You can’t hear the cars inside IndyCar Race Control for the Long Beach Grand Prix, let alone see them.
Buried in the bowels of an arena attached to the Long Beach Convention Center — a venue that will be used for Disney On Ice at this time next week — IndyCar’s top officials are positioned in a windowless room to watch Friday’s second practice session.
The room is filled with monitors — 20 different camera angles of the track are displayed at once, not counting a smaller box showing a variety of in-car cameras — along with more than a dozen people who each have a crucial role in making sure everything goes smoothly.
In the center of it all is first-year race director Kyle Novak, the conductor for a complicated orchestra. He’s in charge of determining whether the track needs to have a local yellow flag, a full-course yellow or red flag, in addition to deploying safety personnel.
Flanking Novak are IndyCar’s two stewards — former drivers Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk Sr., who remain standing at all times. Their job is to determine penalties; if you hear an incident is under review, they’re the ones doing the reviewing.
Just past the stewards are those tasked with communication to various units: One person conveys Novak’s message to the teams, another speaks to the safety workers and so on.
There are also other officials nearby, such as a man who watches a screen full of dots moving around the track — to look at the gaps between the cars — and a woman in charge of IndyCar’s instant message system (every command from race control is also sent via IM in order to provide a record of it, and teams can send back IMs with questions).
Although it’s just practice, but the room is buzzing with activity. Oddly, though, there is no sound — no race commentary, radio chatter or vehicle noise — other than the officials communicating with each other.
The stewards believe it’s important to issue the same penalties during practice they would in a race, setting a standard of consistency so the drivers know what to expect.
For example: Rookie Robert Wickens cuts the exit of pit lane too early — there’s an orange line that marks where the transponder must cross in order to be scored — and receives a pass-through penalty after the footage is reviewed.
A pass-through during practice isn’t too damaging — aside from wasting a couple laps on tires — but it would be in the race. So it’s somewhat of a warning: This will hurt you a lot more on Sunday, so don’t do it again.
The stewards carefully watch any interaction between other cars. Papis’ eyes scan the map of dots to see drivers racing close together, then dart to the camera angle showing that battle.
“It’s way easier for people to watch races on TV and criticize, because you’re just following one story that the camera shows you,” Papis says. “In here, it’s like you are watching many episodes of a show at once.”
Papis believes the drivers and IndyCar are “one team,” and his role is not an adversarial one. He and Luyendyk view themselves as a resource for the drivers, providing an education on what they did incorrectly and gathering evidence during the sessions to present afterward.
For example: Luyendyk pulls out his cell phone to take screenshots and video from the IndyCar replay system, which is like if NASA Mission Control had TiVo. He’ll take the visual proof to the drivers in question as soon as practice ends.
Both stewards must agree on a call in order to issue a penalty, and IndyCar president Jay Frye serves as the tiebreaker for any disputes. When there’s a potential incident to review, replay officials call over the stewards for a closer look.
Everyone in the room seems to work methodically and calmly. But their voices rise and carry an extra urgency when safety workers are present on the track, exposed to danger.
Officials seemed to dislike that one car drove through a local yellow safety zone carrying too much speed. And it wasn’t just a feeling; they had the numbers to prove it. The computer said the driver went through at 94.5 percent of his typical lap speed, and Papis said drivers are asked to slow down a minimum of 15 percent — showing they at least made an effort to use caution.
Practice ends before all the penalties can be issued and served, so Papis sets off to speak with some drivers instead — clutching small printouts that looks like betting slips from a Vegas sportsbook.
In general, the stewards don’t want to issue penalties. Papis said they ask themselves two questions before doing so: First, does the action affect safety? Second, does the action affect competition?
If the answer to one of those questions is yes, a penalty is more likely than not.
“I tell these guys, ‘Don’t put it in my hands, because I haven’t done (the infraction),'” he said. “You did it.”
Papis looks around the room and shakes his head at all the technology present.
“If I would have come in here and gotten this education when I was driving, I would have used the F word a lot less,” he said with a grin.
The session ends when Takuma Sato suddenly has the back end wash out while entering Turn 1, smacking the wall.
Novak immediately spots it.
“Car in the wall, Turn 1. Red flag,” he says.
“Red flag,” the man next to him radios to the teams. “This will be the red and the checkered on the session.”
The officials guide the safety workers to Sato’s car and watch until he gets out, then begin to pack up so the next series can get ready to run.
“Great job, everyone,” Novak tells the room. “You guys are all-stars.”