Not that long ago, NASCAR official Jusan Hamilton was watching NASCAR as a fan. And like many NASCAR fans, Hamilton tweeted his unhappiness with the way the sanctioning body officiated its races during the 2011 fall race at Texas Motor Speedway.
If you’re familiar with NASCAR, you know fan complaints about NASCAR and caution-flag conspiracies aren’t uncommon. Heck, the complaints have even been shared by drivers, too. In 2010, Denny Hamlin was fined by the sanctioning body for publicly questioning the legitimacy of a debris caution during a race he won at Michigan.
But while it’s not unusual for a fan watching at home to complain about officiating conspiracies in any sport, it’s quite unusual and remarkable for that fan to make the calls he or she once complained about. Hamilton, 26, had that opportunity Saturday.
Less than six years after tweeting during that Texas race, he was the race director for the Xfinity Series race at Auto Club Speedway.
“I watched the sport for over 15 years growing up, and of course as a fan when you follow any sport there’s times where in another sport you might see a referee make a call that you don’t necessarily agree with or goes against someone you’re pulling for, so sometimes you react to it,” Hamilton told Yahoo Sports. “And I think what you’re referencing there was more along those lines.
“But to even go a step further from there, as soon as I started working in NASCAR, I really didn’t have to ask that type of question. It’s clear to me the integrity of the people that are making those decisions and the integrity of the process that goes into like putting out the caution. Obviously we have to err on the side of safety and sometimes as a fan watching, I know for myself that wasn’t necessarily what I was thinking at the time. And after working here and understanding that process, understanding that we have spotters all the way around the racetrack, safety vehicles all the way around the racetrack … guys in positions where they can see things that the cameras can’t even see on TV that there’s a lot that goes into those decisions.”
A race director’s title is pretty self-explanatory. The person in the role is in charge of calling caution flags, working with the track’s spotters, enforcing penalties, paying attention for any cars that may have a problem and ensuring the running order and scoring is accurate.
“Being in that seat as a race director is similar to being a quarterback,” Hamilton explained, “… where you really have to understand what everyone else is doing and know everyone else’s plays as well as your own.”
With NASCAR’s new stage format, the first caution of Hamilton’s race directing career was a bit awkward. The first segment of Saturday’s 300-mile race at the 2-mile track was set for 35 laps. Matt Tifft spun on Lap 29, less than six laps before the scheduled end of the stage. Instead of calling the first stage at that point and throwing the pre-planned caution flag for Lap 35, Hamilton and officials worked to get the race back to green by Lap 35 for a one-lap sprint to the end of the stage.
“That definitely was a good first test,” Hamilton said. “You want to get the track back ready for competition as fast as possible, and we were able to go back green for one lap there. So that was definitely a test to get things done efficiently and get back to green.”
Hamilton got into the operations side of NASCAR via an internship with the sanctioning body’s weekly and touring series while at Ithaca College. After joining NASCAR’s marketing team following college, he moved into the race operations side of things and in four years was in a role that very few people in NASCAR get to occupy. And he’ll be there again, too. Hamilton said he’ll find out later in the week where in the Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series he’ll have a chance to reprise his role as a race director.
“There’s many checks and balances that strengthen the process and really allow those of us in the tower to make the proper call from those that we’re receiving it from on the ground that are positioned around the racetrack strategically,” Hamilton said. “… That whole process has been very eye-opening and also what makes it very interesting to me. When I was watching these races when I was growing up it was always the technical aspect of the sport and how detailed everything was from the practices to the qualifying sessions right through to the race – the strategy that goes into the race on the competitors’ standpoint.
“On this side of the sport there’s equally as many technical aspects and areas of interest that casually watching as I was growing up that I really wouldn’t have thought about.”
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