Speed Secrets: A Starter’s Perspective
By Ross Bentley
September 17, 2013
Dennis Paul has been the official Starter for the American Le Mans Series for the past 15 years (the only Starter the series has ever had). When I raced in the IMSA/ALMS series I always felt I had an advantage over my competitors at the start because I could "read" Dennis. He'd been the Starter at my local road racing circuit, Westwood Motorsport Park, early in my career (the early '80s). In some ways, we both moved up the ranks of pro racing together, and more than one driver I know has said he's the best Starter, period.
When Dennis isn't working ALMS races or at his real job (Professor of Pharmacology at LSU Health Sciences Center where he does research on analgesic drug development... Oh, and on a cure for cancer!), he races a 1972 Porsche 911 (since his '74 RSR was stolen and burnt to the ground) in PCA and the Gulf Coast Racing Series events. Dennis says, "Other than going to a lot of cool races, racing a Porsche, doing ground-breaking research, and enjoying the New Orleans life, my life is pretty boring." Yeah, right!
A Starter's Perspective
Interview with Dennis Paul
RB: As someone who's been a starter for many years, in many types of racing—and someone who races yourself—what are the biggest mistakes you see drivers make at the start of a race?
DP: The biggest and most common mistake is trying to win the race before the first turn. I know it's been said many times before, but it's worth repeating, "You can't win the race in the first turn, but you sure can lose it." Another mistake is not paying attention to what gear you're in. This usually ends up with someone hitting you from behind.
RB: What can you tell drivers that will help them get great starts?
DP: Look for a "tell." Some starters will dip their shoulder or lead with their elbow before they raise the flag. If you find a tell, the 1/10th of a second advantage that you gain may get you a row on the start. Also, at some tracks, the back of the field cannot see the starter when the green is waved (eg., Road Atlanta). If you're in one of the slower classes and start towards the back of the field, have a crew member watch the starter and transmit "green, green, green!" over the radio as soon as the starter moves. Next, know the rules of your series. Most sanctioning bodies allow you to pass as soon as the green is displayed, but others don't permit passing until after the start/finish line. Adjust your timing accordingly. Finally, if you're racing against the same people regularly, you may look for their tendencies and integrate that information into your strategy. Sacha Massen is the master at this.
RB: When you're racing, do you have an advantage over fellow racers? Do you and the other starters have a secret code that only you guys know?!
DP: There is no secret code... And if I told you, it wouldn't be a secret! For years, I consistently gained two to four positions on the starts of the races at my local track. Then our starter asked me how I was doing it. I was too honest and told him that he would lean to his left just before he waved the green. I've lost my advantage, but I helped another starter improve his game.
RB: What do you think of standing starts, as used in Formula 1?
DP: I've never been a fan of standing starts, especially at the amateur level. They're very exciting, but I've seen many disasters. Dump the clutch before the revs are high enough and you're dead in the water with the cars behind darting to avoid you. With the revs too high, you're spinning your wheels with the same consequence. But then, of course, there was the rolling start at Baltimore this year! Also, in fields where front- and rear-wheel-drive vehicles are mixed, the front-wheel-drive cars have an advantage.
RB: Having been the official starter for ALMS for the past 15 years, do you have any thoughts you'd like to share with readers about the merger of ALMS and Grand-Am?
DP: As you might imagine, this is an emotional issue for me... and for the entire IMSA and Grand-Am staffs. Personally, I think there are going to be both advantages and disappointments with the merger, but the advantages are probably going to outweigh the disappointments. Many of us will miss the P1 cars. Some of the drivers who picked up two paychecks by racing in both series will feel it in their wallet. Some of the tracks that have supported one of the series may not get a race. It may also be costly to some team owners, having to develop new cars or adapt old cars to a new set of rules. But we have an opportunity to make a big impact on the racing scene. More cars, more variety, and all the best drivers in one place. We've already started the process of integrating two very different cultures and philosophies towards sports car racing; trying to accommodate everyone. Tani Corthell (the Grand-Am starter) and I have been communicating since the day after the announcement, and as many of you have seen, we've already been working together this year. We're both looking forward to being part of the new series.
RB: What's the most important thing you've learned from other starters?
DP: From Bruce Yeo, who plucked me from the ranks of the corner workers: Never favor anyone, and never get distracted. From Jim Sidley, my mentor at IMSA: In professional racing, the starter is part of the show.
RB: What's been the biggest thrill you've had in racing?
DP: As a starter, that would have to be my first IMSA feature race start... and I had to wave it off! I think that the drivers were testing the new kid. As a driver, it was my first win. It must be that way for all drivers. We continue to race because we're always trying to get that feeling again.
RB: What advice do you have for drivers regarding restarts?
DP: I have a philosophy for restarts. The leader had an advantage before the yellow, and should have the advantage on the restart. When the lights go out on the Safety Car, you should hang back and time the acceleration so that you pass the Safety Car just after it exits the track. This also is the safer because it spreads the field out a little, and reduces the chance of the cars jamming up in the next turn.
RB: What do you look for when making the decision whether or not to throw the green flag?
DP: I'm looking for two straight rows of cars with the front row even. I rarely get everything I'm looking for.
RB: What can a driver do to jump the start?
DP: Jumping the start is always a gamble. With a standing start, you almost always get caught. The penalty can take you out of contention. With a rolling start, it can be a fine line between perfect timing and what the stewards perceive as an unfair advantage. Again, the penalty can put you to the back of the field. I'd think twice about it.
RB: Is there anything you do to avoid having drivers "read" when you're going to throw the green?
DP: I have spent a lot of time thinking about my starts. Now with YouTube, I can review some of them. I always try to lead with the flag. This means I try to be absolutely still as the cars approach the start. My first move is with my wrist. This pops the flag before I move the rest of my arm.
RB: What question would you like to answer that I've not asked? And what is your answer to that question?
DP: How is it that YOU always seemed to know when I was going to throw the green? I don't know the answer to this one.