An exclusive look into NASCAR's control booth at Charlotte
Several drivers including, Dale Earnhardt Jr., have never visited a control booth
Every official gets speeds posted on their computer when drivers cross timing lines
Stopwatches are used as a backup tracking method, in case computers go down
CONCORD, N.C. -- Thick and foreboding, the slate gray door stands guard. VIPs and their guests walk by, headed to cushy seats and catered food in Charlotte Motor Speedway's suites. For some, the door's only purpose is to serve as a landmark -- the next opening down is the women's restroom.
For others, it is a mystery. The door looks as heavy as a bank vault's and holds as many secrets. A sign across it reads: NASCAR/CMS Control.
It is here in an almost hermetically sealed room, lit by computer and TV screens, where NASCAR officials rule over races.
Earnhardt pondered going but questions the booth's creature comforts compared to his motorhome. The view -- race control is positioned just before the start/finish line at Charlotte -- is spectacular but the two rows are narrow and barely hold a dozen people comfortably. Still, one question lingers for Earnhardt about race control.
"Who does what?'' he said. "When calls are made, who's making them and who's in charge so that way you could kind of funnel your anger and frustration toward just one individual the next time you get pissed off.''
Vickers has made multiple trips to race control. The visits changed his perception of what officials do.
"Sometimes you feel like your problem is the only problem they have,'' he said. "And then you go up in the tower and you realize they've got 42 other problems besides you and how hectic things are. It's a lot busier than I realized.''
Get ready. The door opens, leading to a short, darkened hallway. To your left is the room some former series champions have never entered. You are welcome, as we see how NASCAR officials called last weekend's Sprint Showdown.
"Put it out!'' David Hoots radios flagman Rodney Wise to wave the yellow flag. "Put it out. Turn 1.''
Before both cars stop, the action intensifies in race control.
AJ Allmendinger, who watched a race with officials last year, describes the room simply as "controlled chaos'' in such moments. Hoots, whose voice is most often heard on the NASCAR channel fans scan, organizes the field and directs clean-up crews from his front row seat. To his right is John Darby, Cup series director, who talks to officials on pit road via a separate channel. Two seats down is Mike Phillips, who often jumps from his seat during cautions as he directs emergency vehicles on another radio channel.
"Back 'em down,'' Hoots instructs spotters and crew chiefs to slow their drivers.
"Back the 6 down Rocky,'' Hoots tells race leader David Ragan's spotter, Rocky Ryan.
Hoots, Darby and Phillips talk in code. They use numbers to refer to various vehicles on the track. Choreographing rescue trucks, clean-up crews and jet dryers with 25 race cars circling can be challenging.
"Turn 2 fire come out and go around,'' Phillips says to a fire truck. "Get out wrecker, take off. Get out wrecker, take off.''
"The leader has got it, he's clear,'' Darby says, referring to Ragan taking the yellow flag at the start/finish line. "Leader is the 6,'' Hoots radios. "Clean up 3 [truck] you're clear to come across. You've got one [car] in the middle of [turn] 2.
As Hoots directs traffic, he issues another announcement.
"No free pass,'' he says, noting that no car is eligible to get its lap back.
Suddenly, Earnhardt's voice rises above this crescendo of chatter. NASCAR President Mike Helton's scanner is tuned to Earnhardt's frequency. The volume is turned up.
"I don't know,'' Earnhardt says to crew chief Steve Letarte about the car's handling. "It's getting into the corner pretty comfortable.''
Hoots, Darby and Phillips drown out Earnhardt's next comments with the commands they issue on their radio channels.
Helton, seated in the second row, leans over to Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president of competition. They view a monitor showing a replay of the wreck.
"You watch that early on and it looks like something locked up,'' Helton said.
They watch one of the two monitors in front of Christy May, the TV liaison. She relays NASCAR's decisions to the TV network so the announcers can tell fans. She also can call up one of 18 different camera angles on to a couple of screens in front of her or the big-screen TV hanging from the ceiling.
"Mike, I'm going to open pit road on you this time,'' Hoots shouts to Phillips.
"I'm good, I'm good Dave,'' Phillips shouts back, giving a thumbs-up sign. "Pit road will be open,'' Hoots says on the radio. May puts a replay of the crash on the big screen. Hoots, Darby and Phillips are too busy to notice. Pemberton and Helton study the crash.
"I think the driveshaft broke,'' Pemberton said of Cassill's car.
"I noticed the car doing something funky before the tire came apart,'' Helton said.
"Yes, the driveshaft broke,'' Pemberton said.