Thursday, June 20, 2013

It’s a Start

In an effort to provide all of our Challenge competitors with a better understanding of the history, mechanics and rules, I’ve prepared a series of articles that will appear here on the BlogSpot as well as being sent to all the registered competitors in our database. There will be at least four Blog Posts in this series. So, here’s a start (pun intended). 

Three years ago, we significantly modified the race start procedure to remove the subjectivity of ruling on false starts. The compelling reason is that timing technology has advanced with speeds never before thought possible. Previously, ill-fated attempts would be made to recall the racers and restart the race. This had proved to be near impossible since the offending party would be well up the stairs and out of visual or even audible range. 

Computers are much better than humans in recognizing timed events. 

There are a number of sports in which time is the criteria by how the order of finish is determined. Reproduced in the next paragraph is text from Wikipedia. 

In sports, a false start is a movement by a participant before (or in some cases after) being signaled or otherwise permitted by the rules to start. Depending on the sport and the event, a false start can result in immediate disqualification of the athlete from further competition, a warning in which a subsequent false start would result in disqualification, or a penalty against the athlete's or team's field position. False starts are common in racing sports (such as swimming, track, sprinting and motor sports), where differences are made by fractions of a second that often cannot be comprehended by the human mind, and where anxiety to get the best start plays a role in the athletes' behavior. False starts are signalled by firing the starting gun twice.
A race that is started cleanly, on the contrary, is referred to as a fair start or clean start.

“Can’t you stand still for 2 seconds!?”

Sound familiar?

Well, that’s the requirement presently. And apparently, the answer for some is “no.”

In further reflection, it occurred to me that we might have made a mistake by using the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) start system. You see, by doing so, we’ve imbued many competitors with this idea that like in drag racing, the guy who’s first off the line is likely to be the winner. Makes perfect sense when you consider the E.T.s for quarter mile races. But we’re not an event like NHRA Drag racing or the 100m sprint with a 9 second elapsed time. We’re a race event that more like 10 times 9 = 90 seconds or longer. 

So, by using a Christmas tree start system, we actually encourage our racers to see how fast they can react to the visual (not the audible) signal. So, get this: in track if you moved within .1 second after the firing of the gun, you’ve false started. The rationale is that humans cannot process information any faster than .1 seconds. So, clearly, you had to be moving before the actual start. The result is disqualification. This has pretty much eliminated the “gaming” of the start in track events. Not so for us. There seems to be a disproportionate focus on the reaction time to the light (versus the siren) in an attempt to get the fastest start.

So, we‘ve asked this question continuously, “Why would you risk a five-second penalty to gain- what, a .5 second benefit in a race that lasts up to two minutes?” 

The Auto-Start feature did accomplish what we had hoped it would: the referee’s judgment was replaced by precision from a computer. But, competitors continue to believe that they have been treated unfairly when they get a red light. No one is ever guilty. And we seemingly can’t shake the idea that the outcome of the race is not decided by who’s off the line first. With 90-120 seconds to play with, there are a lot of other places where significant time can be made up, versus the milliseconds of gaming the start.

In our beta testing of the current start system, we had a number of athletes who false started and were incredulous that they had moved. Not until they were shown the video tape did they realize their fidgeting before the green light was sensed by the pressure pads.

In my next posting, I’m going to discuss what happened in Verona, at the New York Association of Fire Chief’s Annual Convention, the application of the rules, and the implications for the future.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Drivers: Start Your Engines...Days of Thunder

The Charlotte Coca-Cola 600 (May 26) was my first NASCAR event. It was also the first time that the Firefighter Combat Challenge® visited a motor-sports event. I have to admit that I approached this venue with some degree of aloofness. Sharing 2,000 acres of real estate with about 250,000 somewhat inebriated rednecks was not exactly my first choice for the Memorial Day weekend. But, our presenting sponsor, LiftMaster (the garage door opener/control people) were paying and the prospects of large crowds were enticing. 

We were staged just outside of Gate 16 on a nearly perfectly flat asphalt pad that had been used in prior years by Dodge as well as some errant donut burners- as evidenced by the black burnouts decorating the pavement. The weather was spectacular and the crowds enthusiastic. Pit crews from some of the race cars participated in our event, as did a team of Wounded Warriors who were playing in a softball tournament on Memorial Day. 

A foreboding sense of what awaited us inside as the cars were running tune-up laps only a few hundred meters away. Already the noise levels were permeating the ambiance of our competition- not that we don't create our own cacophony, but not like being on the approach glide path of incoming F-15s. 

View of a NASCAR Car Hauler and Support Trailer
We caught the History 300 on the 25th; but the big event, NASCAR’s longest race turned out to be a real treat. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force, 3 Medal of Honorees, Chairman of the Coca-Cola Board, the 82nd Airborne Chorus, LtCol Oliver North, Governors, Senators, Congressman, were all on the dais.  I’m still attempting to rap my head around the notion of the Duck Dynasty “Star” giving the invocation. 

Robin Meade did a great job with the National Anthem. Some 70 y.o. airframes - P-51 Mustangs did a fly over. And the biggest US flag you’ve ever seen was unfurled. 

The events of the weekend culminated with some great races and we retired to the Luxury Skybox Suite of LiftMaster- a great place from which to watch the action in air-conditioned comfort. But the best part was the HOT pass and the time in the pits. 

Here’s a video link to give you an idea of the excitement. I sat in upper level of the Cart and watched the “physiology” of the #1 car. All of this was absolutely fascinating. 

The view of the Coca-Cola 600 from the LiftMaster Skybox

The #1 Car’s “Physiology” is monitored remotely by computer

Sunday, June 2, 2013

James Doolittle and the Raiders

By Bob Greene CNN Contributor 

It's the cup of brandy no one wants to drink.

On Tuesday, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, the surviving Doolittle Raiders gathered publicly for the last time.

They once were among the most universally admired and revered men in the United States. There were 80 of the Raiders in April 1942, when they carried out one of the most courageous and heart-stirring military operations in this nation's history. The mere mention of their unit's name, in those years, would bring tears to the eyes of grateful Americans.

Now only four survive.

After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, with the United States reeling and wounded, something dramatic was needed to turn the war effort around. Even though there were no friendly airfields close enough to Japan for the United States to launch a retaliation, a daring plan was devised. Sixteen B-25s were modified so that they could take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. This had never been tried before -- sending big, heavy bombers from a carrier.

The 16 five-man crews, under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who himself flew the lead plane off the USS Hornet, knew that they would not be able to return to the carrier. They would have to hit Japan and then hope to make it to China for a safe landing.

But on the day of the raid, the Japanese navy caught sight of the carrier. The Raiders were told that they would have to take off from much farther out in the Pacific than they had counted on. They were told that because of this they would not have enough fuel to make it to safety.

And those men went anyway.

They bombed Tokyo, and then flew as far as they could. Four planes crash-landed; 11 more crews bailed out, and three of the Raiders died. Eight more were captured; three were executed. Another died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp. One crew made it to Russia.

The Doolittle Raid sent a message from the United States to its enemies, and to the rest of the world:
We will fight. And, no matter what it takes, we will win.

Of the 80 Raiders, 62 survived the war. They were celebrated as national heroes, models of bravery. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a motion picture based on the raid; "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, was a patriotic and emotional box-office hit, and the phrase became part of the national lexicon. In the movie-theater previews for the film, MGM proclaimed that it was presenting the story "with supreme pride."

Beginning in 1946, the surviving Raiders have held a reunion each April, to commemorate the mission. The reunion is in a different city each year. In 1959, the city of Tucson, Arizona, as a gesture of respect and gratitude, presented the Doolittle Raiders with a set of 80 silver goblets. Each goblet was engraved with the name of a Raider.
Every year, a wooden display case bearing all 80 goblets is transported to the reunion city. Each time a Raider passes away, his goblet is turned upside down in the case at the next reunion, as his old friends bear solemn witness.

Also in the wooden case is a bottle of 1896 Hennessy Very Special cognac. The year is not happenstance: 1896 was when Jimmy Doolittle was born.
There has always been a plan: When there are only two surviving Raiders, they would open the bottle, at last drink from it, and toast their comrades who preceded them in death.

As 2013 began, there were five living Raiders; then, in February, Tom Griffin passed away at age 96.
What a man he was. After bailing out of his plane over a mountainous Chinese forest after the Tokyo raid, he became ill with malaria, and almost died. When he recovered, he was sent to Europe to fly more combat missions. He was shot down, captured, and spent 22 months in a German prisoner of war camp.

The selflessness of these men ... there was a passage in the Cincinnati Enquirer obituary for Mr. Griffin that, on the surface, had nothing to do with the war, but that captures the depth of his sense of duty and devotion:
"When his wife became ill and needed to go into a nursing home, he visited her every day. He walked from his house to the nursing home, fed his wife and at the end of the day brought home her clothes. At night, he washed and ironed her clothes. Then he walked them up to her room the next morning. He did that for three years until her death in 2005."

So now, out of the original 80, only four Raiders remain: Dick Cole (Doolittle's co-pilot on the Tokyo raid), Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher. All are in their 90s. They have decided that there are too few of them for the public reunions to continue.

The events in Fort Walton Beach this week will mark the end. It has come full circle; Florida's nearby Eglin Field was where the Raiders trained in secrecy for the Tokyo mission.
The town is planning to do all it can to honor the men: a six-day celebration of their valor, including luncheons, a dinner and a parade.

Do the men ever wonder if those of us for whom they helped save the country have tended to it in a way that is worthy of their sacrifice? They don't talk about that, at least not around other people. But if you find yourself near Fort Walton Beach this week, and if you should encounter any of the Raiders, you might want to offer them a word of thanks. I can tell you from firsthand observation that they appreciate hearing that they are remembered.

The men have decided that after this final public reunion they will wait until a later date -- some time this year -- to get together once more, informally and in absolute privacy. That is when they will open the bottle of brandy. The years are flowing by too swiftly now; they are not going to wait until there are only two of them.

They will fill the four remaining upturned goblets.
And raise them in a toast to those who are gone.