Barfield’s debut grade: B-

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on September 24, 2012 8:53 am
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As Beaux Barfield so aptly put it on Facebook last week, there are very few people who are qualified to do his job.

Indeed, all I do during a lot of races these days is sit on my couch and watch. Not only does that not qualify me for Barfield’s job, but it barely qualifies me for having an opinion.

(I’ll tell you, though, I’m glad I’m not qualified to do Barfield’s job. It’s one of the most challenging and most scrutinized positions in motorsport. I sure wouldn’t want it.)

That being said, from my couch-based vantage point — which is the one shared by most people interested in INDYCAR — I think the grade I’ve settled on is quite fair.

For his debut season as the Race Director for the IZOD IndyCar Series, I give Beaux Barfield a B-.

As far as expectations and room for improvement were concerned, Barfield came into this season — to play on a phrase — with rather small shoes to fill.

And as anyone who’s ever worn too-small shoes can attest, they have a tendency to hurt a lot more than big shoes do. Barfield came into this season under far more of a microscope than was reasonable or fair, and that needs to be kept in mind while assessing his performance.

In truth, he really only needed to achieve two things to count his debut year as a success, and they also happened to be goals he set out for himself before the season started: be impartial and fair, and stay out of the news and out of the race results.

He met those goals — for the most part.

Had Barfield’s grade been set after the Indianapolis 500, it likely would have been an A. The off-season rule tweaks and Barfield’s tendency to let things play out naturally made for some insanely good racing in the early part of the year. There was very little not to like.

There were niggling things — like drivers tagging pit equipment and not being penalized, for example — but as Barfield hadn’t been in the job long enough for a precedent to be set at that point, those things were easy to let slide.

And his first 500 went off without a hitch, which was a worry for those who wondered whether a Race Director with no oval experience might be out of his league at The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

My first memory of feeling that things might not be perfectly rosy was after Milwaukee. Scott Dixon was penalized for jumping a restart, and the error wound up not being Dixon’s at all but Barfield’s as a technical glitch caused him and his team to call the penalty based on the wrong restart.

But again, those were early days, and from the couch the error came across as forgivable. Indeed, that type of problem never did resurface, so that’s a potential point in Barfield’s favor (save for the fact that it should never have happened in the first place).

It wasn’t until circumstance finally allowed me to spend some time in the paddock at the Toronto event that I began to feel exactly how much tension had developed between Barfield and the teams. The signs were subtle but they were unquestionably present — tiny things like drivers answering questions about how the race would play out with snipes such as “You’ll have to ask Beaux what the rule will be this week.”

For me, that became a chicken-and-egg situation. I’m honestly not sure whether things came apart a little in Race Control in the latter half of the season or whether my awareness of the situation made me more attuned to what was already there.

Either way, whether perception or reality, the words “avoidable contact” seemed much more prevalent in later races than they had been early on. (And I’d have believed it if someone told me it was due to the drivers being more aggressive as title runs began in earnest.)

But to me, there were two specific incidents late in the year that left me questioning Barfield’s debut season.

The first was the restart in Baltimore where Ryan Briscoe got caught with his pants down and Ryan Hunter-Reay took the race lead that he never gave back.

Good on RHR for spotting an opportunity and capitalizing on it. But from where I was sitting, that restart should never have been allowed to stand. Because Briscoe was meant to lead the field to the flag but didn’t, the entire line-up behind him was in shambles.

It left the viewer at home with the impression that the green would fly on any restart, no matter how poorly executed — so long as no one was actively crashing or something.

Sure, Barfield has given his starter more autonomy this season than he’s had in the past, and that’s great. But when the starter screwed up, it was up to Barfield to call the error and make the field line up again, and he didn’t do it.

That incident wasn’t the clincher, though. Where Barfield really lost me was the red flag at Fontana with nine laps to go.

I know, I know — lots of people loved it. And it did make for a very exciting finish. I was sort of loath to talk about it right away, actually, because so many people were lauding the decision. (Hell, Robin Miller said it was the best decision of all time made by any Race Director ever, so it must be true, right?)

Here’s my take on it: I don’t have a massive problem with the concept in principle. I don’t love it — to me, it still feels like an artificial infusion of excitement to pander to the low-attention-span generation — but if I’m forced to choose between that and a green-white-checkered, I’ll take the red flag any day of the week.

My problems with the decision were twofold.

One, the teams had no idea it was coming. Okay, so Barfield had been saying all season long that there was a chance he might do it at some point. But he didn’t, despite having the opportunity, and that’s where the real issue lies. Several races ended under yellow this year, and a race with the title fight in the balance in its final ten laps is emphatically not the time to try something new without fair warning.

(Never mind that I recall several drivers being asked after the yellow finish in Toronto whether a red flag should have been used and each of them responding with “definitely not.” And never mind that there was really no excuse for not getting Fontana back to green in time — there were nine laps left, and the Kanaan wreck really didn’t need that much of a clean-up. There’s another issue: caution periods continued to be very long this season, and assuming up front that a low-debris crash would take more than seven laps to remove at a two-mile oval strikes me as a) a bit of a panic move, and b) not having much confidence in the Holmatro Safety Team.)

My second concern is that the red flag could have directly influenced the outcome of the championship. It didn’t in the end, and I think that’s the only reason that it went over so well and that Barfield wasn’t chased off the grounds of Fontana by a lynch mob.

Imagine for a moment that someone had crashed RHR out on that final restart. If we follow the line of thinking that Barfield must have undertaken by deciding to throw the red flag in the first place, then by continuing without the red flag that restart was never going to happen.

Suddenly, the championship isn’t being decided by Team Penske’s monumental recovery or RHR’s level-headed driving or any of the other twists and turn that kept us on the edges of our seats all season long.

That would have come down to Beaux Barfield, and Beaux Barfield alone.

That’s no way to decide the champion of a professional racing series.

Fortunately, the worst-case scenario didn’t play out, and there’s still plenty of time to right everyone’s footing going forward.

All Barfield needs to do to set things right for the future is to make the red flag an on-the-books rule. The best suggestion I’ve heard is to base it on the remaining race distance and not on laps left since that varies the outcome considerably on different track types. If any race that goes yellow within 20 miles of its full distance gets stopped, no exceptions, then just about everyone is happy and that dreaded “discretion” word gets left permanently out of the equation.

Overall, short of very nearly influencing the outcome of a spectacular battle for the title, Barfield’s debut season was definitely a B-: slightly above average with clear room for improvement. Many of the changes he applied before the year began went toward making 2012 one of the all-time best seasons of Indy car racing, and that should in no way be discounted.

I have faith that he’ll analyze every aspect of this year as he and his team decide on how to improve going forward.

When he does so, let’s hope that Barfield also takes into account the opinions of those not qualified to do his job. They’re the ones buying the tickets and influencing the TV ratings, which means that — qualified or not — as far as the longevity of the IZOD IndyCar Series is concerned, their opinions matter most.

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