An exclusive look into NASCAR's control booth at Charlotte
CONCORD, N.C. -- Thick and foreboding, the slate gray door stands guard. VIPs and their guests walk by, headed to cushy seats and catered food in Charlotte Motor Speedway's suites. For some, the door's only purpose is to serve as a landmark -- the next opening down is the women's restroom.
For others, it is a mystery. The door looks as heavy as a bank vault's and holds as many secrets. A sign across it reads: NASCAR/CMS Control.
It is here in an almost hermetically sealed room, lit by computer and TV screens, where NASCAR officials rule over races.
A few Sprint Cup drivers have visited race control through the years.
Earnhardt pondered going but questions the booth's creature comforts compared to his motorhome. The view -- race control is positioned just before the start/finish line at Charlotte -- is spectacular but the two rows are narrow and barely hold a dozen people comfortably. Still, one question lingers for Earnhardt about race control.
"Who does what?'' he said. "When calls are made, who's making them and who's in charge so that way you could kind of funnel your anger and frustration toward just one individual the next time you get pissed off.''
Vickers has made multiple trips to race control. The visits changed his perception of what officials do.
"Sometimes you feel like your problem is the only problem they have,'' he said. "And then you go up in the tower and you realize they've got 42 other problems besides you and how hectic things are. It's a lot busier than I realized.''
Get ready. The door opens, leading to a short, darkened hallway. To your left is the room some former series champions have never entered. You are welcome, as we see how NASCAR officials called last weekend's Sprint Showdown.
"Put it out!'' David Hoots radios flagman Rodney Wise to wave the yellow flag. "Put it out. Turn 1.''
It's lap 3 of the 40-lap Showdown, the preliminary event to last weekend's All-Star race.
Before both cars stop, the action intensifies in race control.
"Back 'em down,'' Hoots instructs spotters and crew chiefs to slow their drivers.
"Back the 6 down Rocky,'' Hoots tells race leader
Hoots, Darby and Phillips talk in code. They use numbers to refer to various vehicles on the track. Choreographing rescue trucks, clean-up crews and jet dryers with 25 race cars circling can be challenging.
"Turn 2 fire come out and go around,'' Phillips says to a fire truck. "Get out wrecker, take off. Get out wrecker, take off.''
"The leader has got it, he's clear,'' Darby says, referring to Ragan taking the yellow flag at the start/finish line. "Leader is the 6,'' Hoots radios. "Clean up 3 [truck] you're clear to come across. You've got one [car] in the middle of [turn] 2.
As Hoots directs traffic, he issues another announcement.
"No free pass,'' he says, noting that no car is eligible to get its lap back.
Suddenly, Earnhardt's voice rises above this crescendo of chatter. NASCAR President Mike Helton's scanner is tuned to Earnhardt's frequency. The volume is turned up.
"I don't know,'' Earnhardt says to crew chief Steve Letarte about the car's handling. "It's getting into the corner pretty comfortable.''
Hoots, Darby and Phillips drown out Earnhardt's next comments with the commands they issue on their radio channels.
Helton, seated in the second row, leans over to Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. They view a monitor showing a replay of the wreck.
"You watch that early on and it looks like something locked up,'' Helton said.
They watch one of the two monitors in front of Christy May, the TV liaison. She relays NASCAR's decisions to the TV network so the announcers can tell fans. She also can call up one of 18 different camera angles on to a couple of screens in front of her or the big-screen TV hanging from the ceiling.
"Mike, I'm going to open pit road on you this time,'' Hoots shouts to Phillips.
"I'm good, I'm good Dave,'' Phillips shouts back, giving a thumbs-up sign. "Pit road will be open,'' Hoots says on the radio. May puts a replay of the crash on the big screen. Hoots, Darby and Phillips are too busy to notice. Pemberton and Helton study the crash.
"I think the driveshaft broke,'' Pemberton said of Cassill's car.
"I noticed the car doing something funky before the tire came apart,'' Helton said.
"Yes, the driveshaft broke,'' Pemberton said.
In some ways, it feels as if race control is stuck in the 1980s. Helton, Pemberton and Hoots have legal pads next to their laptops to write notes. A few have stopwatches nearby. One writes notes in pencil.
Although computers do all the work, these officials can't shake the systems they learned decades earlier. Plus, it provides an added redundancy to a redundant system.
A yellow sticky note with three sets of numbers written with a black Sharpie is attached to the keyboard of each laptop.
The top number is 31.53. That's the maximum time in seconds a competitor can complete a lap or he'll be ordered off the track for going too slow.
The other two numbers -- 2.05/4.10 -- on the note are carryovers from the past.
They relate to pit road speeds now done electronically. Each official in race control can see those speeds posted on their computer as drivers cross the nine timing lines at Charlotte. If a driver speeds in any segment, that box turns red and Hoots calls the penalty.
While Pemberton's computer is on a different system than those of Darby and Hoots -- that way if one system goes down, there's a backup -- they have another backup.
Stopwatches. The number 2.05 is the fastest a driver can cross two equidistant white lines on pit road in seconds without incurring a penalty, while 4.10 represents the quickest drivers can go through two such segments in seconds.
"You always have a stopwatch as a last resort,'' says Pemberton, who also keeps a rule book beside his laptop.
Although computers show running orders, who is a lap down, who is in the garage, who has pitted and when, Hoots, Pemberton and Helton still write such information on legal pads.
Hoots uses a pencil.
"Pencils write faster than pens because there's graphite in them,'' he says.
Speed is essential for someone who oversees the race on a channel monitored by more than 100 series officials and clean-up crews, along with each team and many fans.
When the race resumes after a caution is when the room is calmest. Officials scan the track and cars for any problems or potential issues.
Helton oversees it all in a quiet, yet commanding way.
During the Cassill and Cope accident, Helton asks Phillips if the safety crews inspected the SAFER barrier. Another time, he sees a potential safety issue with fans close to the fence nears turn 1 and has Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president of racing operations, contact track security. Later, Helton calls out a car with a tire rub, so officials know to keep an eye on that car.
Helton also watches portions of the race through binoculars, a must for everyone in the booth, even with the TV screens available.
Darby, O'Donnell, Pemberton and Helton also have scanners to listen to the teams. Unlike fan scanners that can hold as many as 200 channels, the radios NASCAR officials use contain only their radio channels. If they want to listen to teams, they have to use another scanner.
Helton keeps his scanner on Earnhardt's channel throughout the race. Other officials switch drivers. During the mid-race break, Ragan's voice can be heard on Darby's scanner. Later,
"How about that move?'' Darby says to no one in particular in the booth.
"Brad in the grass,'' O'Donnell responds.
Later in the race, as the field is bunched and cars wiggle in traffic, an audible "Whoa'' is heard in the booth.
There's no wreck. Officials continue scanning the field awaiting any trouble.
On this night, there is no major decision to make. To answer Earnhardt's question of who is in charge, it's the highest-ranking official in the booth. That is Helton. Ultimately, it's his decision if there is a disagreement.
It's that give and take that Burton recalls the first time he watched a race in the booth with series officials nearly 20 years ago at Bristol.
"A driver spun another driver out,'' Burton recalls. "One of the officials was adamant that there needed to be a penalty and all the other officials were adamant that there didn't need to be a penalty. That was pretty interesting ... how are they going to work this out?''
"There was no penalty,'' Burton said.
A caution slows the final segment of the Showdown, sending the room abuzz again. Once the track is cleared, the race goes caution free to the end where Ragan beats Keselowski.
NASCAR stops the top finishing cars on pit road, while the rest drive to their garage stalls. Ragan exits his car and walks to Victory Lane while his crew readies the car for the upcoming All-Star race.
Race control can relax.
Helton suddenly breaks out singing the circus theme song, "Bup bup ba da da ...'' and then finishes by singing "Buffalo gal won't you come out tonight.''
It is time to leave. Up a couple of steps we go, past the NASCAR scorers, who are separated from the officials by glass, and into the darkened hallway. The heavy door opens, crowds walk by and, suddenly, the door shuts.
There it stands, guarding the sport's inner sanctum.