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Montoya’s Brush with NASCAR’s Pit Road Speed Limit

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So Juan Montoya gets a speeding penalty at Indianapolis and he is robbed of his near-certain victory. Was it his fault – or was it NASCAR’s?

Last weekend it looked like a certainty that Juan Montoya would continue to dominate the NASCAR Cup race at Indianapolis to the end and score an important victory at this historic venue. It would have been his first stock car win on an oval track. It would have been a significant ‘first’ making him the first driver to have won both the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400 – having won the 500 for Ganassi in 2000.

But all that went wrong when he came into the pits for what looked like his final pit stop and he was hit with a speeding penalty by NASCAR. Before the pit stop, he had had a comfortable five-second lead; after his stop-and-go penalty he was stuck in about 12th place. This speeding penalty erased any hope of him winning the race.

Much as NASCAR tries to maintain that their methodology is scientific and beyond question, the way they manage it leaves it open to question. If one of the ‘NASCAR favourites’ had been robbed of a near-certain win by a speeding penalty like this, I’m sure there would have been outrage. Montoya was outraged for sure but his crew chief Brian Pattie and team co-owner Felix Sabates know that there’s no point arguing with ‘the man’ and they took their lumps without much fuss.

According to NASCAR, here’s how they measure the pit lane speeds. There are a number of antennas (or ‘loops’) buried under the track at intervals. When the car passes over a loop it sends a signal to the computer and the computer can measure the time it takes to cover the distance between two loops. They know the distance between each pair of loops. Distance divided by time gives the speed in each segment.

At Indianapolis the speed limit was 60 mph. NASCAR’s computer printed out a speed of 60.06 mph for the first segment and 60.11 for the second. Montoya maintained that his tach was telling him that he was within the speed limit all the time.

This is not the first time that divers have been upset about NASCAR’s speeding calls. At the Nationwide race at Kentucky in June, many speeding penalties were handed out – and the drivers were protesting that they had not been over the limit.

If the process is so scientific and so cut-and-dried, why the discrepancy between NASCAR’s story and the driver’s.

The way that the driver ‘calibrates’ his tachometer to show him the maximum allowable pit road speed is by following the pace car on the first pace lap. The pace car is running at the speed limit of the day and the driver notes the tach reading –and that tach reading becomes his speedometer. This method has none of the precision that NASCAR claims for their own ‘loop’ methodology. The pace car might be running a bit too slow or too fast, the driver who is a few cars back in the line may be running a bit slower or faster than the pace car’s pace.

And don’t talk about how the answer is for the driver to make sure he stays well below the allowable speed – this is racing – winning comes from pushing every factor to the limit. Every driver is going to try to come down pit lane right on the edge of the speed limit. If he has his personal ‘speedometer’ set a bit wrong, he can stray over into the penalty side. There has to be an explanation why so many people got caught speeding in Kentucky.

I wasn’t at Indianapolis but I have read Chad Knaus’ (Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief) post-race comments on this topic.

Chad Knaus said, “You know, it's a tough thing to monitor from Jimmie's standpoint and from ours obviously because if you think about it, we've got timing and scoring that each one of you looks at as we're running around the racetrack. That's what we watch and base ourselves off of throughout the event. Once you hit pit road, we don't have any reference. We have mathematical equations based on the tire stagger, gear ratio, the pit road speed we have to work off of. I'm hoping that at some point we'll be able to see the pit road speeds published because that will allow us to work within limits that we're comfortable with.
“From a competitor's standpoint, if you don't know your limits, it's difficult to know what it is. You're always gonna try to get to the topside of that limit. So Jimmie does that. We push Jimmie to go as fast as he can on pit road. It's kind of an unknown right now, that you're just kind of – I mean, it's kind of a guessing game weekly on that.
“ I'm hoping eventually NASCAR will actually publish those speeds so we can adjust our times accordingly throughout the events.”

What Knaus seems to be saying is that – given the tire circumference and the car’s gearing – he can calculate quite precisely what the tack should read at the speed limit for the day (and not have to rely on the approximate method of taking a reading off the speed of the pace car). But, that’s not enough. He needs to know what speed NASCAR is recording on its equipment so that he can compare his data with theirs and fine-tune the rev limit to make sure it coincides with NASCAR’s speed measurements. Without this feedback he is left guessing and hoping that NASCAR’s speed measurement is the same as his.

In Montoya’s case, if we believe his story that he was never over the rev limit he had set, then there must have been some kind of discrepancy between Montoya’s and NASCAR’s limit. Had his crew chief had feedback from every previous time Montoya had come down pit road, they would have been able to dial in the change needed to make sure their in-car speed limit matched NASCAR’s computer. He never had that chance.

So now that Chad Knaus, who had no dog in this fight at Indianapolis, has spoken out and made the point that NASCAR should inform every team of every speed recorded for every segment in the pit lane, will NASCAR change?

No.

First, it would be costly to provide all this data to the teams. It would likely involve setting up a new completely separate communications network to stream all this data to all the teams – think of the extra staffing, more computers, more wires, more monitors, etc. NASCAR avoids added costs like the plague.

Second, NASCAR’s standard operating practice is to maintain control by not giving out information. The less information they provide, the less explaining they have to do and the fewer arguments – and no messy criticism from the ‘mushroom-like’ media. This gives them more power and less to the competitors – the usual policy for a totalitarian regime and it has worked well for NASCAR all these decades. That’s why Pattie and Sabates took their lumps without complaint. Make a fuss now and risk retribution later in some subtle way. Accept NASCAR’s supreme power and hope that you will come out even in the long run.

I can’t help thinking that there could be another explanation why NASCAR will never release ALL the pit road speed data. If we all knew ALL the speed data, we could spot every case in which a driver was over the limit – and we could see whether NASCAR was really handing out penalties to every offender. If we only see the speeds in a few cases – how do we know that they had not turned a blind eye to some violations? We don’t. How do we know that Montoya was the only driver to exceed to the pit lane speed limit? We don’t.

Given their record over the past 60 years, I don’t expect NASCAR to now start giving up the kind of control that comes from their control of information.

Finally, did NASCAR pick on Montoya? Or was the penalty handed out in a completely even-handed way? In the absence of the kind of information that Knaus is asking for, we will never know.

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