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AUTO RACING - GRAND-AM: Rolex 24 Controversy Sparks Procedural Reviews

The 50th Rolex 24 at Daytona will likely go down in the history books as being one of the most competitive and hardest-fought GT races GRAND-AM has ever seen. With more than 45 teams representing both sides of the U.S. sports car racing scene, the world’s best descended upon Daytona International Speedway for the golden anniversary of America’s premier endurance race.

While the battle for the overall win in Daytona Prototype lived up to the expectations, the race for the GT honors not only came down to the competitors’ fight on the track, but also for some controversial officiating calls, according to several teams, that may or may have not impacted the results of the twice-around-the-clock classic.

The issues at hand, as SPEED.com has learned following a week-long investigation, stemmed from a newly introduced full-course caution procedure for GT competitors, where the first car one lap behind received a ‘Free Pass’ around the leader to regain the lost lap during each yellow period.

Coupled with a wave-by procedure given to GT cars ahead of the DP leader, periods of confusion broke out on whether teams were making legal maneuvers or simply trying to take advantage of the rather complex system to gain additional time and laps while under yellow.

“I'm not sitting here saying it was perfect,” said Mark Raffauf, GRAND-AM Managing Director of Race Operations. “From our perspective, operationally, we had some challenges. It wasn't as smooth as it should or could have been and there were a lot of reasons for that.”

Raffauf, a 30-plus year veteran of the sport who has served as GRAND-AM’s Race Director since the series’ inception in 2000, helped institute the new caution procedure for this year, which was aimed at giving a complete cycle to the GT cars following pit stops in a matter of a typical three-lap yellow.

But factor in the overall-leading Daytona Prototype field, and the split strategies many teams were on, and the GT race was often times affected by the DP’s actions. It particularly became apparent during pit stops, which shuffled some GT cars ahead of the DPs on track.

This came despite GRAND-AM’s staggered pit lane procedures, where DPs pit on the first lap of caution, followed by GTs on the second lap, with the field going back to green following the third lap of yellow.

“There were probably four occasions where the wave-by procedure was improperly orchestrated,” said TRG team owner Kevin Buckler, whose No. 67 Porsche finished second in class. “Of those four, two of them became moot and two of them became major.”

Buckler alleges two instances where the No. 44 Magnus Racing Porsche, the eventual race-winning car, stepped out of line while under yellow, took unauthorized wave-bys and gained a lap on the competition on each occasion.

While Buckler claims to have proof of the uncorrected infractions through on-board footage and lap charts, Raffauf says GRAND-AM’s data, consisting of a position-based car locating system that recorded the every move of each entry, shows that the correct officiating calls were made in each case.

The Magnus Porsche didn’t walk away unscathed either, which had two penalties, including one for passing under a yellow, which team engineer and strategist Lars Giersing claims was wrongfully given per the rulebook.

While both Buckler and Giersing claim each other’s cars took unauthorized wave-bys and were not penalized, other entries too were either hit with penalties or unfairly gained a lap while under yellow.

“I don't think there was any one team disadvantaged more than others in bad calls,” Giersing said. “The way the yellows were working, if you were a lap down, because of the ‘Lucky Dog’ (free pass), you would get it back. If not, [the 67] would have not come back up again because they they were a couple of laps down.”

Many of the questions came during the nighttime hours, according to Raffauf, who admitted to having issues identifying cars while under the partially-lit high-banked oval. It resulted in a few extended yellows to sort out the field.

“The process of the wave-bys is supposed to occur at a certain period of time and when it doesn't, we kind of go back to our other process, which is to get back to the race and do the field split and get going, which is what we did a couple of times,” Raffauf said.

“I don't want to say we were confused, but we realized that we had more things going on incorrectly than we could possibly deal with and kind of had to make some decisions to get the deal under control and get back to green. It was a perpetuating thing. You could keep having people pit and never get done, you'd be yellow forever.”

While officials were attempting to keep track of the class leaders and ‘Free Pass’ car while under yellows, teams up and down pit road were sometimes left in a state of confusion over the same issues, according to Stevenson Motorsports team manager Mike Johnson.

“The rule was OK if it was followed to the letter of the rule,” Johnson said. “But they didn’t have the ability to follow the rule because they had no idea what was going on. Cars were doing what they were supposed to do, but they sometimes weren’t doing it under GRAND-AM’s discretion.”

Johnson said his No. 57 Camaro was handed a one-minute and 50-second penalty for an illegal pass of the pace car, for a move he claims was legal. The penalty dropped the front-running entry off the lead lap but said it ultimately didn’t have an effect on their eventual fourth-place finish.

“I think GRAND-AM could have done a better job in explaining all the rules, especially to the teams who are not here on a daily basis,” Giersing said. “It's hard enough for us who have followed GRAND-AM for ten years to figure out exactly what it is they want and what they mean when they write rules. A lot of times, they are not clearly stated or mean something else. We've had that on numerous occasions.”

Buckler added: “We had a lot of cars, that many cars for the first time, were running around with a fairly complicated yellow flag procedure with teams making mistakes and basically the tower having to figure out how to police it correctly. It just got out of control. The unfortunate part is that it affected the ultimate results of the race.

“I think the points should be changed if they can prove that the situation was, as explained, [not correct], so that we go to the next race correctly in the right position.”

With no protests having been lodged during the 60-hour window following the checkered flag, the race results became official on Feb. 1, despite Buckler’s unhappiness with the finishing order. And with no findings of the results being wrong, Raffauf says they are in no position to adjust the points, either.

Moving forward, Raffauf says he’s committed to achieving better clarity with the caution and wave-by procedures and is open to hearing team’s suggestions on what measures could be taken in the future.

“The procedure is only a good procedure if everybody on both sides understands it and it works,” Raffauf said. “It wasn't as good in that regard as I would have liked it to be... I believe that everybody that I've talked to is interested in, 'OK, what do we do from here?'

“We’ll talk to everybody, get their input and mash our teeth on that to make it simpler. Obviously less cars and people that know the drill will make it a lot better.”

One of the suggestions given by a number of people, including Johnson and Giersing, is to go to a two pace car format, which would keep the DP and GT races separate. It could also potentially allow the classes to pit on the same lap, but separated by a pre-determined gap.

Another option tossed up has been to eliminate the ‘Free Pass,’ which was used in the Rolex Series some five years ago before returning to the GT class for the first time last month. The addition of a fourth lap under yellow is another option, Johnson says, but Raffauf has ruled that out due to time constraints.

“I think they need to look at the yellow flag situations and come up with a better race,” Giersing said. “All I want is something that's fair for GT so that we can really do our strategy correctly. I would much rather see it so we don't have to call our strategy depending on what the DPs do.”

While a few people may still have a sour taste from last month’s season-opener, it appears some rules changes, or at the very least better clarity, will be in the works before the the second round of the season at Barber Motorsports Park next month.

Raffauf said he hopes to eventually introduce GRAND-AM’s real-time car-locating system, which officials have in Race Control, for teams’ use in the future, while he remains open for any questions that competitors have over the Rolex 24 results.

"I felt really bad for the ALMS teams and the other European teams that came to see our marquee event and it was kind of a mess,” Johnson said. “As a proud supporter of GRAND-AM, I was embarrassed that this is what we showed off to the world.

“Hopefully we can get those other teams to come back to race with us in the future. We all believe GRAND-AM is great and we all want it to be great.”
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