Opinion: Sebring - A Caution-ary Tale

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By: Chris Jameson/RaceCanada
March 18, 2014

Race Weekend! Okay, from here until sometime in October, just about every weekend is a race weekend and with each and every one, we shall be inundated with some great on track action, some not so great behind the scenes fumbling, a plethora of bonehead moves by guys who should be in an armchair, not a race car, legions of happy and unhappy fans and plenty of motorsport writers willing to take both sides.

This past weekend included all that and then some.

Before we start, let's just go over Sebring in a nutshell. First off, I really did want to attend and jumped through all the usual hoops to obtain credentials (another story for another time) and started making the necessary travel plans and boom! Without a significant lottery win in the preceding weeks to cover hotel costs, reporting directly from Sebring was definitely out of the question. It was after all, Spring Break for a lot of areas and Florida is a prime destination. Hotel rates were through the roof at even the economy chains (where I usually stay). It's a tough call until you realize this is all out-of-pocket expense (really, I do this for fun, not to make money)

Okay, so we didn't get to Sebring but that doesn't stop us from covering the race, and this year we did so with the help of fantastic live streaming via IMSA.com. It all started with watching the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (CTSCC) Friday afternoon.

CTSCC put on a great race! Fifty-nine cars started with forty-five still running at the end. Limited carnage and these (almost) stock race cars did well over the bumps that make Sebring Raceway predictably unpredictable. Watched the whole race via live streaming and did not miss a thing (there are no commercial breaks). Have always enjoyed the close racing action of CTSCC and this got me excited for the prospect of a great 12 Hours the next day.

But first a recap of how the Candians did in the CTSCC race. It was a mixed bag, but while we had four of the top eleven spots in GT and overall (Ken Wilden P6 BMW; Scott Maxwell/Multimatic P7 Mustang; David Empringham & John Farano P9 Nissan; Marcelli P11 Porsche), the ST crowd did not fare so well (best finish: Remo Ruscitti & Adam Isman P13 in class driving a Porsche). Despite that, the race was still fun to watch and you can see highlights online at http://www.imsa.com/series/sportscar-challenge/multimedia (those who still have SPEED available on their cable service should check local listings for race broadcast)

So ... on to The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring – or as some might call it, The 6 Hours of Pace Car

Now don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed the race – well the racing part anyway. As with the CTSCC race, I had the computer hooked up to the big screen and the picture was great and only twice in the twelve hours did we experience any data stream issues (one of not so much consequence really). The coverage was first rate and the action was too – at least for thirty-two minutes. From the moment the #33 Viper caught fire on lap fourteen the race devolved.

Now I understand there is a car on fire at the edge of the track and it's not so easy to just get it out of the way – a fact lost on many people commenting on Facebook (but of course they are all much better at this from behind the keyboard) but then it did start to drag out and I am inclined to agree with some comments about the safety crew looking just a bit laissez-faire a lot of the time, sort of like a Department of Highways work crew – you know, twelve guys standing around supervising and one guy working. That scenario seemed to play out on just about every one of the eleven (11? WTF) cautions.

We all understand that cautions beget cautions, especially in a 63-car field over four classes (wasn't that wonderful by the way ... 63 cars taking the green! Awesome!) – but the time differences were not that bad. After two hours there were still twenty-six cars on the lead lap and another thirty cars were only one or two laps down, so where was the problem?

Two words: Brain fade.

It was like drivers of the lower half of the PC class decided that because they weren't going to be on the podium, they'd make sure some of the front runners didn't make it there either. Of course it was not only the PC class afflicted by this as there were plenty of incidents involving drivers in other classes. Now I am not sure which commentator made the observation, but even though drivers are now used to all sorts of in-car telemetry and communications from the pits, that certainly does not absolve one from a) using a bit of common sense (OK, stop laughing) and b) paying attention to the corner marshal. It was near impossible to comprehend some of the bonehead moves made by drivers who should know better. One can only hope these guys were all requested to pay a visit to "command central" and we'll soon see some probation notices – except for one thing ... some folks in command central should be on probation as well.

One hoped after the debacle at Daytona there would be no issues at Sebring. After all, Daytona was a pretty good race, save for the last lap officiating blunder and with nearly six weeks before the next major event on the calendar, steps would be taken to ensure such decisions were investigated, investigated again, verified and double-checked before a ruling handed out – I mean after all, it's a twelve hour race so you really don't need to make snap decisions that will effectively alter the eventual outcome.

Yeah – what was I thinking.

Now there are a lot of comments in various threads that blame all this on the NASCAR-ification of the series. Right up until the final yellow, I would generally defend against that position – my position based entirely on past association with the series and through casual conversations with teams, drivers, officials and such. After that last yellow though, I had little defence – it just seemed all so arbitrary given the initial cause of the caution. Despite the fact that in one particular Facebook exchange on the matter, a well-known race official (formerly involved in other series) was able to give a rather detailed explanation for the length of the yellow based on the rule book, the procedure and final outcome of the race all rang a bit hollow. Yes, it was a dash for the checkers - but a rather manufactured one. Gone was any sense of drama about fuel and tire strategies or wondering if a driver would go to the end or be relieved for the final hour by a fresh hotshoe. By the way, I LOVE fuel strategy because it requires a lot of smarts behind the wall and behind the wheel ... and sure, because it played a significant factor in the first race win for the team I worked with at the time.

It should be known however, that I am a fan (somewhat) of the wave-around and alternating pit stops – the latter being a smart move that helps avoid a lot the problems which could occur with sixty-three cars all coming in at the same time (Oh yeah, some people out there think that only happens if Danica is in a car – get real). But I also think in the final hour of a twelve hour race, it's not such a great idea. It really pisses off the fans, who like me, are looking forward to the drama unfolding on track and in the pits – not behind the safety car. That same scenario – a thirty-minute caution for a stalled car well off the course in a regular 2.75 hour event would be disastrous. What if this happens at Long Beach, a tight street course and where it is possible (as some mentioned) the race could be two hours (or less) in duration. I don't want to think about it because if it does happen, the forums and social media threads are likely to explode – and rest assured, even if it does happen for something seemingly legitimate, the fans will still question the legitimacy. The die is cast.

There is a chance to fix this (and a second chance to fix some of the questionable calls) ... and in just a little over three weeks from now all eyes will be on Long Beach to see if it has been.

Despite all of the above, as I turned off all the computers at the end of the day, I was pretty satisfied – especially with the how I watched the race (see Broadcast Notes below) and I went to bed hopeful (again, despite all of the above) that it will all work out. The TUDOR Championship is experiencing some growing pains and there are probably some cross purposes among the players – but just like a household with a couple of boys who hit their teenage years around the same time, there is bound to be some head-butting and tension. But this is a case where the fans have to step in and, like mom and dad would, give the offenders a bit of a slap about the ears and tell the kids to get play nice and work it out.

Bring on Long Beach!

======= Broadcast Notes =========

First off, for all the Rogers Cable customers angry that the provider dropped SPEED - get over it. Since it was announced that the channel would be dropped on March 1, lots of customers complained but there was a logical and a viable alternative (as discussed in my last article) by going online to watch live streaming. I did it. It was fantastic! I also got to watch the Continental race live last Friday (14th), got live race feed instead of commercials throughout the 12 Hours of Sebring and all in 1080i from the laptop to the big screen. It is the first time in a long time I have sat and watched an entire race without leaving the couch – well almost. With uninterrupted video and surrounded by computers showing timing & scoring, twitter and Facebook feeds, it was all I could do to tear myself away to go grab another coffee and some food. The only time I actually walked away was during the yellow for the Viper fire (I went to deal with some melting snow issues) and during the red flag for the clean up after the Ostella crash (I dashed across the street to the grocery store for more snacks). The rest of the time I was taking in everything and it was amazing. Regular broadcasts feature so many commercial breaks it is just too easy to get up and wander away for long periods. Not this time.

So really, don't complain about not having the channel. Embrace the stream – but be prepared to upgrade your data transfer limits. I used 17.578 Gb on Saturday alone.

Oh, and SPEED itself needs to stop whining! For the past two weeks they have been posting on their Facebook page things like "Hey Rogers Customers – right now you are missing (insert event name here)" along with a note that we should switch to another provider. Well SPEED certainly got an earful from plenty of fans who pointed out that Bell, the other major provider would also be dropping the channel at the end of April. I suspect when that happens, either the rest of the (smaller) providers will drop it or SPEED will just look at their (remaining) revenue stream and leave.

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