Meetings. Like any business operation, NASCAR relies on meetings to keep its events running smoothly. Track services meetings, procedures meetings, officials' meetings -- all are among the many meetings NASCAR conducts over the course of a race weekend, and all of them address the critical issue of safety. But when it comes to the safety of the competitors, no meeting is more important than the drivers' meeting.
What happens at a NASCAR Sprint Cup series drivers' meeting is a mystery to most race fans because the meetings are rarely mentioned, except for the occasional instance when a driver is sent to the tail end of the field for missing one.
David Hoots leads the drivers' meetings as part of his role as the voice of NASCAR control. In his 20th season as NASCAR's managing event director, Hoots has 35 years of experience working at NASCAR-sanctioned events.
So who must attend the drivers' meeting?
"The drivers and the crew chiefs are all required to attend the drivers' meeting," Hoots said. "They are subject to penalty if they do not attend, but the penalties are different for drivers and crew chiefs.
"We have a specific cut-off point of the drivers' meeting once we get into the nuts and bolts of the event, and whether you're late or not there, we don't differentiate. The crew chiefs are subject to a fine by the series director starting at $100, which can be escalated at his discretion. The driver who is late or missing, we put to the tail end of the longest line."
The most common reason why drivers miss a meeting is doing double duty, racing in two series on a weekend when those series are not racing at the same track. So what happens when more than one driver misses a meeting?
"On all of our penalties, from roll-off to green flag, competitors go to the rear of the line that they're in," Hoots explained. "So if one car is in the inside line and one car is in the outside, they would both drop to the end of that line. If they are both in the same line, their starting position would determine who went first to the end of the line."
But what is so important about the drivers' meeting that makes it mandatory for drivers and crew chiefs? Hoots said it is one of the steps all competitors must take regarding safety, from the time the team completes the race entry blank until the race is over.
"There are some safety rules put on the entry blank that apply to each particular racetrack," Hoots said, "and the driver meeting is a continuation of entry procedure. If you think of how we communicate with the competitors, it starts with the rule book. Then we add bulletins to the rule book to keep the rule book up to date during the course of the year. You have the entry blank, which is another layer and extension of that. The drivers' meeting is the last real opportunity to update the drivers and crew chiefs of any procedural changes."
And that goes double for series rookies, who are seeing a racing venue for the very first time.
"We have a rookie meeting before every event that the series director participates in," Hoots said. "He goes over the rules of the racetrack, describing the uniqueness of that racetrack, and explaining how traffic flows in the garage to make that garage a much safer place for all the participants."
Hoots stressed that although only drivers and crew chiefs are required to attend, other members of the race teams are welcome.
"We don't regulate who can come to the drivers' meeting," he said. "The more openness there is to it, the better. It's not a closed door session. We want everyone to understand the rules that we've provided and the procedures that we're going to use so everyone will have a safe experience and there is no miscommunication."
Crew chiefs and drivers are given a schedule listing times for driver introductions, command to start the engines, lining up the crews on pit road, and the invocation, instructing the drivers where to be staged at each point. Drivers who have won various contingency program awards from the previous week's event are advised to be prepared to receive the award as they cross the stage. Important safety reminders are also included on the handout.
"We'll list the pit road speeds, the minimum speed for the event, and the distances at the entrance and exit of pit road to show them where their speed is monitored on pit road," Hoots said. "We describe the next week's event as far as when we park the haulers, when the garage opens, and the time of the first practice. If we have any special rules for the event or any special notes that we need to explain, we list them, too."
Special guests representing sponsors and the military are introduced at the start of the meeting. Then the safety instruction begins.
"What people probably haven't put together is that the majority of race procedure rules that we use are designed to prevent different situations over time," Hoots said. "The drivers' meeting is the last opportunity that we have to relay this information to the drivers. The majority of the race procedure rules that have been developed have a safety background within them -- where and how you pass on a start or restart, for example -- and what you're trying to prevent is an accident. Everybody knows how it's to be done, only to one side of the cars or the other, then it's a more fluid motion which is, in turn, a more safe motion. How you get onto the pit road and get off the pit road and back onto the racetrack, what you should do under a yellow situation -- they all entail or revert back to some function of making the races safer for all of the competitors."
"The driver meeting is the last opportunity for us to communicate for an event," Hoots added. "Because we feel very strongly about certain things, whether it be management of pit road speeds or how you get on and off the racetrack, this will be brought up in the driver meeting, even though it is designated in the rule book, so we don't leave it to chance and so there's no confusion whatsoever about it in the effort to make the event more safe."