How IMSA Sorts Out Close Calls At the Finish Line

When IMSA added the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires to the portfolio of series that it sanctions and officiates, the sanctioning body was well aware of Mazda MX-5 Cup’s reputation for putting on thrilling, bumper-to-bumper races with nail-biting finishes.

In the thoughts of those working in IMSA’s Race Control and Timing and Scoring departments, it was “Bring it on, we’re ready.”

Mazda MX-5 Cup has already delivered a pair of ultra-close finishes in the first four races of 2021, but with years of officiating experience and modern technology at its disposal, IMSA has made quick, complete and—most importantly—accurate calls on those results. It’s the same process used for all of its series, which this year also includes the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge, IMSA Prototype Challenge, Ferrari Challenge North America, Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America and Porsche Carrera Cup North America.

In the very first Mazda MX-5 Cup race under IMSA sanction at Daytona International Speedway in January, the top seven finishers whizzed across the finish line less than four-tenths of a second apart. The difference between second and third places was one-thousandth of a second.

That same margin, 0.001 seconds, was the miniscule distinction of victory in the first race of the series’ doubleheader at Sebring International Raceway in March. Third place was just 0.013 seconds behind the winner as the three challengers crossed the finish line side-by-side-by-side.

No sweat, said Mark Raffauf, IMSA Senior Director of Race Operations.

“This is the kind of competition that we knew Mazda MX-5 Cup brings, and IMSA is prepared for that competition,” Raffauf said. “We have these technologies and tools to handle it. It’s kind of routine for us; this is what we do.”

IMSA’s process in tight-finish situations is the same for all its series. The primary tool for deciding the result comes from the electronic timing and scoring system. All competing cars carry a transponder, and every track has a series of timing loop wires embedded into the surface at various locations around the circuit—including the start/finish line. Each time a car crosses a timing loop, it’s recorded into IMSA’s electronic data history for the event.

Secondary to the process are high-speed cameras focused on the start/finish line and visual references from those watching the finish in Race Control.

“We start with the primary, and 99.9 percent of the time, the primary is what we use,” Raffauf said, referring to electronic timing. “Even when we have such close finishes, we still defer to the primary under these circumstances.

“If there’s a question, we do a review. The race director comes in to check the timing and scoring, looks at everything and says, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it is.’”

The race director in this case is Randy Buck, who joined IMSA this year to oversee Mazda MX-5 Cup and Porsche Carrera Cup North America races after a long career as a driver instructor and coach, as well as being a race director in regional series. It was baptism under fire for Buck at Daytona, with the seven-car train crossing the finish line nearly in tandem in his maiden race at the helm. He walked through the confirmation process, and it held up accurately as expected.

“The system is really good and the whole system and its procedures has been run through twice now—two out of the four races—and it worked perfectly,” Buck said. “The result that was initially presented was exactly the right one.”

A couple questions were raised about the results by teams, but Buck has used those opportunities to educate the paddock to IMSA’s thorough review process that leaves little to error. Sometimes a question is raised only because someone’s view of the finish is skewed by the angle from which they see it—be it from pit lane or in a grandstand.

Raffauf also pointed out that the embedded finish line timing loop is not always in the same location on the finish line painted on the track. The timing loop may rest within the first inches of the painted finish line, or it could be toward the last inches. It depends on where track personnel—not IMSA officials—opt to place the painted finish line, which can be several feet in width.

“The computer and the transponder don’t lie.”

“In some way or another, the painted finish line straddles that timing loop,” Raffauf said. “So, it’s back to the education thing of understanding that the actual finish point could be at the front or the back of the finish line painted on the track.

“At Sebring,” Raffauf added, “the three cars got to the beginning of the paint in one order, and they came out the other side in another order. It was that close where, in a matter of feet, the positions changed.”

As race director for Mazda MX-5 Cup, Buck expects more of the same excitement throughout the season. “The MX-5 cars are so equal, the drivers are so competitive, that we’re likely to have these finishes on a fairly regular basis,” he said.

And whether it’s in Mazda MX-5 Cup or any other sanctioned series, IMSA is ready for any close finishes. As Raffauf summed up, “The computer and the transponder don’t lie.”

Mazda MX-5 Cup returns to action with another doubleheader weekend, April 23-25 at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Florida.

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