2014 has brought about one of the most anticipated series in North America with the combination of the American Le Mans Series and the Grand Am series. The “merger”, as it has been called, has been documented extensively and requires no elaboration for this writing, but many questions have been raised “post merger” based on the two opening rounds that have taken place. Of the many that there are, and the term “many” does not seem to quite cover it, one that is on the frontlines is safety. Something that has been discussed more openly than in recent memory has been the importance and utilization of the “men in white/orange” know as Corner Workers or Marshals. (In case you don’t know what a marshal is, please visit here.)
Roughly 5-10 years ago, when marshals were stationed during ALMS events, we were assisting IMSA Safety, the traveling safety crew that took on much of the responsibility during incidents. Marshals and IMSA Safety worked well together with marshals being the very first on scene most of the time and Safety being close behind to offer specified response. Aside from a few issues of cross purposing, the formula worked well. However, about 5 or so years ago, marshals began to notice a little push back from the series about responding to incidents. Over the years, until the resolution of the ALMS, more and more restrictions were put on marshals as to what they could do in a situation that required assistance. In the morning meetings it was always said, “should you feel the need to go on track to assist a driver or car, do it but let us know.”; this coming from either the Race Director or the people in charge of comms during the event. But it still felt as if marshals were only there to wave a flag and make a call.
During the week of the final ALMS round, the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, it was revealed that IMSA Safety would not be making the move to the new series, leaving the responsibilities to local track crews. Many were shocked to say the least. Questions immediately began to be raised.
Fast forward to Sebring. As this writer was unable to attend the 24 Hours of Daytona, I have no place to comment on the happenings except from what was conveyed by fellow marshals.
The morning meeting for marshals occurs hours before the first car is on track. This gives some IMSA officials the chance to discuss with us any important information, as well the chance for marshals to voice concerns or ponderings. While the mood is generally jovial, when it comes to the topic of marshal response, things get serious. When the topic arrives, the wording went something like this. “If you need to go on track, we can sometimes let you, if you need to clear debris or something. Call us, we will discuss it and decide what and when you can do it.”
To quote specifically now, “We need to have a conversation first.” That is the exact wording every single morning from an IMSA race official. Is that not interesting? It is my opinion that this phrasing should not sit well with anyone, since it certainly does not sit well with me.
The topic of the fire occurring at turn six involving Ben Keating in the #33 Viper Exchange SRT Viper GTS-R is one that needs to be looked at very closely.
I was stationed at turn 6, just under the cross over bridge. The car came by slow drivers left, off the normal racing line, alerting me that there was an issue. When the car came to a stop a few hundred feet away, it immediately went up in flames. My thought process, as a marshal went like this. I need to signal to my communicator that there is a fire and we need a fire truck now. My second thought should be, “How am I going to get to the car with my extinguisher that is already in my hand?” However, that was not my second thought. What really went through my head was “Have I been given permission to go trackside? Has the conversation taken place? What repercussions will I face if I go to the car without permission?” By this time, Keating had self-extricated from the car and was at a safe distance. In the time these thoughts ran through my head I could have safely at least gotten to the car and began to spray the car with dry chem, but it was too late. A response that could have taken less than 20 seconds never happened. As a marshal with years of experience responding to these types of incidents in club racing, I never have to fear repercussions, until now. I’m second-guessing my every move based on the restrictions placed upon me.
By now, everyone knows what happened with the response time to the #33 and there is no need to elaborate on it here.
The question was asked on social media if any marshal would’ve left their station in order to respond if Keating was still in the car. Without a doubt in my mind, I would have, however that is my thought process and that is not the standard for everyone. But it raises a serious issue and piles onto the already growing pile of concerns surrounding safety. Why aren’t marshals allowed do the very job they are there for? There are no “green” marshals posted at any station during a pro event. Each marshal has years or decades of marshalling experience and training and has proven him or herself time and time again. Many travel across the country and world marshaling. I work with these people and trust most of them with my life, as they do with me. Marshal intervention is not always necessary but is needed. We are being forced to become spectators when we could be helpful.
If IMSA is going to continue to no longer have a traveling safety team that can go on track with these cars during sessions, then exceptions need to be made in order to compensate for the delayed response by local crews who may not be used to the high speeds or car counts. Increased marshal intervention is not going to solve all the problems. What it will do, however, is provide a slightly safer racing environment when real help can be had within a matter of seconds versus a matter of minutes.
Disclaimer: This was written from the perspective of a nationally licensed corner marshal. While I speak as a corner marshal, I do not speak for all marshals, either in the United States or worldwide. The intention was to show where we have come from to where we are now and why a quicker response was not had at Sebring on race day. This is from my personal perspective and should not serve as the thought process and mindset of every marshal at any given racetrack.