IMSA: Sebring Q&A with series COO Scott Atherton

IMSA: Sebring Q&A with series COO Scott Atherton

IMSA

IMSA: Sebring Q&A with series COO Scott Atherton

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Editor’s note – No one who watched this year’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring needs to be told that, although there were plenty of racing thrills in all classes, there were way too many spills, too, as well as operational blunders that tended to exaggerate the consequences of the many incidents and accidents. We greatly appreciate Scott Atherton giving up an hour of his time to listen to RACER’s Marshall Pruett about his view from trackside and media center, and to put forth his own opinions on what was wrong, why it was wrong, and how it will be fixed. Racing purists – and we count ourselves very much in that category – will hopefully feel some reassurance at IMSA’s ongoing efforts to eradicate the negatives (and turn yellow flags to green) as soon as possible. – David Malsher, Editor.]

 

MARSHALL PRUETT: Let me start with a bit of a preamble, Scott, so you get a feel for where my questions are coming from, or at least have some sort of context as to why they’re being asked. This year’s Sebring ranks as the angriest as I’ve ever been at a racetrack. I was almost by myself in the media center working on whatever I was working on a few hours after the race, but I caught myself, teeth clenched, staring down, didn’t want to be bothered, just livid. I took a moment to think about it, trying to rationalize why. And it was a few different things. One, it was probably the worst race I’ve ever seen in terms of a product delivered to fans, paid for by entrants and drivers, manufacturers. We know about the number of cautions, we know about the length of those cautions – unacceptable length of many of those cautions. We know that the poor driving standards. We’ve certainly seen a need for licensing procedures to, I would say, definitely be reviewed before we get to our next Pro-Am event.

We saw officiating errors that were made and then compounded by other errors made. It was just something to me – it made me angry compared to other emotions I might have felt because this is at least half of how I make my living and has been for many years – since we first met – and it’s a way many of us make our living. So I left feeling angry and sad that we had put on such a poor overall display. I’m not saying we lacked highlights. When the racing was green I think we had phenomenal racing. But as a taste left in people’s mouths, based on social media and probably based on what you’ve heard, seen or read since, I would say it was not a day that many of us will look back on in a positive light.

So that’s the preamble. My first question would be, who came in Monday morning, assembled the staff and pounded the proverbial table and said, “We must do better!”? And I ask that because that’s what I hope happened. And I know it’s a very general statement and a general sentiment maybe, but I know that I’m hoping that there was some recognition, if not an emotional recognition within the halls, that we have to do better. Am I on point, off point, or misreading the situation from your perspective?

SCOTT ATHERTON: Well, I can answer your question very quickly because it was me and it wasn’t Monday morning, it was Sunday morning and it was 7:30 a.m. And it was at my office at the track. And it required rearrangement of travel plans and that was the least of my concerns. Because everything that you referenced in your preamble was a part of my mindset Saturday night as the facts became known. And, like you, I found myself very mixed because they were so many positives, so many bright lights and things to be proud of coming through the entire event.

But there were so many positives that unfortunately I expected it would be overshadowed by the negative aspects of what had occurred with the errors made in Race Control. And of course, the other race-related issues that frankly are not within anyone’s ability to control outright, but the fact that there were so many yellow flag laps and so much of that 12-hour race was run under caution was part of that counterbalance to all of the positives that we could easily list. And you’d run out of fingers with outstanding performance balancing and seeing P2 cars and DPs truly racing each other throughout the entire 12 hour period. And almost record number of lead changes, 30 lead changes across 11 different cars. Beautiful weather, full-house crowd, incredible racing at all four classes from green to checkered.

And I think the challenge here internally is to keep everyone’s perspective – I don’t want to say in line – but we can’t dismiss all of the positives that were achieved and all of the great results that were a part of that overall weekend, whether it’s from the track’s perspective and from the championship’s perspective, there’s a long list of them, and it in no way trivializes or takes away from the gravity of the mistakes that were made. But there’s a big team of people here that have been working their tails off for as long as anybody can remember. And as a manager and as a leader, you have to balance the approach here to make sure that we keep people’s heads in the game in the right way.

The meeting that I had Sunday morning was very specific in terms of who it involved, and the demand for “we have to do better” was part of that discussion. And you will be pleased to know that there was no hesitation by anyone involved to agree with that mandate. And I can tell you that the people directly involved with the decisions that come out of race control have stronger feelings about this than anyone else.


MP: Let me transition to my second question. And this piggybacks off of the negatives overwhelming the positives – I don’t even want to say in retrospect – it was just a couple of days ago – but the take away for many, whatever percentage, will be the negative. I always use the reference of my favorite baseball player growing up and to this day was Willie Stargell. He had 472 career home runs, was one of the most prolific home run hitters of all-time. He’s also number two on the all-time list for strikeouts. Point being, although the positives are championed and maybe that’s what he’s most known for, which is great, he’s also known for being… if he’s not hitting a home run, he’s striking out. And that definitely affects history’s view on the man.

So I look at last weekend and I look back at the Rolex 24, I look at the officiating at the end of that event, which I’m incredibly happy that IMSA reviewed and reversed that call, but I start to think of the continued negatives clouding the positives. I then look at what took place here and see if we were to limit it to just one, the Alex Job Racing issue, where not only was the wrong car penalized, it was penalized after multiple officials reviewed footage and were unable to spot the difference between the series mandated color differences of the rear wing end plates.

Then to compound problems, when it came down to penalize the car that did strike the number 49 Spirit of Race Ferrari, the wrong Porsche, factory Porsche, was called in and penalized. So we actually penalized the wrong GTD car that didn’t make any contact that protested wildly beforehand. That was not heeded, although there was a lot of time to get that call right. Although it was wrong, when it came time to actually penalize the car that did make the contact it was done to the sister car. So two mistakes on the same incident.

When an umpire blows multiple calls in the NFL or Major League Baseball, they don’t get to keep officiating. They are either pulled off of the field for the next event or however many events, and docked some sort of pay. Bottom line, they’re held accountable. Everyone makes a mistake, but a trend or history of mistakes in stick and ball sports come with repercussions. I’m not a big penalty guy, but I sure know I’ve heard a lot of people including drivers who were in the event tell me IMSA’s race director needs to be fired, needs to be penalized, needs to be censured, needs to be something so that we know that he and his team do not sit in the proverbial ivory tower.

So, I’m curious what your thought is on holding the men accountable – the ones who hold the teams and drivers accountable – for their mistakes.

SA: Well, you’ve covered a lot of ground in this statement you made. I would back up to your restating of what happened, and my response to that is it’s inexcusable. There is nothing that can be said that that justifies or makes what happened acceptable to anyone involved. And that includes the senior most management of the IMSA organization.

The other aspect of your statement was your baseball analogy and my only comment on that particular example is we don’t have a pool of hundreds of qualified race officials to draw from for this role, unlike major league baseball that simply rotates different people in an out of different game settings from night to night, week to week, etc. So there really isn’t any parallel lines that can be drawn there. When you talk about the accountability of the staff in race control and will we penalize, punish, etc.? That question frankly crosses over into a personnel issue that is not something appropriate to comment on. I can tell you that it is being addressed appropriately. This is not an example of officiating that anyone in this organization is accepting as being appropriate.

I’ve had many conversations both in person and over the phone. And in this example for us to say we’re sorry and we’ll do our best to not make the same mistakes in the future is insufficient. And I recognize that. I’m not here today to detail the ultimate results of this process that we’re going through right now. It has the attention of this organization at the highest level. There are certain elements of our decision that will ultimately become public. There are other aspects that will not. But I think you can take full satisfaction in knowing that we are dealing with this in a way that is consistent with the seriousness of the mistakes, the effect that it has had on our championship, the impact that it has had on those who were affected by this, and no part of this is acceptable.


MP: Staying on this topic, I had a long call with Alex Job yesterday who broke down this – again, I know we’re just talking about this instance – broke this officiating error down with a complete timeline, and minute by minute, reading the instant messages that were exchanged back and forth, just trying to paint a full picture. And one of the things he said was the official results have yet to be published. We had the unofficial results right after the race. And then yesterday, at least distributed publicly, were the provisional. But the official is yet to be published.

He made a great point. He said: I think everyone would agree that errors were made. Everyone makes errors. If this is allowed to stand – if IMSA can then make a mistake and their only penalty is to have to say I’m sorry, which Paul [Walter] came in and Scot [Elkins] came in after the race and did, his point is if I have to pay a penalty for a mistake made by someone, and the person doing that can get away with a mistake by simply saying I’m sorry, there’s a lack of balance there. That right there is a credibility killer.

His takeaway was they’ve yet to publish the official results. “I’m not asking to be placed back where I was at the time or for some time credit to be given that would ultimately win me the race but I would love to see something. Concede something, give me back something as a show of good faith.” So I’m just curious looking forward, it’s maybe uncharted territory, I really haven’t seen a lot of time given back on official results in any racing series, but maybe the greater question I would love to explore is: Is there a way IMSA can restore its credibility and also appease an entrant who was wrongly penalized at the same time?

SA: Well, again, a lot of ground covered on this question. I’m pleased to hear that Alex is in agreement that it would be inappropriate to add the time taken away from him back into the equation or to adjust the final results, because while that action may have pleased Alex and his team, I think that would be the ultimate destruction of IMSA’s integrity. The integrity of the rulebook and the integrity of how race control implements the rulebook and enforces it. There’s no question that there was an egregious set of errors made. To go back and try to restate any aspect of that, adding time, giving a lap back, whatever the example might be in my opinion would be yet another error. And perhaps even more damaging.

MP: And to be clear, he did not say he expected to be given everything back, but he did say he’d like to get something.

SA: This whole dynamic in this dialogue with Alex and race control and IMSA officials I should say has evolved as you would expect it from the heated moment of the actual playing out of what occurred to the initial aftermath and now days later the follow-up. We have agonized over this process because there is no provision anywhere, not just within the infrastructure but anywhere in motorsport that I’m familiar with. And I’ve asked, I’ve tasked our race officials to come back with is there any mechanism that’s recognized, even outside of our own auspices, to correct a mistake like this. And the answer is – it sounds very abrupt and clipped – but there really isn’t.

There’s no way that we can go back and recreate the finish, just the result, do anything that would potentially unwind the error that was made. And when Alex says give me something, just show good faith or to maintain credibility, I don’t know what the example would be. Some people have suggested we should pay out incremental purse money just to recognize that perhaps he could have finished higher results than he did. Again, I think it’s a very slippery slope; that anytime there is a penalty that is deemed to be inappropriate or arguable or whatever I think the way IMSA retains and hopefully rebuilds its credibility is by putting together the rest of the season with race control calls administration that is completely in line with the terms of the rulebook and the precedent that’s been set. Good precedent in many, many examples of how to conduct races professionally and consistently. There’s nothing we can do to take back the mistakes that were made. I agree with you; to simply say I’m sorry and we’ll try better next time is a wholly unacceptable response if that was the only action being taken.

I’d like to transition into what we are doing differently, what was immediately reviewed – and I don’t want to use the word “mandated” because that sounds like bulletins were issued – but there’s a provision in the rulebook now that all in-car camera cars that have active cameras must display the current number within the frame of view of the in-car camera. Some have done that, they’re in complete compliance, others have not. Unfortunately, the camera in question here did not include the car number.

Now, there’s another more complex explanation as to how the race officials in Race Control could have arrived at this conclusion they did with so many telling elements that should have confirmed it wasn’t in fact the 22 car. With the clarity of 20-20 hindsight and the opportunity to review multiple different angles, not only in-car cameras but the exterior shots, there were some photographers that took crystal clear images of the incident as it happened. Unfortunately, none of those examples were available to race control at the time of the decision.

There’s a technical issue here involving the number of in-car cameras that are active in the capacity of the camera feeds to be shown, not only to the broadcast but also to the monitors that are in race control. What I’m saying is there are more active cameras than there are channels to carry those images. So unbeknownst to Race Control, the television production had the ability to shift the same channel but to carry multiple cars through that same channel. The monitor that was labeled in race control with the 22 car number was the same monitor that had the capability and was being utilized to carry images from other cars. So what the race officials thought was the image coming from inside the 22 car turned out to be that of a different car. So if we want to go back to the root cause of what led to this erroneous decision, that’s as close as we’re going to come.

Now again, with the aftermath investigation, knowing what we know now, it’s abundantly obvious to anyone of course that’s not Alex’s car. At the time that the incident was being reviewed, at the time that the in-car camera footage was being reviewed, all of the other elements that were available at that moment in time, it was not as clear to them as it is now, obviously.

There will be, there has already been the implementation of a much more thorough investigation of each incident to confirm and reconfirm and reconfirm again that the car that we’re viewing is the car that we believe was involved and there is no… If you look at the way the cars are identified now, because we have made the cars mandate the same color mirrors, wing end plates for the prototypes, the top of the windscreens for the GT, it does make it very much easier for fans and everyone to identify the difference between the classes, but it has also eliminated some of the historical differences that the teams have incorporated in to tell the difference between the two Corvettes, between the two Flying Lizard entries, etc. Unless you have a very clear monitor – and I don’t want to go into the details of what was in place there on Saturday of Sebring – what I will tell you is part of the follow-up from this incident review is that we will be significantly upgrading the replay capabilities within Race Control.


MP: There were some driving standards throughout the race that I think all alarms – if they did not alarm – should alarm almost everyone. Amateur drivers, Pro-Am drivers per se have taken the brunt of the criticism, although I watched pro drivers hit things on their own and have issues. So while I think some of the more alarming crashes had Pro-Am drivers at the controls, it certainly wasn’t exclusive to them, so I want to state that up front. I’m not about to pick on Pro-Am drivers. But I think – I know – that coming out of Sebring, simply assigning bronze, silver, gold and platinum is no longer sufficient to judge the actual merit or quality and capabilities of those who possess those rankings.

Long story short, being able to qualify for a bronze or silver might not be the… There should probably be a review panel or something that truly asks, is this driver meant to be on track at an event? And if so, when and where? Compared to “if you can qualify for it you can race in it.” Coming out of Sebring, have there been discussions about altering driver credentialing, something to make sure that the disparity of experience and talent do not converge in the types of crashes that we saw?

SA: Well, I think if you look – you’ve already brought it up but I’m going to add some more detail to it – unfortunately, the incidents involved both Pro-Am and very highly credentialed, very experienced, fully professional drivers as well. So it’s not a fair comment to say that the driver ranking problem is fundamentally broken and needs to be reviewed because some of the most experienced drivers out there that truly make their living driving sports cars were equally responsible for some very significant lapses in judgment.

Now, that said, there is already in place a review system and panel with knowledgeable people involved in approving who is allowed to receive an IMSA competition license and at what level. It’s not such that you or I could send in the appropriate application along with the appropriate check and receive a bronze license in the mail. Everyone is reviewed and scrutinized. And I can say that I’m confident that the IMSA officials who are charged with making those decisions felt that everyone that was entered in the race was competent to be there.

Now, there’s numerous examples that would fly in the face of that statement and I can tell you that there is a work in progress right now to identify and censure some of the most graphic examples. I’m not going to list the names right now but I will say that there is a great possibility that event suspensions and/or probation will be part of the follow-up for some of them, as I said, the more graphic examples of poor judgment. And I think it falls under the category of unjustifiable risk.

MP: I’ll just add this because Marino Franchitti brought up a fantastic example yesterday in a radio interview where he said: “We need to look at the driver ratings – bronze, silver and all of this, etc. – there are guys sitting on the sidelines that shouldn’t be. It’s hurting people’s livelihoods. But not only that, you’re putting us all of us in harm’s way.” This is the part that stood out. “By making people on track attractive to teams and you have to have some sort of minimum standards…”

In context, what he was saying was Pro-Am classes are often fueled by gentlemen drivers, and “gentlemen” does not imply a lack of anything it just means that they are not professionals. It doesn’t imply that they are incapable or lack skill. We know many Pro-Am drivers that are highly skilled. But I would say there are clear examples of drivers at Sebring who, based on their ability to pay for the seat, pretty much met the standards the team happened to be looking for. They obviously had bronze or silver ratings and were able to drive. But rather than skill or talent or experience, the fact that they A, had a license; and B, were able to pay for the seat, seemed to trump other interests.

So again, I just raise this from the topic of obviously IMSA would not allow a driver into an event that they felt was drastically lacking in any category. But the follow-up I would ask is, do we need to enhance the restrictions? The minimum allowance per se. Do we want a driver with minimal experience, professional environment experience running with 60+ other drivers at Sebring? Or would the Kansas PC race, for example, be a more suitable environment for them to get their feet wet?

SA: How do you come back with a response other than there is a system in place, there is a panel in place that reviews driver qualifications? As I said before, I don’t think anybody knowingly approved anyone that they weren’t confident had the credentials to be there. This type of motorsport has always featured a combination of professional and amateur drivers. Now that we have seen some of these drivers perform, or to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek not perform, it’s easy to say that person doesn’t truly have the credentials despite what their résumé may say to be out there.

And we’ve merged two large bases of competitors together. People from both the Grand-Am organization in the American Le Mans Series have been involved in all aspects of the driver ranking and processing of licenses and there have been several who have not been given license for exactly this reason. It’s not an example of sending your money and your application and wait by your mailbox to get your license. There is a rigorous analysis of credentials and capability before license is granted. And believe me because I get the phone calls from drivers that have been turned down. More recently it’s been more of a rating issue: They’ve made a mistake in my rating and here’s why.

As was the case at Daytona – and I don’t want to say, I don’t want to imply in any way that there is any common threads from what happened to Daytona in Race Control and what happened at Sebring – but what is common is there is absolutely a lot of learning that came out of both of those races. A lot of things to be very proud of, a lot of things that were executed flawlessly. Also some glaring examples of mistakes and errors that in the clear light of the follow-up appears obvious to many. But no one is opining on this now, short of Paul Walters, Scot Elkins and selected others, were there at that moment and truly understand the total picture of what they were dealing with.

And as I said you way back in this conversation, those gentlemen have taken this harder than anyone else. And if there was a methodology, a mechanism, a process to correct, they’re the first ones that would implement it. No one is taking it more serious than they as to that original mandate that we said that we absolutely have to do. We have to be better. We are better than this. I guess you could compare it to a number of things. Great political careers that get destroyed with one lapse in judgment. Same thing happens with athletic careers that are also taken out with a lapse in judgment. And I’m not trying to draw any analogy lines here or comparisons, but I don’t want anyone to lose sight of so much positive and so much success that has also been very much a part of these first two examples of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship.


MP: The length of some of the caution periods were painful. I’ll admit that this really struck me the wrong way: David Higdon brought Scot and Paul up immediately after the race – pretty odd to have the race director and series competition director the first people to sit and address the media after the race instead of the winners. And offered an apology for the Alex Job mistake, etc. Opened up for questions and I asked the first question to Paul and that was I focused on the final yellow for the stalled of Marsh Racing DP that Eric Curran was driving. I asked how we burned 32 minutes within the last hour of the race for a stalled car that was well off the racing line? How is that not a quick tow-in and/or, “Sorry, we’re in the closing stages of the race, we’re going to tow you to the next opening in the wall, get you out of the way and get back to racing?”

And Paul responded as if I’d asked the stupidest question in the world – like I wanted to know if the moon was made out of cheese. And he basically said that’s what’s specified in the rulebook. There’s no provision for us to do anything other than that. We had to cycle the cars around, we had to open up the pits, go through this whole procedure. He was essentially saying there was nothing else that could be done.

And I felt sad for him because I know that’s not true. Because every rulebook has a “in the best interest of the sport” provision. In the IMSA rulebook it’s: “on occasion circumstances are presented either unforeseen or otherwise extraordinary where strict application of the rules may not achieve the purpose.” Essentially, there’s wiggle room to do what’s best in the interest of the sport. What struck me, and I’ll leave this topic for your response, is after is the yellow for the stalled Eric Curran car took place, I believe it was 51 minutes left to go, we burned just over 30 minutes getting a stalled car out of the way, leaving just over 20 minutes of green flag racing. Had that happened at the 30 minute mark, in theory, the 12 Hours of Sebring would’ve ended under caution for a stalled car 30 minutes before the finish.

Paul seemed to think he was painted into a corner and could do nothing else. I have to believe either rewriting the rules or encouraging him to use the rule I just mentioned, which is essentially the “in the best interest of the sport” rule to apply some situational decision making when faced with these things in the future. Is that reasonable to expect?

SA: Well, it’s another very complicated situation. And you know why – what takes time, obviously, is not removing the stalled car, that happened relatively quickly and it was done. What takes time is closing the pits, opening the pits and then proceeding with the wave-by procedures that are dictated is how full-course yellows are to be handled. So if you were a team that was previously affected in a negative way – and, typically, what’s happening in the lower classes when the overall leader would come through, you have a spectacular battle taking place and because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the full-course yellow came out, suddenly that race is destroyed. The car in front goes a lap up, the car behind the leader goes a lap down and no one is happy. That’s why that provision was put in place. When you had multiple yellows that have all been handled the same way, regardless of when that full-course yellow occurs I don’t think that there should be an arbitrary decision made to deviate from what has been the protocol consistently throughout, not only this race but all other races in recent times that come before it.

Are we satisfied with the full-course yellow procedures and the time required to work through the process? No. And is this one of many examples under review? Absolutely. And it’s easy to say we got to find a better way. We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to figure out a way to make these more efficient. When you’ve got 60+ cars and four classes of cars spread out around a 3.74-mile track, it’s easy to sit back and say we’ve got to figure out a way to get better. But you add all of those factual elements into the equation and, believe me, everybody involved is working as rapidly as efficiently and as humanly possible.

And I was frustrated like everyone else. I kept saying every time the pace car would come or the safety car would come by the start-finish line as it entered into Turn 16 and 17, please, show me the lights are turned off and that this race is about to go back to green. I think Paul would be the first person to agree with that. But you can’t go back to green until that process has been completed. All of the examples I’ve given, as far as the number of cars, length of track, number of classes involved, that’s how long it has taken. And it’ll be interesting for us to see how this all plays out at Long Beach with just the prototype and GTLM categories and 23 or 24 cars in total on the track. Theoretically, all driven by professional drivers.

MP: Very true, I would just maybe offer a few things in response. I know track length is definitely… If this was Lime Rock with the track length and the amount of time it takes a pace car to go around that circuit it would take far less. But at the same time, do we need to go through the complete full-course yellow procedure every time – again, I’m looking at this from a wider perspective. If every time a football player was injured on the field fans knew that the next 15 to 20 minutes, no matter what, whether it was a sprain or a horrible injury, the minute the game was stopped and the doctors run onto the field that there was essentially you’re going to have 15 minutes, 20 minutes, maybe 30 minutes until play resumed, I would say that sport would suffer greatly. Because fans would say, “OK, I’m committed to X amount of time out of my day to follow, to watch, to whatever.”

And if you tell me the minute something happens, even if it is very small and the player can walk off the field, or in our sport, a full-course yellow is called for, you can essentially get up from the couch, go mow the lawn, take the dogs for a walk and come back and we might get back to racing, I would say as a sport that’s trying to get people to follow us, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Can we find ways to reduce the downtime going forward?

SA: The answer is yes. I think we approach this first from a fan’s perspective. There’s a lot of people in the administration that would consider themselves fans of the sport. And I think that’s what causes the stomach acid to churn when they see things that are counter to what would otherwise be a more positive fan experience. Now, the challenge is matching up what is an ideal fan experience with the practicality of conducting professional motorsport events. Sometimes those two goals are in conflict. The extreme examples that we’re talking about, whether it was the mistakes made, the process that is currently in place for full-course yellows, no one is satisfied with the results that we experienced at Sebring. And, again, I hate to use the phrase but I will, I’m going to say rest assured that your concerns, which I know are shared by many, are being dissected, debated and reviewed with an eye toward making them better. Status quo for what we experienced at Sebring is not an option.

One thing I wanted to add. I think I’m sure you’ve already arrived at this, but we do have some time on our side here knowing that the next race at Long Beach will feature just the prototype and GTLM class when we go to Mazda Raceway and we will feature two separate races. So the next time that all four categories are back on track racing concurrently as they were Sebring will be at the end of June when we gather for Watkins Glen. The commitment’s made to make sure that when all four classes are together again in anger it’ll be a better result than what we just experienced at Sebring.

 

MX-5 Cup | Round 6 – Mid-Ohio

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