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.

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