There were still a handful of laps left in the John Blewett III Memorial, but intuition told race officials they were about to see something special Wednesday night at New Smyrna Speedway. Matt Hirschman and Anthony Nocella were battling wheel-to-wheel around the Florida half-mile oval with nothing to separate them as they battled to the finish.
A nail-biting side-by-side finish was expected. It had already happened two nights prior, when Nocella beat Hirschman to the line by less than a car length. It was about to happen again.
While finishes as close as Wednesday’s are hard to come by, experience in the scoring tower is an invaluable asset when they happen. R.J. Scott, Managing Partner of Champion Racing Association, is one of the experienced officials brought in by New Smyrna Speedway for the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing.
He was in the tower as the laps clicked off and was prepared for the moment.
“When you see something like that coming, you let everyone know in the tower, ‘Be ready to call this out,’” Scott explained to Speed51. “That means get in position to see it. There’s probably seven different types of officials in the room prepared to make the call.”
The call was announcing which of the two drivers they believed crossed the finish line first. It would require undivided attention and as clear a view of the finish as possible.
“Everybody gets in position, everyone makes a verbal call as soon as they cross the line. Anybody who didn’t say something, we ask them.”
What proceeded defied all expectations. Hirschman and Ncoella remained deadlocked, lap after lap after lap around the Florida half-mile. The checkered flag fell, and the finish proved even closer than imaginable.
It was time to make the call.
“It was 100 percent unanimous that it was the 92 [of Nocella].”
Still, they knew how close the finish had been, and wanted no stone left unturned in making the correct call. In quick order, Scott went next door in the tower at New Smyrna Speedway to look at replays from the NBC Track Pass broadcast of the finish.
“We’re not going to stop there, because it was so close. We want to see if we can find something to confirm it,” Scott said. “Great stuff, really good stuff. Unfortunately, with the frame rate, we catch a little further back from the line and just past the line. We don’t catch it when they hit the leading edge of the line.
“With that, as close as we could get, it still looked like 92, but very, very close.”
That left just one final recourse towards making the decision – turning to the man closest to the action and, more importantly, the finish line, flagman Ralph Miller.
“The final piece that we went for was the person who had the single best view in the house, which was the flagman. He said, ‘I saw it, I was on it, watching it, 92.’”
At that point, every voice turned to Nocella as the winner of the race.
“We don’t have a single thing that says 60 [of Hirschman]. Unanimously, it was 92. Thus, the decision, 92.”
Much has been made about the lack of electronic scoring in the decision. Nocella’s transponder had stopped functioning during the race, which prevented an update on the final lap.
However, Scott noted that in such a close finish, electronic scoring would never have been used to reach an official decision and the process would have played out very similarly even if Nocella had a functioning transponder.
“No quality short track in scoring uses transponders for position on the last lap. Everything is a visual. In short track racing, even with trying to do measurements when putting them in, there can still be some small variances in where the transponders are placed. But the nose of the car is the nose of the car.
“Practically all of short track racing, the final lap is scored visually for that reason. Plus, the line that is used here, for scoring purposes, for laps completed, not necessarily for position, is actually past the start-finish line. That doesn’t match up at all.”
A positive that has come from the dramatic finish has been the sportsmanship and respect shown by Nocella, Hirschman and their respective teams. While Hirschman pleaded his case, running to the scoring tower following the finish, it was done so in a respectful manner.
“I will tell you that everybody has been really classy in the conversations. Even if they didn’t agree, they certainly wanted to get their points across and they were respectful in doing that. We’re respectful in listening and sharing.
“They are very respectful. Disappointed at the end they didn’t necessarily win, but the whole 60 crew were great people to discuss it with.”
The unique situation has also allowed Scott and his team to share some of the inner workings of the scoring process, not so much to defend themselves but as to explain what procedures were in place in the case of a close finish such as Wednesday’s head-turner.
“I think we educated a lot of people,” he said. “Explaining things like visual scoring on the last lap, transponder situations. All those things, sharing with the people.”
Those procedures have been developed from more than two decades of experience at race tracks across America for Scott, and for the World Series he was working with an expert crew of officials with a diverse set of backgrounds.
“Fortunately, we’re close to doing this for 25 years. We’ve seen a lot. We’re prepared to use all the data that we can. In that situation, we had New Smyrna’s personnel, my partner Glenn Luckett, we had people associated with the Tour Mods, people from different groups and it was unanimous among those people that saw it from right above the line.”
With that unanimous verdict, a declaration of a tie was not on the table in Scott’s eyes.
“For me, personally, if the staff had been divided and looking at the video it was hard to discern from that, that’s probably where you would have seen a call for a dead heat. If everyone is unanimous, how can you make that call as a dead heat?”
With the tools at their disposal, the World Series officials made the call. Scott was ultimately pleased with how his team’s procedures held up to one of the stiffest tests they could fathomably face.
“For us, somebody’s getting paid. All we want to do is get the right one, no matter who it is. We do the best we can with what we have.
“Policies and procedures in place, I’m pleased with the efforts everyone put in and confident we made the right decision.”
-Story by: Zach Evans, Speed51 Content Supervisor – Twitter: @ztevans
-Photo credit: Speed51 / Tiffany Swisher