LED panels will be making a return to the NTT IndyCar Series in 2022, but the colorful light displays won’t be attached to the cars like they were from 2015-2020.
In a significant investment to give its race control team an enhanced set of session management tools, IndyCar is bringing the EM Motorsports Marshalling System to the series with large 20×20 inch light panels that will be affixed at every corner and can replace the need for corner workers to wave signaling flags by hand.
With the system connected to a local network that feeds directly to race control, the activation of a light panel will reach race director Kyle Novak and his team in an instant, displayed on a monitor showing the location of the activation and the type of flagging display that was used.
“EM already provides us with our ADR — the accident data recorder — technology and also the earpiece accelerometers the drivers use, so we’re expanding our relationship one more step in a big way,” Novak told RACER. “That includes their light fixtures that are fundamentally the same as what you see at Formula 1 races. These light panels are designed to supplement the cloth flags, and sometimes replace them, depending on the circumstance at the marshal post.
“So those panels will be operated by the local volunteer marshals, and they’ll display the exact same IndyCar flagging codes as before. So waving yellow, full-course yellow, surface conditions, blue flag, etc. They’ll be operated by the marshals via consoles at each corner. We think that this will enhance visibility and it’ll enhance our tools in race control.”
Under the traditional flagging process, one corner marshal would wave a flag while another used a radio headset to call in an incident to race control. With the new light panels, triggering the system serves both needs.
“Let’s use Turn 4 at St. Petersburg for example, because it’s always one of our busiest in the runoff area with local yellows,” Novak explained. “A marshal presses local yellow as a car goes into the runoff and tries to get turned around.
“As soon as the marshal hits that button, we have a live visualization map in race control that illuminates that sector, kind of like what you see on the Formula 1 broadcast, but obviously with a lot more detail. Anytime we get a sector that has a flag code, we’ll get an automatic visualization of that, and that’s something we’ve never had before.”
Novak is confident the new LED flagging system will be easy for drivers to see while offering the series a number of other benefits in race administration. And just as marshals at each corner can activate the panels as desired for local needs, race control will trigger the panels when any course-wide yellow or red needs arise.
“I think it’s no secret that since we’ve had the upgraded aero kits since 2018, one of the things we’ve been trying to do is emphasize green-flag racing and have more emphasis on local yellow conditions that might lead us to be able to do a local recovery, try to keep the race green, right,” he continued.
“And that starts first and foremost with having a system in place with marshaling that allows the drivers to see exactly what they’re up against. We feel like with the speed of the cars, the technology that’s available, and the drivers getting the information they need, that comes with making these flags more visible. You can see these panels from outer space.
“I can’t tell you how many times when there’s been situations where a flag came out late, the driver said they didn’t see it, or it was halfway out, or it was still furled up as it was falling, and that 50 to 100 feet makes a difference. What we’re talking about an electric panel that’s incredibly bright versus a cloth flag that could get lost in the background.”
Officiating should become easier for IndyCar’s race control team with the new influx of LED flagging and onboard GPS data streaming to the tower.
“On the race control side, fundamentally, we’ll still get the landline communication from the marshal (to explain what happened), but if you think about what we do, one of the hardest things we have to deal with in our local yellow situations is compliance and enforcement,” Novak said.
“Just because of all the steps are involved identifying the car that caused it, getting the vocalization of that call from the marshal. Now, if the landline is busy and there’s multiple incidents going on, all that can be illuminated on the map. And as it relates to the GPS, this system also comes with an upgraded GPS system on the car, and we can essentially create virtual marshaling zones.
“So via GPS technology, every light has a GPS fixed position, so that when a car arrives at that light, we know — down to a few feet — whether that car was in the zone when the yellow came out, or when that car was approaching the zone. And then we get automated reports to the performance to that zone. Was there a pass? Who went through it? This is all versus having to go back and reconstruct that with video and handwritten things that we’ve been doing in the past.”
Beyond using the LED flagging system to manage local and full-course yellows, Novak anticipates having the volunteer corner workers work the control panels to manage blue passing flags and all the other signaling needs that were previously done with cloth flags. The new system also gives IndyCar the ability to have those local electronic signals sent to the cockpit of each car and displayed directly to the drivers.
“They will be able to show either a flashing blue, which is your ‘Imminently about to be passed’ alert, or the ‘There’s a car approaching,’ which would be just the standard blue; the marshals can do either one, depending on the button press that they give the console,” Novak said.
“This does give us more ability to advise. So right now, we go red or full course yellow, we flip the switch, the attenuator light flashes and they get a flashing light inside the cockpit, depending on how they want to place their lights on the wheel or behind on the dash. This also gives us more flexibility to give them more notifications. ‘Hey, there’s a local yellow somewhere on course,’ or ‘You’ve been given a blue flag.’ Those types of developments are to be determined, but it gives us more depth on the in-car notification system as well.”
With its migration to LED flagging, using the new system to create virtual safety car zones is not among IndyCar’s current plans.
“As far as virtual safety cars and things like that, we’ve done a normal number of internal reports of what a system like that would look like, and the bottom line is we’re not there yet,” Novak said. “There’s no imminent plans for it. But I would say that this kind of technology gives us flexibility to explore those things in the coming years where realistically, we never could have properly executed anything like that without this. So it gives us options to grow if that’s where the series stakeholders, drivers, owners, everyone wants to go with it.
“What it does give us the ability to do though, is automate the standard functions. For example, when we go full-course yellow, they will no longer have to do a full course yellow flag condition physically, because we can flip the lights on or eliminate them to end a FCY. Same with the red flag condition. Or a trialing green after a local yellow.
“We’ve spent so much time between the aeroscreen, sidepod reinforcements, tethers, and everything else over the past decades of trying to make these cars safer through technology, and we’re making them in substantial, big investments in race control technology. And now that we’re at that point, we’re all really excited about it.”