DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR prides itself as the ultimate mix of man and machine.
It will now officiate the sport the same way.
In 2015, NASCAR will become the first major sport to employ an officiating system where the primary officials will not roam the field of play but instead huddle in a transporter that will travel from track to track. Other sports have instant replay, where an official uses video to rule on disputed calls. NASCAR will go way beyond that, using a combination of video and a computer software program that determines penalties followed by an automatic review by a human.
NASCAR Officiating Trailer Fact Sheet
The drivers, crew chiefs and teams have had tutorials on the system. It appears impressive, with its 45 high-definition cameras perched in clusters high above the racetrack capturing video and sending it to a hauler located in the television compound so it can operate with server capacity totaling 960 gigabytes of total ram.
It appears well-thought-out; the officials screen the pit stops, and crews are alerted to penalties in real time. The officials have the ability to start and stop the video as well as fast-forward, rewind, zoom in and zoom out.
"I feel good about it," said Brad Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe, before taking a pause and saying, "I feel at least as confident as I did about the current system."
That's the cautiously optimistic approach of a competitor. Just as NASCAR says it can't tell the impact of rule changes until 43 cars compete on the track, many in the industry want to see this system in actual action.
They know NASCAR did test runs throughout the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, but now millions of dollars and cool trophies hang in the balance, starting with the Sprint Unlimited, next Thursday with the Daytona 500 qualifying races, and then four days later in the Daytona 500.
"I'm not really an optimist," said JTG Daugherty Racing team co-owner Brad Daugherty, an ESPN analyst for NASCAR and basketball. "I'm one of those guys, I've got to see it in action. I'm hoping it will be better, less mistakes. ... But I've got to see it."
NASCAR virtually guarantees more accuracy with the new system, especially with two specific rules: (1) a driver, on entry and exit, cannot enter a pit box more than three stalls away from the driver's own pit stall; and (2) a tire changer, tire carrier and jackman cannot have their feet on the ground in the pit stall until the approaching car is one stall away.
In the past, the official assigned to a pit stall would not have the vision to see those penalties. Now the software program will see that violation much easier than an official would standing on pit road, and much easier than the pit crews actually performing the work.
"Everybody has been trained, that jackman, the front tire changer, to jump off the wall at a certain time forever," said Richard Petty Motorsports crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. "He's so used to it. With 30 to go in the Daytona 500, I think you'll see people start forgetting about some of that stuff and making mistakes. That would be the dagger at Daytona."
Petty driver Aric Almirola said he worries about trying to get out of his stall and getting pinched into driving through more than three stalls by other cars leaving or coming into the pits. Veterans such as Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth will have to change their mentality.
"If nobody is in their stalls, I just look at my sign and come in," said Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion. "That's something that I'm probably going to have to come in and watch some pit-stop tape and make sure I pay attention to that and make sure your angles are deep enough."
From a safety standpoint, NASCAR loves that it will now have 43 fewer people on pit road than were there a year ago (during the season last year, NASCAR cut its number of officials over the wall to about 25). NASCAR has tried to calm fears of teams that they will have more caution laps as officials run through the live-to-tape system.
The eight officials in the hauler will begin getting video in real time when the pit stops start. The rest of the pit stops will randomly feed to officials much like a call center, but pit stops where the software program has identified a potential violation will go to the front of the video feed.
NASCAR officials said they believe that more than 15-20 pit stops rarely happen at any specific time (even when 40 cars pit, much of the time is not spent on the actual pit stop). So all the pit stops should be officiated less than a minute after a round of pit stops.
NASCAR has scanned all the pit roads and plugged that information into its database. Each of the 45 cameras focuses on two pit stalls, giving NASCAR a backup if one camera fails. Potential violations are indicated on the screen by a red box (likely) or a brown box (possible), and the official reviews the pit stop and makes the final call.
The official also will look for equipment violations and too-many-men-over-the-wall violations. Teams will hear the penalty when the official in the hauler radios the violation to the tower, just as it used to hear the official in the pit stall radio the tower.
An official with access to all the video will work out of race control and can queue up the replay if one of the officials in the booth -- the series director (Richard Buck in Sprint Cup) or senior vice president of competition Robin Pemberton -- wants to take a look before issuing the final call.
As other sports have seen, debate won't end with video about whether a call is the right one. NASCAR and its teams hope this gets them a step closer to perfection.
"It will be clean, and there won't be a question when you leave the track that the decision that was made, that the call that was made was proper," said team owner Roger Penske. "That is going to be key.
"The technology we bring to the sport to the next level ... it's going to slow down the decision-making by the official because you'll be able to take a look at that and make the right decision. Is it fail-safe? The answer is no. But I think overall it is a big step."
NASCAR will have 10 officials on the nonworking side of pit wall monitoring pit stops and communicating with crew chiefs who question calls. NASCAR expects to soon have the capability to send the video of the infraction straight to crew chiefs as well as television partners. The goal is to enhance transparency and credibility, increasing fan understanding of penalties issued.
"Certainly, technology is another tool to help you, but ultimately someone has to make that call, and our officials have gone through an incredible amount of training in the offseason," NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell said. "They have sat in the hauler over the last 10 races and manipulated the system to see what happens, and we made changes.
"Ultimately, we're going to have to make that call."
One call NASCAR won't make: whether a car has five tight lug nuts. Or even four tight lug nuts. Or three. The official never really knew lug nut tightness anyway, and obviously the automated system would have a tough time determining whether five lug nuts are tight on each wheel.
So NASCAR has told teams that if a wheel comes off because of improper installation, they face a P3 penalty -- a maximum of 15 points, $50,000 fine and crew chief suspension.
"My goal is to have the fastest pit stop with five lug nuts and come out first," said Jeff Gordon crew chief Alan Gustafson. "That's what I'm going to try to do. If somebody can say you can go run on three lug nuts, I'd love to know where they tested that because they are a lot smarter than we are.
"You have no history or comfort with that. If you have a chance to win a race, to say, 'I'm going to put on three and hope for the best,' is kind of foolish. They can't have wheels flying off cars. It cannot happen. I think it will be a serious deal."
Three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart doesn't anticipate drivers being able to hustle a car with loose lug nuts because of the vibration, but admits, "If they're tight enough to make it two laps, fine with me."
With a championship -- and millions of dollars -- at stake, people could take calculated chances.
Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick earned $2.77 million more in NASCAR bonus money last year than second-place Ryan Newman. Harvick's championship bonus of $4.83 million for the championship dwarfed that of the $455,345 for 17th-place Kyle Larson, the highest-finishing driver not in the Chase. So a win during the regular season could be worth $4 million dollars.
That seems to be enough incentive to tighten fewer lug nuts for track position, especially in a green-white-checkered scenario.
"We're not going to train our guys to hit three lug nuts," Blickensderfer said. "But If three are tight, we're not going to question it and we're going to hope there's no vibration, that's for sure. ... Hitting three and going is probably not going to make the wheel fall off.
"The driver is going to think the vibration is so bad, he's going to catch it before it falls off. I don't think you're going to see wheels falling off cars. You're going to see drivers complaining of vibrations, and it's up to them how brave they want to be whether they come to pit road or not."