Oh Where, Oh Where Is NASCAR’s Driver Alert System?
Trevor Bayne’s engine lets go going into Turn One. First, a wisp of smoke from the right side and then erupting into a solid cloud through Turn Two. As Bayne drops to the apron and continues around the track seeking pit road, the thick cloud grows, covering the track. Car after car enters the fog. All but two emerge unscathed. Bubba Wallace Jr. is unable to see through the cloud to avoid or slow enough to keep from hitting Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Both cars were significantly damaged. Wallace went on the six minute clock, but the crew was able to cut away enough damage to send him back out for a 32nd place finish, six laps down.
As I watched the smoke clear, I wondered... “Why doesn’t NASCAR use a Driver Alert System?”
If you are not familiar with them, these are systems that have a radio transmitter connected to race control’s track signal system. As soon as race control throws a caution flag the system simultaneously sends a radio signal to a receiver in each car that instantaneously triggers an audible and/or light signal to the driver alerting them of the change in race conditions. With this information, drivers can then take evasive action, which most often involves just lifting the throttle. With all drivers using the same system and receiving the same alert at the same time, drivers can do so with the confidence that the drivers behind them received the same alert and will not plow into them if they do lift.
Currently, for a driver to know that a caution flag is thrown they must either a) see the wreck, b) see the caution lights on the track (which may or may not be possible), c) see a hand signal from the driver ahead or d) the spotter hears race control call for the caution or they see the lights and verbally transmit that info to the driver. This creates a time delay which may make the difference between avoiding the wreck, being in the wreck or being involved in a secondary wreck.
Couple this with the fact that when the driver receives word from the spotter of a caution he has to hope any cars around him have received the same word and will respond accordingly and not run into him. Too many times we have seen that not happen and that results in the secondary crashes.
These warning systems in no way replaces the spotters. To say that spotters have a difficult job is an understatement. I deeply respect and admire the job they do. These warning systems act as a supplement to them. They do essentially cut out the “middle man” for that initial caution call, saving valuable time. Think of it as all the drivers being plugged into the very best spotter at the same time, whose sole job it is to let everyone know the race has been yellow or red flagged.
My interest in driver alert systems began many years ago with the frustration over drivers being penalized for pitting before pit road opened. It was a frequent occurrence in earlier times and I thought there had to be a better way than a flag man at the end of pit road waving a wimpy flag.
An Internet search revealed there was a recently developed product which sent an audible signal to the driver when a caution flag was thrown. It sent a different tone when the green flag dropped and racing resumed. This addressed another issue we see still today on restarts. A third signal is sent for a red flag. It sounded like the perfect solution and I watched to see when it would be adopted, especially by NASCAR.
I saw some early video of its use on short tracks. It was incredible to see the entire field slow in unison. It reminded me of my old slot car racing days at the Thatch in Owensboro when the track official would stop the field by cutting the power to the track when “The Big One” occurred. It was a sight I was very familiar with since I was often the cause. Now, I see something very similar at the nearby indoor electric kart track when a wreck occurs there. They cut the power to all the karts so the wreck can be safely cleared.
At the Thatch, it kept folks from tearing up equipment (even if it was 1/24 scale) and at the kart track it improved safety. Could similar benefits be realized in NASCAR by adopting a Driver Alert System?
I soon learned of another company who developed a similar system that used dash lights instead of the audible signal to alert the driver. Hot Rod magazine wrote of both systems and made an initial cry for racing series to adopt some type of driver alert system.
I soon read that Ricky Craven, then driving for Cal Wells III (if that tells you how long it’s been around) tested the audible system at Homestead and gave it favorable marks. It was later used at Berlin Raceway and at Hickory.
They further improved their system by adding a dash mounted light to their audible system. This system was used at Colorado National Speedway and also adopted by NAMARS (National Alliance of Midget Auto Racing Series).
The light system made its way first into the DIRT series and later ASA. After the tragic 2002 practice accident at Lowe’s Motor Speedway another cry went out for series to adopt a driver warning system. In 2003, the ARCA Series adopted this system.
A short time later a third driver alert system was developed for the IRL series.
All these years, now approaching two decades, all this technology and still nothing had been adopted by NASCAR. Not in the CWS Trucks, Xfinity or Monster Energy Series. Why?
My interest in this topic was renewed after coming across an excellent article explaining the various systems in a January 2017 article on the site Building Speed entitled “Can NASCAR Stop Secondary Accidents?” In it, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky describes the problem behind secondary accidents in racing, describes the various types of systems available today and offers the advantages (scientifically) of each. She notes that USAC had brought their own proprietary system on line this season. It uses lights to alert the driver as well as following drivers of a caution.
She concludes that as far as notifying drivers of a caution, spotters are not the most efficient means available and because of the nature of the sport, total elimination of all secondary accidents would be impossible, but that shouldn’t deter the effort
“Arguments can be made for a system based on light or a system based on sound; but based on anecdotal data from other series, either type of in-car warning system would likely decrease the number of severity of secondary accidents, thus keeping drivers safe and decreasing costs by decreasing damage to cars.”
In this day of reduced sponsorship dollars, reduced car counts, and new drivers coming in at every level, isn’t the time right for NASCAR to adopt a driver alert system?
Yet another season has gone by since Leslie-Pelecky’s plea. From my vantage point on this subject I see what I’ve seen for almost two decades-nothing. All I hear are crickets.
If a driver alert system had been in place...
-Would it have helped Bubba Wallace or Ricky Stenhouse JR. at Atlanta?
-Last year, could the “parked ambulance” SNAFU at Richmond been averted?
-Could it have eliminated some of the last lap destruction in the Xfinity series at Daytona?
NASCAR says they are all about safety and reducing costs. Talk’s cheap. Isn’t it about time for this Sanctioning Body to finally step up and give these teams and drivers all the tools possible to truly improve safety and reduce costs?
NASCAR has repeatedly demonstrated they have no qualms, no, seem to almost relish making drastic changes to the sport. Yet, while other series have blown their doors off in this area, their adoption of a driver alert system has moved at near glacial speed. There was good Kentucky bourbon barreled when these systems were developed that have now been aged, bottled, sold and consumed and still no change.
What’s the hold up? Hasn’t it been long enough?
Oh where, oh where is NASCAR’s Driver Alert System? Oh where, oh where can it be?