Sunday, May 20, 2007

NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge

Once a year, I get to parachute into NASCAR world for a week.

It's a blast.

This past week was my NASCAR adventure for 2007, as the NASCAR Pit Crew Challenge was once again staged successfully (with Timing & Scoring by Skunkware) at Bobcats Arena in Charlotte.

A little background.....

Two years ago, I picked up the telephone one day and a guy named Jay Howard was on the other end. He'd been referred to me by David Hoots, head of Timing & Scoring for NASCAR, who knows Skunkware from the days when I produced the timing & TV graphics for Winston Cup Pole Night. Jay has since proven to be one of the more brilliant and engaging characters I've met in my odysssey through the world of international sports.

Check out Jay's web site sometime ( His company, JHE Productions, is in the extravaganza-staging business. Let's suppose you're the NFL and you've signed Paul McCartney to play two songs at your halftime show. You need to find a company who can erect staging, sound, and lights powerful enough to showcase Sir Paul to 100,000 people . . . . in 5 minutes. And then strike everything in 3 minutes.

Who could you possibly call to stage this kind of high-stakes Chinese Fire Drill?

Jay Howard.

JHE does this sort of thing every weekend, mostly at NASCAR and IRL races. JHE has the muscle, the money, the talent, and the experience to do this sort of thing in a controlled frenzy without anybody getting hurt and without anybody outside the production knowing just how difficult it really is.

Trust me on this . . . it's fucking difficult.

The one thing I can't figure out is how Jay gets insurance.

Anyway, Jay had this brilliant idea: to take NASCAR's pit crew contest, held every year at NASCAR's equivalent of the all-star game, and bump it up by several levels. Take it away from the lube-and-tire-smoke environment of Lowe's Motor Speedway, put it in a more intimate, downtown indoor venue where the fans could really see how pit stops are accomplished, and showcase this little-known aspect of NASCAR racing. Normally, pit crews are anonymous other than when they screw up. But the PCC gives them all their once-a-year chance to shine. The winners make significant cash.

Most people, even many at NASCAR, thought he was nuts.

Further complicating Jay's vision was the fact that NASCAR's 80-strong timing & scoring department had neither the expertise nor any interest in developing a custom, one-off timing system for something so complicated.

When I first talked to Jay, figuring out how to time the damn contest was his biggest obstacle, other than getting approval from a skeptical NASCAR. After 20 minutes on the phone, I apparently convinced him that Skunkware was his solution, most likely because I was the only guy to whom he'd spoken who could figure out what the hell he was talking about.

The rules are basically like running a downhill ski race, with 8 intermediates, on a course 20 seconds long. In other words, utter chaos, action too fast to follow with the naked eye. Thus, it falls squarely in the middle of my main area of expertise: mission-critical software controlling scoring, timing, & TV graphics systems designed to make sense out of chaos too frenzied to possibly be handled by humans (no matter how many), or even by existing off-the-shelf timing & scoring systems.

The first year's contest (2005), was simply to show NASCAR officials and NASCAR teams the concept. JHE didn't advertise at all, they really didn't want big crowds just in case some aspect of the contest went pear-shaped. All the brass at NASCAR (President Mike Helton, VP Robin Pemberton, etc) showed up to see if JHE could pull it off and what, in fact, Jay had been talking about.

It went great. Way better than anyone expected - possibly even Jay himself.

In 2006, the contest moved from the obsolete Charlotte Collisseum (home of the defunct NBA Charlotte Hornets) to Bobcats Arena, home of the NBA Bobcats, and a high-tech showcase. This was REALLY up my alley, because Bobcats Arena is a huge Daktronics installation. I do consulting work for Daktronics all over the world, and I probably know more about making Daktronics scoreboards dance than anybody, except for the few people at Daktronics who actually design the stuff.

The 2006 contest was way better.

This year, I spent a bunch of money on my timing infrastructure for the PCC because it's clearly here to stay. I upgraded a bunch of stuff to super-high-quality electronics and wiring, because it's a nerve-wracking two hours and I need to know human error is the only thing I need to worry about. Key to my peace of mind was a World Cup Blinky Box (, which I helped my good friend and colleague Jim Karnes to design and finance.

The 2007 contest was the best year yet. The lower bowl of Bobcats Arena sold out, and the teams are really getting into it. This year most of the drivers showed up to support their crews, including such heavy hitters as Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, and Mark Martin. Kyle Busch not only showed up, he actually drove the push-car in the contest (usually a small, light crew member is recruited to do this).

After the contest was over, Jay took me aside to tell me about improvements already in store for next year. Those improvements are not for public consumption yet, so I will not elaborate in this space, but 2008 is going to be bigger and better. Make your reservations now to visit Charlotte during All-Star week 2008.

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