By: Tanner Watkins
November 26, 2018 | 12:00 PM
One of the greatest challenges an employee faces when moving to a new company is finding a seamless transition that allows for instant progress and efficiency. In just under a year, Kyle Novak has done just that – and then some – in becoming the newest INDYCAR race director.
Hired on January 5, Novak rejoined the American open-wheel ranks after his most recent stop included three years spent with the International Motor Sports Association. Novak’s IMSA stint came after an assortment of experiences that included Champ Car, drag racing and the Sports Car Club of America.
What Novak has brought to the IndyCar Series – as demonstrated by a successful and relatively quiet 2018 for race control – is a fresh outlook on how to sanction an open-wheel event while embracing the viewpoints of respected individuals in the industry.
“I think it went really could not have gone any better,” Novak relayed to Open-Wheels. “We had our fair share of challenges early in the season – some that fell within our purview, and other things like bad luck that just happen race operationally that you can’t do anything about. But we managed to stay out of the news and keep the teams and the drivers as the main focal point of the story, and that’s what we like to do. We like them to be the story and not us, so to speak.”
Novak entered the race control realm with INDYCAR as the new face while stewards Arie Luyendyk and Max Papis remained in their positions on the competition staff. The trio have worked together to form one of the more complete and steadfast officiating combinations in motorsports. In Novak’s perspective, it is the differences they voice at times that help the group come to clear and consistent final decisions.
“I would say that we function well because we use the same methodology in coming to conclusions on any action that needs to be taken – whether it be procedurally or operational – all of that sort of stuff,” Novak states as he explains his relationship with Luyendyk and Papis.
“But I think we work the best honestly because we disagree quite a bit. And that’s what really sharpens you, right? If you just had a bunch of people around you that agreed with you all the time, things are going to fall through the cracks because you think ‘oh everything is well and good and there are no problems.'”
The group conducts weekly conference calls to go over the most recent event. During these conversations, the three individuals make note of any brewing circumstances that should garner their attention for the next race while also preparing for the unique challenges that different types of circuits pose to race control. Since the IndyCar Series can race at a superspeedway one weekend and a street course the next, there are different ways to officiate those events and the plans for each must be clearly defined.
“We talk about items we see that could come up and we talk about how we are going to officiate those things and what the message to the drivers is going to be,” says Novak. “Along the way, there’s a lot of little disagreements throughout questioning each other’s (perspectives) and what goes into those calls that allow us to come to one unified conclusion.”
For the time being, Novak views the three-man crew as the optimal combination for officiating American open-wheel racing at the highest level. The reason lies in the composition of the individuals and how they work together – not because three is the magic number.
“Right now we’re pretty comfortable with where we’re at. Really, it comes down to the mix of people you have and I can’t think of anyone else other than Max and Arie that I prefer working with, just because of the chemistry we’ve developed with all the things I just alluded to,” explains Novak, who is also a former attorney.
“The thing about race control that you might not know is that INDYCAR race control – when you just strip everything away and all the titles and everything else – is anywhere from 13 to 15 people depending on if it’s a road course or an oval,” Novak continues. “That includes myself, that includes each department of operations to run a race on the ground, and that includes the stewards as well. So we’re really cognizant of any time we talk about adding a body or responsibility – or even taking one away – because it gets quite busy in there; it gets quite loud.
“(Race control) is very organized, but to anyone who really doesn’t know or isn’t familiar with how to run the flow of the race or how an INDYCAR race control operates, (they) might be blown away with how busy it might get in there. So anytime we talk about adding somebody we always take a hard look at it. Not to say that we wouldn’t add another person down the road, but we are really comfortable with where we’re at right now and it seems to work pretty well.”
When taking a look back at the 2018 season, Novak reiterates how important it is to have the right people as part of the operation. He places an emphasis on the amount of trust one must give to other members of race control while delegating tasks, wondering aloud how anyone could do this job on their own in this current age of surplus data and a desire for instant, uniform decisions.
“I can’t imagine the old days or some of these other series and how you can just be the sole race director and run every single thing that needs to go on,” Novak admits. “IndyCar has evolved with so much technology and it happens so fast with so many video inputs and data points we have to run a race now. You have to trust each one of your mini departments inside race control to do the right thing: that is to do the job and follow a vision that you’ve established to get to the finish line, and that’s to run a safe, efficient and fair race.”
As we mire in the midst of IndyCar’s long and dreary offseason, Novak and his carefully appointed crew are already looking ahead to 2019. The unified voice from race control should see no changes with Luyendyk and Papis returning to the fold, and Novak beams with excitement while sharing some insight on some minor technological developments that could surface next season – with a bigger project possibly in the pipeline down the road.
“Some smaller things that I’m concerning myself with in the near-term is really how we can make race control function a little more efficiently,” Novak begins. “If you go back to my earlier answer, we talked about how (race control) appears on the surface to be a little bit chaotic at times. We are trying to introduce some technology in race control that will give us a better workflow when it comes to reviewing incidents.
“This would include prioritizing and keeping a log, so to speak, of statistical data, whether it be incidents, minor infractions, or major infractions. Basically (taking) everything that happens during the race, logging that and having the data to go back to and instantly spit out during the race if we need to. That’s a pretty immediate short-term need that we have. We already have (some) sort of a logging system that’s a little bit rudimentary – it’s not too advanced – so we’re really looking at improving that for 2019.
“For 2020 or 2021 we are looking at some things that we can do to make some of the on-track officiating decisions a little bit more automated… a little bit more black and white when it comes to some of the on-track operations of the race, and I’ll just leave that one there.”
If you thought the title of race director only worked while at the track, you’d be sorely mistaken. Just as there is little to no offseason for IndyCar’s teams, the series officials and its competition division are hard at work to make sure race control have as quiet a year in 2019 as they did this past season.
When talking about officiating, you know the stewards are doing a fine job when they are kept out of the press. Let’s hope that this group can continue the good times in 2019 and media chatter about race control is kept at a minimum while the focus remains on the cars and the drivers.
It seems with Novak at the helm, INDYCAR has their man to carry out that plan for years to come.
Header image courtesy of Chris Owens/INDYCAR.