PRUETT: Policing IMSA's new radio rules

Image by Galstad/LAT

PRUETT: Policing IMSA's new radio rules

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Policing IMSA's new radio rules


In an ongoing effort to apply further control to its WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series, IMSA has released a new series of restrictions that will govern what can and cannot be said between its teams and drivers over the radio.

Initially revealed last week, and subject to a revision that removed the mandate for all communications to be carried out in English, IMSA has established a radio policy designed to strip out the use of code words and secret instructions shared between pit lane and the cockpit.

Among IMSA’s DPi teams, CORE autosport and Team Penske are known to regularly work from code-based dialogue as heard over their radio frequencies, and the practice has been common among factory GT Le Mans entries and teams in the other WeatherTech Championship classes.

Of late, as IMSA has applied an ever-increasing number of rules and limitations on its paddock, and, as variances in Balance of Performance results have been the subject of heated meetings between teams and senior members of IMSA and NASCAR leadership, the series has looked to radio communications as another BoP-related area to police.

Many teams and manufacturers have taken to using the live timing and scoring feed delivered to every timing stand (where lap information is often broken down into 10 sectors or more) and, through the aid of software, identify sectors where their car might be out-performing its expected pace.

With BoP serving as a cat-and-mouse game where teams do not want to reveal their true capabilities on the stopwatch in most instances, and with the series on the constant lookout for evidence of cars going faster than the BoP tables for that vehicle should allow, some teams have made use of the timing info and sector data to coach drivers on where to reduce their pace to avoid drawing the attention of IMSA’s technical regulators. By forbidding codes and veiled messages, IMSA believes it will curb instructions that lead to performance manipulations from the driver’s seat.

According to Rule 14.2.1, “All radio transmissions between the Team and Car or Driver must directly understandable in their meaning. Providing false or intentionally misleading information is a breach of the RULES and the use of code(s), cipher(s), disguised, misleading, or otherwise secretive language to attempt to influence the BoP process by manipulating the performance through Driver management or by any other means is prohibited and may be penalized per Art. 57. IMSA is the final authority with respect to radio transmission inputs and all related decisions. The 2019 IMSA Sporting Regulations and Series Supplementary Regulations for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship shall be updated with the information herein.”

Somebody will have the unenviable task of monitoring more than 1000 hours of radio transmissions at next year’s Rolex 24. Image by Galstad/LAT

To further support the new rule, IMSA has drastically reduced the number of sectors made available via telemetry to three, and removed trap speed figures as well.

Where the rule change impacts the entire paddock is the removal of much meaningful comparison data. With a great number of sectors to analyze, teams could parse and quickly react to small variances in speed related to the numbers produced by their rivals and ask their drivers to adjust accordingly before IMSA took notice of a routine occurrence.

What the rule does not change is each team’s ability to use the live telemetry coming from its car(s) and inserting as many artificial sectors into the data as desired. Although each team’s telemetry does not include the telemetry of its rivals, a trained race engineer will be able to replicate IMSA’s former sector-rich timing information and monitor any sector times and speeds that stand out as unusual.

Also, while considering the performance-information-capturing methods of old, tasking members of a team who are not bound to pit lane — possibly from the hospitality or PR staff — to go trackside with stopwatches and radar guns to document sector times and trap speed of the cars in their class, and convey that information to the timing stand to benchmark performance variances, can also help to circumvent the new rules.

In what might be the most fascinating aspect of Rule 14.2.1 to consider is its enforcement. Using the recent IMSA race at Road America as an example where all four WeatherTech Championship classes and 35 cars took part in the 2h40m event, the series would have 93 hours of audio to monitor, either via a vastly expanded race control staff listening to each car from start to finish during the race, or to comb through and possibly transcribe immediately following the race.

Adding to the complexity, IMSA would also need to learn the most common forms of instructions each team gave to its drivers before Rule 14.2.1 was enacted to therefore know if new and seemingly harmless instructions that come after Rule 14.2.1 are indeed forms of code.

For example, if a team has never made use of an ordinary phrase like, “I need you to push,” and begins using it — even with specific corners or sections added — it would not stand out as anything other than normal, unless IMSA’s radio police knew that, historically, Team X would not use terminology like “I need you to push.”

And, using such a phrase with specific corners included could be an instruction to do the opposite, the driver thereby dialing back by a tiny margin in areas where a BoP advantage has been recognized by the team.

Whether it’s “I need you to push” or “Our new fuel target is 2.3” or some other innocuous statement that wouldn’t sound out of place, but could hold an alternate meaning, there’s no reason to believe Rule 14.2.1 will stop anything coded or secret from being communicated.

If you’re a person of faith, say a prayer in January for the people who will be asked to monitor and flag more than 1000 hours of radio transmissions at the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

As one race engineer told me, “It’s unenforceable.”