Daytona 500 race director Jusan Hamilton wants to make history without being noticed

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Jusan Hamilton will be making NASCAR history in Sunday’s Daytona 500 – and hopefully in the most inconspicuous way possible.

“On a really good day in race control, no one even notices that we were there, which I’m completely fine with,” Hamilton told NBC Sports. “That everything being focused on – the winner, the competition, the way it played out – happened on the racetrack, and we aren’t the story. That’s my preference for calling a NASCAR race.”

But as the first Black race director of the Cup Series season opener, Hamilton, 31, inherently will be an important part of the backstory in the 64th running of The Great American Race.

VIEWER’S GUIDE: Info for watching the Daytona 500 and Speedweek

Believed to be also the youngest race director to call the Daytona 500, he will be only the third person in 30 years to oversee the application and flow of caution flags, race procedures and potentially controversial penalties during the biggest event of the season.

Hamilton will occupy perhaps the most important seat Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, perched 170 feet above the front-stretch with binoculars at the ready and a cacophony of voices ranging from spotters positioned around the track to high-ranking officials shouting information in the suite commonly referred to as the NASCAR scoring tower.

For more than three pressure-packed hours, the Ithaca, New York, native will try to instill order among inherent chaos – 21 years and two days after the momentous 2001 Daytona 500, which also was the first NASCAR Cup race that Hamilton watched from flag to flag.

It’s been a journey that Hamilton said was accompanied by “a good amount of doubt” as he transitioned from race car driver to executive, and he’s encouraged by signs of future NASCAR diversification through its inroads into minority communities (such as The Clash at the Coliseum, which brought NASCAR to inner-city Los Angeles).

NASCAR Cup Series Busch Light Clash - Preview
NASCAR race director Jusan Hamilton met with former U.S. Men’s National Team star Cobi Jones before the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Sean Gardner/Getty Images).

“It’s a huge accomplishment for me, and I hope the biggest thing that comes from that is when there are young African-American kids from upstate New York or in an area where NASCAR isn’t necessarily the popular thing or on everyone’s radar, I hope that I am setting the example,” he said. “Instead of getting the questions I’d typically get of, ‘Why are you interested in this? Is this really for you?’, I hope the next generation of those kids see motorsports and racing as something they have a passion for and a desire to be a part of and that is an easier thing for them to achieve.

“I was always amazed when we’d go to Watkins Glen, and I’d see new fans at the track, and there are five dirt tracks within about 20 miles that they’d never heard of, and I’d say we’ve got to get people out to these racetracks at the local level. Seeing that as an area where they’re going to be accepted, I think that’s going to be a big part of the future of the sport.”

Ahead of calling his first Daytona 500, Hamilton sat down for a wide-ranging interview with NBC Sports about his philosophy for calling races, his background and upbringing in racing and the success of The Clash:


THE JOB

Though it’s his first Daytona 500, Hamilton has called previous races at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. He initially joined NASCAR as an intern in 2012, worked in Integrated Marketing Communications for a year and then before moving into race operations in 2016. He made his debut as NASCAR’s first African-American race director in March 2017 with an Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway and his first Cup race at Pocono the next year.

Hamilton shares the race director role with Tim Bermann (who called the last two Daytona 500s after a 31-year run by David Hoots) and will call 46 races (23 in Cup) across NASCAR national series this season.

A graduate of Ithaca College with degrees in integrated marketing communications and sociology, Hamilton is process-driven by nature. He cites preparation as the most important part of his job, which also includes managing NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and building the race weekend schedules with tracks and broadcast networks.

NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine
Jusan Hamilton talks with Loris Hezemans at the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Combine at New Smyrna Speedway three years ago. Hamilton manages NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images).

“The best way to go about overachieving and exceeding expectations was to be prepared and put the work and time in,” he said. “It just comes natural to me. I enjoy being that way and take pride in the result.”

While raising two young daughters, he also helped his wife, Charis, open a maternal pelvic physical therapy practice in Port Orange last month (Jusan designed the business’ website and logos).

“My wife is a very hard worker, working at her physical therapy clinic as she starts her new business,” he said. “We’re very motivated people. I’m not sure how many hours I work, but my biggest hope is it sets positive examples for our daughters, and they can achieve their goals as well.”


THE APPROACH

Race director might be analogous to the head referee in an NFL game, but the NASCAR job entails more than just competition. The safety of drivers, pit crews and track workers also are a primary responsibility for race directors, who dispatch cleanup crews after accidents (and must be familiar with the track-specific wall cutouts that lead onto the track).

Hamilton said he studies race procedure rulebooks, watches old races and has copious notes from every race he’s called (he’s observed the past six Daytona 500s from the scoring tower).

“Knowing racing is a big part of it,” he said. “Being around it my whole life, racing makes sense to me. Knowing the facility that’s a big part, whether understanding how the garage flows for practice and qualifying or what you’re capable of around the facility when it comes to moving our safety equipment.”

One of the job’s most critical elements is determining yellow flags, which Hamilton said can depend on interpreting how information is being relayed.

“You have folks around the racetrack, whether our turn spotters or officials on the ground, and you learn their voices,” he said. “If rain is moving in, and you hear an elevated tone in a turn spotter’s voice, you know this isn’t just a sprinkle that’s picking up, you need to put out the caution. You learn different tendencies like that, and all that goes into calling yellows.”

Aside from being Hamilton’s first Daytona 500 as race director, Sunday also will be the points race debut for the Next Gen, which likely will race similarly to its predecessor despite having vastly new features.

As with any superspeedway race, there’s an expectation that “more than likely, you’re going to have a fairly large incident,” Hamilton said. “You might have multiple big wrecks. And getting the track restored, making sure everyone’s safe, reacting to those appropriately, that’s normally the biggest challenge with Daytona. And then of course enforcing all the other rules around a restart, pit road, the yellow line rule. You’re just as focused like a competitor would be through those three and a half to four hours.

“None of that stuff is something you can really predict. You get a sense of when business is picking up, but outside of that, it’s being prepared.”


MEMORABLE RACES …

The 2020 Xfinty race at the Charlotte Roval, which was run with rain tires in borderline monsoon conditions, was the most challenging so far for Hamilton.

“But what I also love about that race is we kept adapting,” he said. “Racing in that type of conditions for the first time, trying to keep the track in raceable condition by using equipment in ways we typically don’t to remove the water, the red flags. There was so much thrown at us in that race that we had to adapt to, and I was very proud of being able to do that because of our preparation.”

Hamilton said The Clash at the Coliseum ranks among his best races but also was special for the amount of time he invested in its logistics. He made six cross-country flights from Florida to L.A. after the 2021 season to troubleshoot an event that featured many wrinkles, such as cars traveling surface streets into the arena and heat races that were familiar to Hamilton (whose start in racing was on dirt tracks).

“I thought we made it look smooth and easy, which is always the goal coming from race control,” he said. “The Clash was such a proud moment for the sport to be able to give that race the identity that we had. I really took a lot of pride in calling that race because of the format.

“I’ll be very proud of doing the 500 as well. Every race takes the same amount of importance where we want to have a fair competition with integrity and want the competition to play out on the racetrack while we enforce our rules.”


… AND CONTROVERSY

But like most Cup races, the Clash also had at least one minor controversy (in this case, the timing of the halfway yellow flag that left race winner Joey Logano’s team confused about whether he’d taken the lead before the field was frozen). Hamilton concedes that criticism and upset race fans come with the territory of being a race director.

“I’ve been a fan on that side and might have a different opinion of how something should have been handled,” he said. “That’s part of fandom, so I accept that. But what I also know is we’re making a decision in real time and don’t have the luxury of replaying something because people’s safety is on the line.

“Whether it’s a spin that may not result in wall contact, but the field is bearing down on that car, or if it’s a reaction to a potential piece of debris that looks like it could be metal and cause harm. Those types of decisions are things that people don’t necessarily see, but we have to react to in real time. As long as we can feel like we were prepared and made the right decision in that moment, the race goes on from there.”

Hamilton was a curious observer in the disputed finish of the 2021 Formula One finale, both as a race director and a longtime fan of seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton (who lost the title).

“I can’t pass any judgment on what they do in F1 race control,” Jusan Hamilton said. “I’m watching as a fan. The rules and procedures are very different from ours. I was disappointed as a fan that my driver didn’t win in that instance. But it certainly crossed my mind, if this was a NASCAR event, how would I have handled this type of incident differently. Our rules are very different, but you can certainly take learnings, and I’m always thinking about ‘How would this apply to us?’ if I’m watching any other motorsport.”


HIS START

A self-described “car guy,” Hamilton’s mechanical aptitude was cultivated in the garage of a grandfather who had him behind the wheel of go-karts and tractors as a toddler and also introduced him to the upstate New York dirt track scene.

“I always had a strong interest in anything that had four wheels, even some with two,” he said. “I’d always watch Supercross, Monster Trucks, open wheel racing. NASCAR stuck with me the most.”

It particularly resonated with the 2001 Daytona 500, which marked the start of NASCAR’s first full-season network TV deal and ended with the death of Dale Earnhardt.

“Obviously the ending was a very traumatic and pivotal moment because the sport lost a hero,” Hamilton said. “But before that, I remembered most how the race played out and the stories of how the drivers had gotten to that point. From that point forward, not only was I racing every weekend, but I’d follow every NASCAR race. As a 10-year-old, what I imagined myself doing was to compete at that level. I never felt that wasn’t achievable.”

It ultimately turned out to be unaffordable. After a career in go-karts, modifieds and mini-sprints, Hamilton’s application to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity was denied in 2005 because he lacked experience in full-body cars. Instead of making a switch that would plunge his family into debt, Hamilton went to college for communications and marketing in hopes of landing a job with a corporate sponsor in racing.

“I use those skills today working with broadcast partners and racetracks on the event schedules,” he said. “And the sociology degree comes into managing the Drive for Diversity competition programs. I didn’t know that’s where those avenues would lead, but I’m very thankful that I found that pathway to what I’m doing now.”

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”