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February 8, 2021
This article first appeared in the June, 2020 edition of SportsCar Magazine. Everyone can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here. To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here.
International pro races may be on his worker resume, but 2019 Steward Worker of the Year Steve Pence says SCCA is home
To be honest, every driver harbors the fantasy that their racing talents will be widely recognized, ultimately leading them to the highest levels of the sport. OK, that didn’t happen to Steve Pence either, but his work as a steward has followed precisely that sort of path.
Steve’s journey from SRF driver to flagger to steward to race director resulted in him working the Formula 1 race last year at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, as well as the World Touring Car Championship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And, before the pandemic, he’d already worked a World Endurance Challenge event at COTA. Yet working in this rarified air didn’t prevent him from planning to work the MARRS Regional series this year as well. “It’s like coming home,” he says.
His first connection with racing came in the form of Jim Russell Racing School Formula Mazda races in the late 1990s. He and his wife Joelle joined the Club in 2004 and began racing SRFs. In 2008, he read about the worker shortage in the Washington DC Region where they raced, and they both signed up, he as a flagger, she as a grid worker. They volunteered about 10-12 days a year. While at Road America in 2011, he chanced to meet A.G. Robbins, one of the event’s stewards. “We were both in whites and chatting at the bar in The Paddock Club at the end of a day and I asked him to tell me more about what’s involved with being a steward. I was just being polite, but A.G. mistook that for genuine interest,” Steve laughs.
Steve says that becoming one of “those guys” was the furthest thing from his mind. But one thing led to another and he agreed to give it a shot. He did his steward-in-training period in 2012 and was glad he did. “I really fell for it – I just loved the job,” he says. “And it seemed to me that the role was being redefined back then into more of a customer-friendly focus and I liked being part of that cultural shift as well. I found out I could be the kind of steward that I’d like to have when I raced. If everyone is warm and friendly, it affects everybody’s attitude.”
In fact, Steve is used to working with people. He is part of a family business that built and operates an exposition center in Chantilly, Va., near Dulles Airport. They also have a nearby 232-room Holiday Inn. “Our company is run from the bottom up – the more I listen, the easier it is to run it,” he says.
When we talked, he was in marathon negotiations to turn the exposition center into a temporary FEMA site to help address the pandemic.
Steve likes that as a steward he can bring along that same attitude and function as a trustee looking for solutions rather than a policeman looking to write tickets. “The steward role is challenging; it requires you to make split-second decisions,” Steve explains. “For example, nobody wants to stop a race unless it’s absolutely necessary. At Summit Point, an FV went into the woods and the workers couldn’t see it. Is it a local yellow, a black flag, a red flag?
The call Steve made was to stop the race. When the car was located, it was upside down with oil pouring out. “I went with my basic protocol, which is to err on the side of safety,” Steve says.
“I first look at the situation from the viewpoint of the drivers – they are our customers,” he says. “I don’t expect every driver to like me, but I hope to gain their respect. That means that I must be able to explain my decisions. If I can’t clearly explain a decision that means I haven’t thought about it enough. Sometimes there is no possible popular decision to be reached but if you clearly lay out your thinking, it will almost always be accepted.”
At the 2016 Pitt Race U.S. Majors Tour, a car impacted a tire wall and set 300 tires on fire. Ultimately, five race groups were cancelled. “I pulled the drivers together and told them that I couldn’t tell them exactly what I was going to do as I didn’t have the authority to award points based upon qualifying, [but] I promised to work with the SCCA National Office and keep the drivers informed in the days ahead. I was completely humbled by the number of drivers who shook my hand that day,” he says. After lengthy consultations, the resolution to award points based on qualifying was implemented later and added to the rulebook.
“Whenever I decide something, I ask myself, who else needs to know? Communication is key,” he says, adding, “If anything, I over-communicate in order to be as transparent as possible.”
When I ask him how he learned all this, he laughs and asks, “Haven’t we all worked with people who don’t share information freely?
At the 2018 VIR Majors, an ominous weather forecast had administrators chewing their fingernails. Severe winds and rain were predicted for Sunday afternoon. “We aggressively altered the schedule, moving some races to Saturday afternoon and running as late that evening as possible,” Steve recounts. “I got the worker’s permission to skip lunch and run straight through. The event was concluded by 2 p.m. I was blown away by the cooperation I got from everyone. Workers, racers, and the Region adapted without complaint to the changes.”
Steve first came to my attention when I read his written Driver’s Meeting for the 2019 Road Atlanta Majors. With VIR the site of the Runoffs that year, the car count for the April Majors was going to be large and Steve wanted to set a tone at Road Atlanta that might carry over to VIR a few weeks hence. With crisp clarity, he reminded drivers that they are making their own bed with their driving behavior. He cited Keith Code’s “Twist of the Wrist,” and the author’s concept of each racer having $10 worth of concentration for the race. Spend it wisely. Steve’s message was part of building a positive culture among the participants. “Ask yourself what it will take for this weekend to be clean. Then, choose how to think,” he wrote.
Steve admits that before he became a steward, he never read the GCR. “I raced other drivers like I wanted to be raced, with respect,” he says, adding that you don’t have to quote the rulebook to get people to comply with this golden rule. “If you can build a culture of fair and respectful racing, you don’t need to talk with them after the race.”
He has seen a lot of racing from a lot of different angles, from driver to flagger to race director. Steve was the race director for the NEDiv Majors in 2016 and for the Hoosier Super Tour from 2017-’19. He was also chairman of the stewards for SCCA Pro Racing FR Americas and U.S. F4 racing under an FIA sanction in 2018-’19. And, in February 2019, he was selected to attend the third annual FIA International Stewards Program in Geneva, Switzerland, along with more than 200 motorsports officials from around the world.
Steve was also on hand at the 2019 SCCA Worker of the Year awards, where he was presented the honor for stewarding.
Yet, while he loves the steward role, he hasn’t hung up his driving gloves, although it has been a while since he’s been behind the wheel. “I still have a current helmet and I hope to run in SRF3 at VIR or Mid-Ohio, my two favorite tracks,” he concludes, chuckling when he ads: “It will be interesting to see how slow I’ve gotten.”
Words by James Kearney
Photo Courtesy of Steve Pence
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