An interview with Brian Barnhart

IndyCar commentary, Interviews, Podcasts — By on August 31, 2010 8:26 am

Early on a quiet Saturday afternoon at Chicagoland Speedway (as quiet as a day at a racetrack ever gets, anyway), Paul and Steph had the opportunity to speak with Brian Barnhart.  Mr. Barnhart was very generous with his time and covered a wide range of topics, including some of the ideas being proposed for the Texas Twin Sprints, the terms of the probations currently being served by Helio Castroneves and Milka Duno, a look at his views on the application of the blocking/defending rules in general, and his thoughts on the drivers banding together to create a unified organization.

We started by discussing the twin races at Texas Motor Speedway.  Barnhart was very quick to say that many ideas are on the table at the moment.  “Any time you’ve got Eddie Gossage involved,” he started, “there’s lots of ideas and they’re all across the board.”

And with no further prompting, he began offering details.  Many of the points he addressed are exactly in line with the suggestions fans have been making since the announcement was first released.  “I don’t want to make any promises here,” he qualified, “but with the concept of the twin events, all we did was take the 550k and divide it in half.  I think we need to do a really good job and sit down and look exactly what 114 laps gives us in terms of fuel mileage, in terms of the number of pit stops.  I don’t want to turn it into a fuel-mileage race.”

He also discussed the reasoning behind awarding half points for each event.  “You’re running two races in one night, and if a guy has a situation, gets involved in an accident and we just want to go do an x-ray for an ankle or something and he flies out or drives to a hospital and misses the second race, [awarding full points for each race is] a double penalty.”

On the subject of the intermission between the two races, there’s much yet to be decided.  “Currently,” Barnhart points out, “we don’t sit with the spare cars having any engines in them.  That puts a heck of a burden on Honda if they had to have engines in spare cars, so we need to give teams a chance to respond to a mechanical failure, get the spare car out, get an engine in it, and be prepared to start the second race because we obviously want the fans to see as good a second event as possible.”

And a decision also has yet to be made on how to line the cars up for the second race, but the idea he proposed is intriguing.  After qualifying again that no promises were being made, he let us in on it.  “One [idea] was starting the second race in order of the fastest lap posted during the first race.  We’ve done some data looking at that, and I looked back to the last three races there in ’08, ’09, and ’10.  I think one of them that Dixon won, he only had the 23rd-fastest lap of the race.  Helio had the 9th- or 10th-fastest lap the year that he won.  What we’ve typically seen is the guys that are running up front don’t run the fastest laps because the guys in the back are getting the draft and getting towed along.”

A discussion of whether the Series would consider increasing the combined distance of the two races developed into a discussion of the possibility of seeing more 500-mile events on the schedule in the future.  When asked if there were any barriers to this from the point of view of the IICS, Barnhart responded, “Only from a cost standpoint.  There’s always a number of factors of it, but that’s the biggest thing we look at is every mile we run costs X amount of dollars, and it’s most directly related to engine life, engine miles, rebuild cycles, and number of sets of tires required for the weekend.  So, if we increased [a race distance] enough where you needed another couple of sets of tires, you’ve added $5,000 to each team’s budget.  Well, $5,000 times 24 cars or 25 cars, we’ve added $100,000 to the cost of our Series to participate, and we’re not getting anything to help defray those costs to them.”  And how is the extra income meant to be generated?  “That’s all our sanctioning fee is.  That’s the promoter basically paying us to pay our purse to the participants.  So, if we can get enough money to pay for their expenses to conduct the event … like I said, it’s not the only factor, but it’s certainly one we’re open to.”

The discussion then turned to the probationary periods being observed by Helio Castroneves and Milka Duno.  We started by examining Helio’s probation, and Barnhart’s first point was an interesting one.  “I hope people keep in mind the leniency with which we actually dealt with his post-race behavior,” he noted.  “There’s not another sporting series or sanctioning body in the world that I know of that lets you participate in the following event after you lay your hands on an umpire, a referee, or an official.  When you touch a Major League Baseball umpire, you’re out of the next five games or whatever it is.  I think we were very understanding of Helio’s passion and his emotions that he was going through at that point in time, [but] that doesn’t give you a position or a right to ever lay your hands on an official.  And to do it twice is doubly bad, so probation was very lenient in the long run.”

The nature of the sport of auto racing played heavily into how Helio’s probationary terms were laid out.  “It’s not like baseball where you play about 162 games a year.  We run 17 races, and people plan.  There were people who had already made travel plans to come to Mid-Ohio that were coming to see him.  We didn’t feel it was right to cheat the fans out of the opportunity to see him for what he had done, but we also have to make it clear to him:  what he had done when he got out of the car was completely unacceptable.”

Next, we examined the genesis of Milka’s probation, which Barnhart laid out in very specific terms.  He started by explaining the difference between how the Series views performance standards at road courses versus ovals.  “European road racing, followed by when Champ Car was predominantly a road-racing type of series, they had the 107% rule in effect, and we have continued to do that as well.  But 107% really isn’t applicable at events like we’re at right now [Chicagoland Speedway].  You do 107% lap times here and you’d be accepting somebody running way off the pace.  We’ve specifically been looking for generally eight to ten miles an hour with the leader from a closing rate safety aspect on the ovals.”

In turning those parameters toward Milka’s record, Barnhart acknowledged that she has struggled.  “As her career has evolved and she’s made the commitment now to run more races this year than she ever had, she’s going to tracks that she’s never been to before.  Our Series has become more competitive than it’s ever been before.  There’s not a lot of test time.  You never get to test at places like Toronto and Long Beach and these temporary facilities, and her struggles have been certainly more easily seen at those types of venues.”

The flow of events this season has been a factor in why it took so long for Milka’s probation to be issued in the first place.  “Based on the schedule and the way it laid out:  she really struggled at Long Beach.  We didn’t let her qualify there.  She didn’t run within 107% of the race, so we parked her fairly early.  Then, we come off of Long Beach and go to Kansas.  Well, she’s right back again within the performance parameters and doesn’t have a problem.  She’s within the performance parameters at Indy and at Texas and at Iowa and doing very well.  And then, we reach the stretch in the schedule with Toronto and Edmonton — again, places she’s never been and places you can’t test — where she struggled.  And we got to a point where every session at Toronto — both practice sessions on Friday, the Saturday morning practice session, didn’t let her qualify because she had not been within 107% in those three sessions, the Sunday morning warm-up and then the race — she runs all five of those sessions without reaching the 107%, similar to Long Beach.  Well, unlike Long Beach where she comes out and then has an event where she does meet the parameters, we go to Edmonton and she starts that same cycle again.  In fact, it starts compounding itself and getting worse — she started causing full-course cautions.”  It was that compounding of issues all at once that finally triggered the response from the Series.  “You have to do something at that point in time,” Barnhart asserted.  “So, the probation comes out and it’s simply stating we can’t have you causing full-course cautions, you need to be within 107%.  The probation is and the expectation is that you’re going to do so or you’re in jeopardy of losing your license.  And to her credit, she then went and tested at Mid-Ohio, and she ran every session within the 107%, didn’t cause any full-course cautions there.  [She] went to Infineon — she got to test both places, which certainly helps — and again, every session was within the 107%.”

In spite of recent improvements, though, Milka’s challenges are far from over. “The expectation was also made clear to her,” Barnhart continued, “in being consistent with our rules enforcement for 2010, we’re going to stay at 107%.  But we also made it clear in the letter of probation to her that the performance parameters will tighten even further for next year.  She’s been told that the expectation will be for her to be a lot closer than that for 2011 if she expects to receive a license.”  Has there been any discussion of how much more stringent the expectations might become?  “I wouldn’t be surprised to see us talk this winter, and before we come into it, 107% could go to 104% or 105%.  And that’s a pretty significant leap.”  And how much tolerance will there be for falling outside those parameters?  “Not much.”

The conversation turned at that point toward the more general application of the blocking and defending rules.  The diversity of the schedule means that each type of circuit requires a unique approach.  “Anyone running an abnormal racing line on road and street circuits,” Barnhart says, “it’s so easy [to identify], especially when you run the knockout qualifying that we do.  As an example, with Helio and asking him afterwards when he and I talked on the Monday after [Edmonton], I said, ‘Helio, did you run that line during qualifying?’ ‘Well, no.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because that’s not the fastest line around the racetrack.’”

The same can’t be said for the 1.5-mile ovals, however.  “Here at Chicago, what is the fastest line around this racetrack?  Well, our cars are capable of hugging the white line and running the bottom.  So, you can’t take the inside half away from them here — that is the fastest line on the racetrack.”

Ultimately, when explaining the application of the rule, Barnhart references frequently the concept of a driver having a choice.  “If you’re in front, you should have first choice of where to put your car.  And if you’re in front, you would always choose the optimum lane for the fastest lap possible, wouldn’t you?  Well then, why didn’t he?  Because he was choosing to block.  If you’re in front and you have no one to pass, you want to run the fastest lap possible to lessen the chances of getting passed.  He didn’t run that line.  Why?  Because he was choosing to defend or block rather than run his fastest lap and hope it was fast enough.”

The primary driving force behind the rule is safety.  Barnhart cited an example of a block that occurred in another series within a week of the incident at Edmonton that resulted in a car being sent into an overpass at high speed.  “You’ve got that,” he continued, “you’ve got Jeff Krosnoff, you’ve got Kenny Brack at Texas — that’s just off the top of my head.  If we need to adjust or change, we’re open-minded to it.  But I can tell you, 90% of our drivers in our paddock want us to race the way we’re racing right now because it’s their butts on the line and they don’t want to be the guy flying into the bridge because the guy in front of him blocked him.”

He points out, however, that cost is a factor in this arena as well.  “If you let [a driver] run that line, then you’re going to have to allow the guy behind him to take action because if that’s the only way you can pass is in the inside half, which is what you do on road courses, then that guy’s not going to have the opportunity to pass.  What’s he going to do to him?  He’s going to turn him around.  So, all of our paddock is going to start buying a bunch of noses and front wings because you’re going to start using them, and then you’re going to buy a bunch of rear wings because when you turn the guy around he’s going to back it in the tire barrier, and then we’re going to have an event that is full of cautions because every time we have a restart we’re going to go yellow again because down in turn 1 of St. Pete or Toronto or Long Beach or wherever we turned the leader around and we’re now full-course caution again.  You’ll have no flow to the event, the fans won’t watch any passing — is that what we want to do?  Again, I’m open to it, folks, but there’s a reason why we are what we are.  And most everybody, like I said, adheres to those rules.”

In addressing the criticism Barnhart has taken for the decision, his response was surprisingly affable.  “I’ve said all along:  guys, if we want to change that rule, the person who’s quality of life is going to improve the most is me!  My drivers’ meetings would get a lot shorter.  I’ll just stand up and tell them:  200 laps, guys, first one back wins!”

And on the subject of Barnhart’s calls having an effect on race outcomes, he is similarly candid.  “I don’t want to be the determining outcome of the race,” he insists.  “But then again, I’ve got to do the job I was hired to do as well.”

Barnhart is also aware that he’s taken criticism for being inconsistent in his blocking calls, but he believes there are factors at play that aren’t being seen from the outside.  For one, drivers are given a warning before receiving a penalty as often as possible.  But Barnhart states that race control needs to make judgment calls on how swiftly and severely to apply the rules depending on the stage of the race in which the infraction occurs.  “Consistently in the drivers’ meetings as I have told them a thousand times, there is no guaranteed warning.  And at certain stages of the races, you can’t let a guy keep one in his back pocket because if he uses it on the white-flag lap he just determined the winner of the race and he did it in an unsportsmanlike fashion.  When you’re coming down to the situation we had at Edmonton, it isn’t right when you’re now determining the outcome and allowing someone to win the race and in doing so they did it by disadvantaging their competition.  So, there are certain times that warnings are capable of being used and other times that they’re not.”

If time allows, warnings are distributed.  However, whether those warnings are delivered to the drivers is another matter.  “Scott Dixon got black-flagged at Indy a few years back.  He was warned before he got it.  The challenge gets to be, from a driver’s standpoint, when we warn them, we’re not talking to the drivers; we’re talking to the crew.  The crew doesn’t always pass it on.  Dixon’s biggest complaint to me after Indy a few years back was, ‘Nobody told me you ever warned me, and then I watched the tape of the broadcast and they even said you had warned me.’  Well, that’s between you and your team.  He says, ‘If I’d have known you were watching me and had warned me, I wouldn’t have done it the second time.’  Well, then tell your guy to tell you when you get warned.”

Barnhart also feels that his team in race control faces challenges that are just part of the nature of the sport.  “In basketball,” he says, “there’s ten players and three referees.  There’s one for three.  We don’t have that here.  We’ve got, really, two pairs of eyes watching the track.  There’s going to be a lot of stuff we miss.”  Given that, how is officiating affected?  “Our focus is primarily at the front of the field,” Barnhart continues.  “There could be somebody blocking somebody for 15th and 16th, and absolutely we may miss it.  But we’re not like other sports — we don’t have time-outs, we don’t have video replay.  Our sport’s non-stop.  When you drop the green flag, it’s a constant event until the checkered flag falls.”

Finally, we raised the topic of the drivers forming a unified organization to represent their interests before the Series.  Barnhart response was again unexpected.  “I think it’s an incredibly positive thing,” he replied with enthusiasm.  “I’m so happy that they’re doing this.  I think it is the best scenario.  We can now have them come to us through elected representatives.”  When Barnhart has sought driver opinion in the past, he has needed to be more careful in his approach.  “Unofficially, I’ve kind of always done it through Dario.  He really looks at big picture stuff better than any driver I’ve ever been around.  When he comes to me, he’s not going to look for something that’s a benefit for him.  It’ll be so nice to know that when the elected representative comes to us that they are speaking on behalf of the majority or they wouldn’t get to us.  That’s where it’s been a bit of a challenge.  We’ve always got open doors and let them all come in, but if one guy comes in: why are you really telling me this?  Is this because it’s something to benefit you?  Now, for them to even get to us, it will have been voted upon by the group and it will be the majority.  So, like I say, I don’t view this development as anything short of positive.”

Barnhart has a broad view of how this move will be beneficial.  “It’s not just competition, it’s not safety; it’s PR, it’s admin, it’s racetracks.  If I get Dario to come to us and say that the warm-up lane at Texas is too rough, the pit exit lane has a big bump right over the tunnel coming between 1 and 2 and it’s got to be addressed, then it strengthens my position to be able to go back to Eddie Gossage and say our driver representative has voiced a concern that — on behalf of all of our drivers, or at least the majority of our drivers — they think this is an unsafe situation.  So, whether it’s facility-related, competition-related, car-related, PR schedules, autograph sessions, marketing platforms, there’s nothing but good can come out of it from my point of view.”

Though the discussion covered a wide swath of topics in great detail, one common thread tied it all together:  Brian Barnhart is very passionate about his role within the IZOD IndyCar Series, and this trait more than any other permeates every aspect of what he does.

To hear the full audio of the interview, click here or search for More Front Wing on iTunes.

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