SRO: Inside the steward’s mind, with Brian Till
Brian Till is fond of stick-and-ball sports analogies when it comes to his job as Driver Steward for Blancpain GT World Challenge America. But those football and baseball metaphors provide a lot of insight into what goes on as he deliberates the proper response to on-track infractions.
“You get away with what you can get away with,” the former Indy car driver and current motorsports television color commentator says. “A lineman is going to hold as much as he can hold. And you’re going to make that block when you shouldn’t, and you’re going to try this here and there. Those guys, that’s what they get paid for at the top levels of the sport. It’s not my job to be be a policeman and go catch them, but it’s my job to make sure the game is played as fairly as it can be played.
“I think that is a huge difference — I don’t go into Race Control trying to find people doing wrong things. I go into Race Control to watch a race, and if the race becomes unfair for one reason or another, it’s my job to act on whatever made it unfair. Other than that, I want to watch a good race just like any other fan.”
Till (pictured above) began his journey to race stewarding as a driver in SCCA while still in college. He won the Formula Atlantic championship in 1990 and spent four years racing in CART. Over the years he also raced Trans-Am and was an instructor at the Mid-Ohio School before his broadcasting career began. And in 2015, he added stewarding into the mix. In that role, he’s seen it all, from contact that decided championships to a factory driver who claimed he didn’t know what the rules were concerning passing under yellow. It was the latter situation that elicited the comment about drivers getting away with what they could get away with, just as a football lineman will. And sometimes, it’s not intent, but an error in judgment.
“One of the things I love about motorsports is kind of what I love about baseball. That is, it’s a sport played by humans and you’re going to make mistakes. If you look at baseball, if you’re a good hitter and you’ve got a .300 average, it means you’ve failed 70 percent of the time. Nothing’s perfect, and nothing’s perfect in racing. It never will be. But I think you have to take the human element into consideration. I try to do that when I watch it, even in replay — not only the aspects of what’s happening in that incident as far as the physical aspects of it go and what’s transpired, but kind of the mental approach of the drivers and what they were thinking. We’ll never be able to judge intent, but I do think it helps to have some idea from what mental place the driver was coming from,” Till says in explaining his general philosophy.
In that regard, it helps that he’s been there, done that. Till’s spent enough time in Nomex to have a pretty good idea of the driver’s attitude. And enough time to know that, “It was never my fault!” he laughs. He remembers one incident at Road America a few years ago with a driver he declines to mention by name.
“I told him, ‘I know exactly what happened. I saw the contact happen, and immediately when the contact happened I saw you get angry. And you’re wondering how I saw you get angry … I could tell by the language of the car and how you moved it after that. You got so upset you were going to make sure he didn’t win. I knew that was going to happen back there. It’s an emotional sport, but you can’t let emotion run the day, and you did.’
“I think when you can relate to somebody like that, it makes it more understandable and more palatable on their part that there’s going to be a penalty involved.” he adds.
That doesn’t make it easy. He’s raced against and with some of the drivers in the GT World Challenge paddock. Some are friends, some are drivers for whom he has great admiration. And when an incident occurs that involves one or more of those drivers whom he considers a friend, it’s a tough call to make.
The one he had to step back from was the incident in the 2016 season finale at Laguna Seca between Johnny O’Connell and Patrick Long that cost Long the championship that year. On the final lap, right after a restart, leader O’Connell ran wide exiting Turn 4. Long, running second, saw an opportunity, but the two made contact in Turn 5 fighting for the lead. Long got the worst of it, and Alvaro Parente finished ahead of him to take the title.
“Johnny O’Connell is a dear friend of mine, has been a dear friend of mine forever, and Patrick Long, I’ve got the utmost respect for because of all the broadcasting I’ve done. I sat and watched that incident. It was an incident that didn’t need to happen, it was one that was easily avoidable, and really the outcome of the decision wouldn’t have changed the championship outcome. But I just looked at it and I couldn’t come to a decision as to if either of those drivers really had fault. There was a call for a call to be made, and I just said, ‘I can’t do it.’ My friendship with Johnny and my professional admiration for Patrick’s ability and skill was getting in the way of black and white.”
The ultimate decision was that O’Connell was handed a 2.1-second penalty, enough to move him back to fifth.
Not being able to make a call in that incident illustrates the human side of the job and the sport. Till says he knows he’s made mistakes, just like the drivers do. In that case, it was one where he didn’t have confidence that his emotions wouldn’t cause him to make an error. But he also hopes that the drivers in the series recognize that he, just like them, is human with all the shortcomings that come with imperfection. To paint the picture, he recounts a conversation he had recently had with a driver who was asking him about stewarding.
“I said, ultimately, just like he’s going to make a mistake in a race car, I’m going to make a mistake on a call,” he says. “All of us have. All I want to be thought of as is, you don’t have to agree with the call that I made, but I want you to respect me for making it. I want you to understand that it didn’t happen quickly, it didn’t happen easily. It came with a lot of thought and it came with as much evaluation as it could at the time. Respect me for the fact that the vast majority of the strikes that I call are strikes and the vast majority of the balls I call are balls. If I get one wrong now and then, that doesn’t make it easier to accept, and I can’t take it back. But if I have respect for you as a driver and you have that respect for me as a steward, the whole thing flows much better.”
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