The tire incident: on officiating and perspective

IndyCar commentary — By on June 24, 2011 9:00 am
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All right. I guess it’s time to write this post.

I’ve been putting it off all week for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that Paul is away and therefore not around to put his stamp of approval on it. We tend to vet each other’s work, particularly when the topic is contentious, to ensure that there’s nothing being said that the other isn’t willing to be associated with (if not necessarily agree with). But I find I’m repeating my arguments a lot and it would be much easier to have a static post to point toward, so I guess I’ll get around this first problem by saying up front that the opinions presented here are in no way representative of Paul’s position and haven’t received his endorsement.

Another reason I’ve been putting it off is because I expected the chatter to die down before I had time to properly lay out my thoughts. But it’s Friday and people are still talking about it, so that’s evidently not a problem.

And the final reason? While I think it’s safe to say that the majority of folks are taking the same stance as I am — at least from what I’ve seen — there are a number of people whose opinions I respect highly who support the opposing view, so I needed to take a step back to ensure that I’d properly thought everything through. I’m convinced that I have, so here goes.

I am, of course, talking about last Sunday’s incident where Dario Franchitti made contact with a tire in Will Power’s pit stall.

There are people who say that not having Dario serve a penalty was the right call. Those people say that Verizon Team Penske had the right front tire further out than was necessary and that the team was deliberately trying to make Dario’s entry into his pit box difficult. They say that those sorts of dirty tactics shouldn’t be allowed and that giving Dario a pass on the penalty was therefore justifiable.

As far as dirty tactics go, those people are right. Pit lane is already a very dangerous place, and those sorts of games don’t belong there. Monitoring and policing are absolutely warranted where such things are concerned.

But as for not having Dario serve the penalty, the view isn’t so clear. Here’s the primary problem: the people taking this stance — Brian Barnhart included — are viewing the situation from the perspective of a competitor. They say that etiquette was violated, so giving Dario a pass was okay.

But while it’s natural that Brian Barnhart would look at this situation from the perspective of a competitor since he formerly was one, that’s not how he should be looking at it now. He should be looking at it from the perspective of the Chief Steward.

As Chief Steward, Barnhart has a rule book to uphold. And the rule book clearly states that hitting pit equipment results in a penalty:

“7.3.F. Pit penalties — The following matters and any others which may be determined by the Senior Official in his discretion are cause for a Car to be penalized: …

5. Permitting the Car to come into contact with pit equipment, other Cars and/or personnel outside of standard pit stop procedures; …”

The rule doesn’t say “are cause for a Car to be penalized when the Chief Steward feels like it” or “are cause for a Car to be penalized unless someone else is being a meanie.” You hit pit equipment, you serve a penalty, period. That’s what it means to uphold the rules as they’re written, and that’s what the Chief Steward is meant to do.

The problem with operating the way that Barnhart did this past weekend is that failing to apply the rules as they’re written renders the entire rule book meaningless. As soon as the universal application of the rules is called into question, we might as well just tear the whole book up and make things up as we go (which, incidentally, is how more than a few people feel that things are being done already).

I don’t buy for a second that Dario couldn’t have gotten around that tire if he’d wanted to. He’s the reigning INDYCAR champion for two years running, and a solid case can be made for counting him among the best drivers in the world. Every other driver on every other pit stop managed to get in and out without hitting things (well, except Sato, but that’s another discussion), and everyone’s pit boxes were the same size. It’s not as though the tire was set way at the top right corner of the stall. It should definitely be factored into consideration that circumstances here may not be black and white as they appear.

That being said, if the 12 team did do something underhanded — and the vast majority of people seem to be in agreement that they did — then the proper thing to do from the Chief Steward’s seat would have been to assess the penalty to the 10 car (he did hit a tire and put Will’s crew chief’s safety at risk, after all) and to also assess a penalty to the 12 car under a title such as unsportsmanlike conduct. (It is possible to hand out multiple penalties for a single situation — just watch a hockey game to see how it’s done.) The relative outcome for the two competitors involved is the same, but it sends both of them to the back together where they belong. It also ensures that teams know the Chief Steward is both willing to uphold the written rules and unafraid to hand out penalties for any other situation where it’s justified. It’s a win-win scenario all around.

Perhaps the more important point to take away from this mess is the way that fans were left feeling on Sunday night. Well after the incident, word finally came out of Milwaukee that Barnhart had said in the drivers’ meeting that teams needed to be courteous of one another since the pit stalls were so short and that this was the reason for the non-penalty. A decision from Race Control that had a tangible effect on the outcome of the race was once again based on an announcement made behind closed doors — and made as a suggestion, not as an official rule change (at least, we should presume so since we’re not privy to the details) — and that was not shared with the media or fans in any way. On Sunday, observers saw a rule blatantly violated before there eyes with no penalty assessed and were once again left for hours scratching their heads wondering why. If INDYCAR wants people to continue to care passionately about its sport, it needs to give the media and the fans the information and tools that they need to fully and accurately assess action in race time. People like to be armchair referees — it’s part of watching any competition. Leaving people in the dark time and time again breeds negativity and resentment that permeates every conversation, and that has a massive effect on the sport’s potential growth — any new fan coming into this scenario is going to take one look at it and high-tail it in the other direction.

Personally, I was left on Sunday night feeling as though so much of this season has been tainted by questionable calls from Race Control, random draws, and other factors apart from the racing itself that I felt I just didn’t care who won the championship anymore. If Dario were to win, Will could point to the lack of a penalty last Sunday. If Will were to win, Dario could point to Texas. None of the discussion would revolve around on-track skill at this stage, and that’s what INDYCAR should be about.

Fortunately, someone pointed out to me last night that right now, at the halfway point in the season (or at least as close as you get to a halfway point in a season with an odd number of races), the top two championship contenders are tied in points and are therefore on an even playing field. That means that we can breathe a sigh of relief, pretend the previous eight races never happened, and look forward to the rest of the season and the race for the title.

Let’s hope that by the time 2012 rolls around these officiating and communication issues are resolved and that we can all just focus on the racing.

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