A note on Race Control for Toronto #1

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on July 14, 2013 10:01 am

Much has obviously been made, once again, about INDYCAR Race Control and the role they played in yesterday’s first race of the Honda Indy Toronto.  From the outset of the weekend, the news that Brian Barnhart would assume the duties of Race Director this weekend has been met with suspicion and angst, mostly from those outside the paddock.

I have been accused in the past of being a Brian Barnhart apologist, and to some degree, that accusation might be fair.  Brian has never treated me with anything but the utmost respect in my dealings with him. He has always been forthright with me, and when he has erred he has stood up to take responsibility for those actions.  Those reasons alone have earned Brian my respect.

That isn’t to say that I agree with Brian 100% of the time or that I think he can do no wrong.  I have taken Brian to task several times over issues that I’ve disagreed with him about, but I have never done so in such a way as to exercise a personal vendetta that I have against him.  I have made my arguments, I have supported my arguments, and I have to every extent possible sought to maintain an open mind regarding his decisions.  For those reason, I believe that I have Brian’s respect.

With that background, let me address a couple of the issues that came out of yesterday’s race.  First, I thought the decision to abort the standing start was made too quickly and unnecessarily.  The fact is, however, that the decision Barnhart made was in accordance with the procedures that were outlined by INDYCAR earlier in the week and, to the letter of the law, was correct.  INDYCAR specifically spelled out in the standing start memorandum released last Tuesday that “in the event of an aborted start, a rolling start shall be implemented.”

Unfortunately, the memorandum does not explicitly define the actions that would lead to an aborted start, nor does it give Race Control discretion to allow a second attempt when a driver has a problem on the starting line.  In yesterday’s situation, I felt the aborted start was called too quickly as the field had barely gridded in formation and the starting light sequence had not even commenced.  In my opinion (and I fully admit it is likely much that went on behind the scenes to which I was not privy), Race Control could have simply allowed the field to again circulate the track and formed into proper alignment if there were mechanical considerations that they felt could have impacted a start should the cars have been left on the grid too long.  I would like to see Race Control given the discretion to not call an aborted start and forgo the standing stand process if the starting light sequence has not yet commenced and Race Control deems it safe to do so.

Perhaps more controversial was the penalty leveled against Dario Franchitti for blocking on the final lap of the race.  This was a call I vehemently disagreed with and was very pleased to see overturned.  It’s not that I’m a huge Dario Franchitti fan — that’s one thing I will likely never be accused of in my lifetime.  I was happy to see it overturned because it was simply the wrong call.  Race Control got the call wrong at the time, but they allowed the team to make their case, they looked at and evaluated all the data, and in the end the right call was made.  That is what ultimately needs to be remembered.

In officiating any sport, judgments made as split-second decisions will always be second-guessed.  In this case, a poor decision (in my opinion) was made but sanity prevailed and the issue was corrected.  I can’t ask for more than that.

There are many people who are up in arms about whether the rule was enforced the same way Beaux Barfield would have enforced it.  Here’s the only point that really matters — Beaux Barfield wasn’t the Race Director yesterday.  Anytime a sporting event is judged by various persons, variation in the interpretation of rules is inherent.  What one umpire calls a strike, another calls a ball.  What one official sees as charging, another sees as blocking.  What one official sees as pass interference, another sees as incidental contact.  In this case, the drivers were told ahead of time what would constitute blocking under Barnhart’s command, and ultimately that is what prevailed.  For many of us who are fortunate enough to be sitting on the sidelines and not be making the crucial decisions in the moment, it is easy to second-guess without having knowledge of what was explained to the drivers and the teams.  For those who must make the call at the time, things are not quite so black-and-white as they may seem from the outside.

One final point to consider — Brian Barnhart did not run Race Control yesterday on his own.  In prior events, Gary Barnard, Bill Van de Sandt and Johnny Unser have assisted Beaux Barfield in making his decisions.  I can only assume those men were with Brian yesterday as well. What those men saw and ruled upon must have, in some way, been agreed upon by at least a majority for INDYCAR to initially impose such a stiff penalty to Franchitti.  While many would like to skewer Barnhart at any point possible and lay blame entirely at his feet, it is a group effort that makes up Race Control, and while Barnhart was in charge of the group he did not act alone.

Let’s hope this is the last we hear of Race Control for today.  However, after the emotions of yesterday’s race, it seems unlikely, at best, that Race Control will not have to make race-altering decision again today.