video replay, it has the ability to look and give a green or red light when there is an infraction. There will be people reviewing the system and they will have the ability to override it if they think something is wrong or release the penalty. We will keep refining it. We will want to demonstrate it to the teams because it is very precise and has the ability to capture far more infractions than our current system does. It isn’t a criticism of our inspectors. They are in the box with a lot of stuff going on and they have to see a car coming across a line two or three pit stalls away and there is the thing like the paradox of error. It is very difficult to do. We’re going to get very precise here now. It will be an educational process for the teams and, in particular the pit crew trainers, to make sure people don’t jump too early. This is bringing more precision to the sport. The beauty of it too is, although we haven’t investigated this totally yet, we may be able to bring this to broadcasting as a play-by-play feature for our TV fans. They will be able to understand why a penalty is called. They can look at it in slow motion and see the detail. It will bring more richness to our TV fans. At those tracks where they have jumbotrons or like in Texas where they have Big Hoss, we will hopefully be able to beam it up there as well. There is a ton of work still to be done on that avenue but that is what that one is about.
Neff: Along that vein, pit road speed has always been a subject of much consternation over the lack of public availability. Is that now a possibility as part of this officiating going forward?
Stefanyshyn: That is a possibility, but we haven’t debated that thoroughly yet as to whether we want to or not. That is one of those things that is anchored in history. We’ve always left that up to the drivers to manage so we’ll have to decide if that is something we want to do or not. The potential is there, if we do it will it be for the betterment of the sport and the experience for the fans or will it be a detriment? We have yet to take that journey and have that discussion. We’re at the stage here to see if we can do officiating in a good way with the system and then the question will be where do we go from there?
Neff: The teams have a lot to digest with this new rules package coming into 2015. NASCAR decided to implement a total ban on testing. What was the logic of completely doing away with testing when you are rolling out the most rule changes since the Car of Tomorrow was introduced?
Stefanyshyn: This wasn’t done in total isolation. One of the things I’m most proud of this year is that a lot of the rules development we have done in collaboration with our key partners. Whether it was the drivers, the teams, the broadcasters, sponsors, engine builders, all of the people we have tried to involve in the discussions. We have to make the final decision. We make our decision based on what is best for the entertainment value for the fans and what is best for the garage and the teams. We are very concerned about cost for the teams because we need to put 43 cars on the track every weekend. That is very important to us so when we looked at testing I set up a meeting with the teams and told them to think about it for a month before they came in. I had heard a lot from the teams that the testing thing didn’t quite work well. So I had them come in and get together to talk about it and see what they were all thinking. I had ten teams come in and get their thoughts. These are some of the things they came up with. This costs us a lot of money and the value of it is not as high as we’d like because we go to tracks that we don’t race on. The tracks aren’t rubbered in. We don’t race there. We are off on our own spending money on track rental, travel, medical support, all on our own. Is there a better way? I would say this was a cooperation and collaboration between us and the teams to find a better way. They said let’s look at a way to do this. Let’s stop the way we’re doing it because it costs us a ton of money. Our concern was how we would enforce it. Their suggestion was to make it a very severe penalty if there is an infraction. We’ll make it a P6 and so that is what we’ve done. This will be somewhat self policing so that’s where we have ended up. The short answer is, we can reduce costs but find a system where we can give them more value in their testing by doing it on tracks that they are going to race on that are going to be rubbered up. It will be a better simulation of what is going to happen on race day, so that is what that is about.
Neff: So going into 2015, at least in the early part of the season, will be see a good number of NASCAR tests in the first part of the season so all of the teams can be involved? Also, there was discussion about opening the tracks a day early for some of the early races to allow the teams to get some additional practice/test time?
Stefanyshyn: I don’t have the specific answers to that yet but we’ve been sitting down talking about some potential alternatives. We will be embarking on that journey here over the next month. I’m hoping that, within a month or so we can have this thing buttoned up. Then, once the concept it buttoned up, we can put a schedule to it. Our goal is to have the concept buttoned up and then put a schedule to it for 2015.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.
When I first heard of the change to digital gauges it seemed like replacing a missing button on a shredded shirt. I have to admit though, the ability to transmit more real time information to the driver with a projected cost savings to boot, I’m impressed.
The tech changes on the horizon for NASCAR are exciting. It shows that this sport is willing to innovate with the times.
I like that NASCAR is trying to embrace more technology but in a tempered way. That makes the cars a bit more like street cars now where new the technology is advancing rapidly, but trying to avoid the hyper-technology that dominates Formula-1. Interesting interview.
I’ll take a different tact. I like the current gauges that they use. I don’t care for digital gauges at all. Not that it’s going to make a real difference to the entertainment factor of the racing.
Being able to signal the driver of a caution right away is a good idea though.
Yea, I always found the old fashioned Pro Comp gauges to be way cooler than the boring little digi-dashes used in every other form of racing.
Putting a light on the dashboard so all the teams know when the caution comes out… Wasn’t that done in ARCA about 10-12 years ago? WoO do it also , I believe?