RON KRAMER + DAVE MCGILLIVRAY
As event directors, our focus tends to be on making sure our course is an accurate and safe one, that we have plenty of water to distribute, that our race starts on time and that we deliver quick and accurate results… all extremely important aspects of producing a successful event.
However, there are some areas of race management that might be somewhat overlooked in the planning stages. One of these areas tends to be the critical Lead Vehicle Program. The planning and sensitivity invested in this area of race planning is often underestimated and overlooked.
Some critical questions facing all of us regarding this area of the race may be:
- If you have an automobile and/or a TV media sponsor, how do you balance the contract deliverables while maintaining the integrity of your race safety?
- How do you handle the media requests to cover your race from an upfront position?
- What type of vehicle will they ride in: pick up or flatbed truck?
- Will a motorcycle be more efficient for a race photographer?
- How do you retro-fit the chosen media vehicle for safety to the passengers and better line of sight?
- What factors lead to the limitation of these passengers on vehicles?
- Should a credentialing program be developed?
- What is your liability as a race director specific to these passengers? Do they sign a waiver?
- Is liability insurance even available and, if so, is it affordable?
BALANCE BETWEEN SAFETY AND MEDIA OBLIGATIONS
Our experience over the past 17-20 years as lead vehicle coordinator and race director for the BAA Boston Marathon®, respectively, has shown there are sound answers to most of these questions, but there usually is a lot more work that needs to be researched to fine-tune it to a higher level. Any plan should begin with an understanding that a balance needs to be achieved between the safety of the race and your sponsorship and media obligations.
This plan includes a vehicle line-up for the various divisions and waves of the race so that sequential vehicle movements on course can be effectively made. A precursor vehicle, leaving up to 30 minutes ahead of the start, will be advantageous in alerting you to any course hazards, as well as a check of your support stations and road safety closure equipment.
Police escort presence is essential with all divisions, followed in order by sponsor vehicle(s), media truck, official race photographers, and finally a TV truck and/or TV motorcycle that are usually the closest vehicles to the runners. It is advisable not to have any motorcycle crisscross the road in front of the TV camera vehicle. All motorcycle turns should be made counter-clockwise and away from the runners. The race lead vehicle with the convoy coordinator aboard will want to be positioned properly in the line-up to provide the best vantage point for sequential movement decisions, but always within clear view of the lead runners. This vehicle can carry the course clock if it is your decision to provide. Do the lead runners truly look for it or do they generally just use their own watches? Additionally, do the spectators find a pace clock of any value?
VEHICLE MOVEMENT AND COMMUNICATIONS
As the convoy moves along the course, the coordinator should alternately change the vehicle positions to provide a better view for the media and TV vehicles based on the course configuration, but must always be thoughtful of runner safety. Essential in this process is the communications plan that has been developed and this can vary from a commercial repeater system, HAM operators, or 2-way radios, with personal “direct connect” cellular phones as back-up. Communicating with your police escorts and their deployment in emergency situations is obviously an essential element to your program and should be detailed in your planning discussions with them. Larger races may require an escort package of motorcycles surrounding the convoy. If so, an officer should ride in the lead vehicle to dispatch the orders from the coordinator.
MEDIA COVERAGE AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
We all understand the importance of press coverage for our races. How we manage this area requires a balance between safety issues and media satisfaction.
Do the media want to cover the race from the course or remain at the finish line?
If they are at the finish, do you provide bicycle spotters for updates?
If they ride the course, what vehicle will work best for their safety and will provide enough mobility for them to effectively cover their assignments?
Robert Pozo, race director of the ING Miami Marathon, experimented with a flatbed stake truck for the first three years and found “it was not very mobile and caused bottlenecks on various occasions.” He also found that “because they could not be between the filming truck and the runners, the press could not see anything.” So he now stations the media at the finish line and his lead vehicle setup includes police motorcycles (2-3), lead police cars (1-2) and the filming truck with motorcycles (2 in the head of the field). The race director’s/communication director’s car is next to or in front of the filming truck.
A smaller race like the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon “typically does not need press vehicles,” writes Race Director Sean Ryan. “We will sometimes make arrangements for a motorcycle escort for a newspaper photographer. In general, the local television and newspaper media prefer finish line shots, but we will assign separate lead motorcycles for the male and female leaders.”
When referencing trail or sag vehicles in a race, Tracey Russell, race director of the Peachtree Road Race, writes: “My experience has been that these are very effective vehicles to have on the course, especially if it’s a marathon event. But, be sure to have several vehicles SAG a marathon since occupants don’t necessarily want to ride in the vehicle behind the entire race. More than one vehicle allows for shuttling runners who drop out back to the finish area.” When asked if lead vehicles should ever drop behind the lead runners to cover the second pack, Russell states, “No, I don’t think so, unless you have motorcycles that can better maneuver around the lead pack in a safe and unobtrusive way.”
At Boston, we use two 16’ stake body flatbeds with 20 or so media personnel and photographers on board each, one for the women’s and one for the men’s leads. For the two wheelchair leads, we use sponsor pick up trucks for media and officials as well as a roving TV motorcycle. Our vehicle and media occupant provisions are dictated by our Live TV coverage, so the challenge becomes safety to the occupants and our ability to ensure that their assignments are satisfied. We have custom-built a riser-type platforms for the flatbeds that provide enough height for the reporters, while the photographers line the lower portion of the truck. We include holding bars for safety, and for the wheelchair pick-up trucks use a Thule rack system that fastens to the sides of the truck body.
LEAD VEHICLE PROGRAM TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS
Like anything else in this business, trial and error and years of experience becomes the key to determining what the best program is for your race. Attention to detail and advance preparation will ensure a safe and smooth operation.
A few lead vehicle program planning tips are listed below that you may find helpful and may want to consider:
- LEAD VEHICLE MANUAL – Put everything in writing and produce a manual to be distributed to all involved in the program. Communicating the plan is a recipe for success.
- DRIVER MEETINGS – Assemble all your drivers a few times leading up to the race to review all your plans and be sure all the drivers are very familiar with the course and with the plans.
- DIAGRAMS – Produce vehicle diagrams so everyone can visualize and see the vehicle formations (see example below).
ELITE MEN’S & OPEN RACE START
CREDENTIALS – Know what credentials allow access to what vehicles so there are no conflicts with boarding these vehicles on race morning.
OCCUPANTS LIST – Know well in advance who has been given the authorization to ride on and in any vehicle on the course and be sure to create a final list in advance.
TRAIL VEHICLES – Don’t forget the back end of the race. Trail vehicles are important in helping with the road re-opening program and to assist those going slower than the pace limits.
ANEMOMETER VEHICLE – In Boston, we place one vehicle upfront 5-10 minutes ahead of the leaders that pulls over every mile to take wind direction and velocity readings.
BICYCLE ESCORT PROGRAM – A major part of a lead vehicle plan can and perhaps should be a bicycle escort program. We have found this extremely beneficial in providing important information to the media from the course as well as in assisting vehicle drivers to negotiate around other participants, e.g., leaders passing slower wheelchair competitors.
LIABILITY INSURANCE – Given that people need to ride in the back of flatbed trucks or pickup trucks, it is not always easy (or affordable) to secure appropriate liability insurance coverage as a result.
RACE OFFICIALS ON VEHICLES – Race officials of your event may also ride in these vehicles so as to be able to better officiate while the race is in progress.
RACE STAFF IN LEAD CRUISER – Don’t assume the officer driving the lead cruiser knows the exact course. It is always prudent to assign a knowledgeable person to the lead cruiser to ensure the leaders run the proper course.
RACE AND PACE TIMELINES – It can be very helpful for vehicle drivers to have with them an estimate pace timeline so that they know where they need to be and when at all times.
GRAND MARSHAL VEHICLE – Some races like Boston may designate a Grand Marshal for the race. As such, this person typically would travel in a convertible type vehicle well ahead of the overall race.
- VEHICLE EXIT STRATEGY – Last, but certainly not least, is to develop a flawless exit strategy for each and every vehicle in the procession. Too often lead vehicles arrive at the finish line and either the drivers don't know where to go and they get in the way of the winners, or they wind up in the line of sight of the photographers and TV cameras. Every vehicle needs to know exactly where it is supposed to leave the course and where it needs to eventually go.
No matter how large or how small your race may be, developing a well thought-out Lead Vehicle Program is vital. One wrong turn or one vehicle mishap can be disastrous. A little planning will go a long way toward helping all of us from receiving a bunch of nasty emails the morning after the race!