Why the penalty on Dixon was absolutely the right call

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on August 26, 2013 3:22 pm
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If there was one fact that was abundantly clear following the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, it was that many in the IndyCar community have short memories and will cry foul when they get exactly what they have desired for many years.

For far too long, drivers, teams, and fans derided Brian Barnhart for inconsistency in his rules and applying those rules arbitrarily.  Many said that the INDYCAR rule book was written in pencil and that hidden agendas skewed Barnhart’s ability to fairly lay down penalties.  People everywhere begged and pleaded for a more black-and-white rule book where rules were more detailed and penalties more clearly defined.  The goal, many felt, was to remove the human subjectivity entirely from Race Control.

Apparently, that train of thought has left the station and I’m still standing on the platform.

The fallout from the pit road incident involving Scott Dixon and the crew of Will Power’s Verizon Team Penske crew will be debated intently for a long time to come.  In my mind, however, the decision to penalize Dixon was absolutely the correct call and one that had to be made, regardless of the time in the race or in the season.  Black is black.  White is white.  Wrong is wrong.

I believe a lot of the confusion, and hence controversy, stems from the white lines that were painted on pit road.  The problem there is that on most pit roads of the permanent racetracks INDYCAR uses, the lines are actually marking the pit boundaries for NASCAR, not INDYCAR.  Unfortunately, IndyCars require longer pit stalls than their stock car brethren due to a much larger turn radius, so using the same stalls is not generally feasible.  It would certainly be convenient for us fans if INDYCAR would repaint (or simply even tape) the INDYCAR stall definitions, but in a practical sense the crew members can easily identify the beginning and end of their pit stalls based on the vinyl sponsor signage that adorns the entire length of the pit wall.  The Verizon crew knew the boundaries of their pit box, and all members were well within the confines of their stall when the incident occurred.

The rules in question (7.10.1.4 and 7.10.1.6) clearly states that “car contact with pit equipment outside of standard pit stop procedures” and “contact with personnel” is “cause for a Car to be penalized.”  (I was a bit surprised to see that these rules don’t specifically state the penalty applies when the contact occurs within the contacted equipment’s or personnel’s own pit box, but that’s clearly not a point of contention in this case.)  In this situation, Scott Dixon clearly made contact with the tire and tire changer within Power’s pit stall and therefore was justified in receiving the penalty.  You can’t simply waive the penalty against Dixon because he was leading the race, because he was in the championship battle, or because Travis Law (the outside rear tire changer for Will Power) appeared nonchalant about trying to get out of the way.

Speaking of Mr. Law, let’s address the ridiculous criticisms of him here.  To even remotely suggest in any way, shape or form that he would put himself in a position to intentionally get hit is absolutely asinine.  Sadly, I’ve seen crew members get hit before, and I’ve seen them get injured.  I was standing in the Panther Racing pit box at Kentucky in 2011 when three crew member suffered injuries, including one whose leg injury was so severe that he was still not back in racing nearly two years later.  I watched the fueler on Arie Luyendyk’s crew at the 1992 Indianapolis 500 lose his balance, fall against the car, and have his head bounce off the rear tire as Arie pulled away.  I’ve seen too many crew members hit by cars while drivers are trying to unleash or reign in 650 hp.  To even suggest that anyone would put themselves in a position to get hit on purpose is just uncalled for.

Secondly, Travis has been criticized for not paying attention and being unaware of his surroundings.  Again, this is simply not true.  The men and women who work on these cars and go over the wall time and time again have unbelievable situation awareness about them.  These crew members do not need to turn their heads to follow a nearby car.  They honestly don’t even need to maintain eye contact to feel the cars.  The fact that Travis’s nose wasn’t pointed directly at Scott Dixon’s car doesn’t mean he wasn’t watching him or that he didn’t know exactly where Scott was.  Having spent hundreds of hours working on some of this nation’s busiest highways, I can relate firsthand to the feeling of cars and trucks flying by at full speed, often within only a matter of feet.  I don’t have to constantly watch a truck to know when it is coming at me.  When you spend time in that situation, you truly develop a sixth sense and you can feel where that car or truck is.  I’m sure Travis was in the same position.  He saw Scott launch from his pit stall, he stayed as close as he could to Will’s car, he could sense were Dixon was, and there is a high likelihood that he continued to watch Dixon’s car with his eyes though his head may not have followed.  Mr. Law did not get hit simply because he was lackadaisical or because he wasn’t paying attention.  He was hit because Dixon entered into Will Power’s pit box and Travis simply had nowhere to go.

And for those people pointing out how Travis carried the tire on his left hip, you’re absolutely right, and I have no doubt that it was intentional.  Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think it was unsportsmanlike or intentional in a way to force Scott Dixon into contact.  I do believe it was intentional, however, as a safety precaution.  If he instead carries that tire in his right hand, doing so would have required him to walk farther from Power’s car and likely would have resulted in Dixon’s car hitting him directly instead of the tire.  He could have left the tire on the ground where it lay after being removed, but that is not the standard procedure for pit stops, and as it is likely that Dixon would have then hit the tire on his way out anyway because he was so far into Power’s pit box, doing so would have let to further claims of unsportsmanlike behavior.  From all indications, including a YouTube video of an earlier pitstop (h/t: Steve Wittich for locating and posting this video), Travis proceeded exactly as he had done on all other pit stops, so I truly see no fault in his procedure here.

Finally, let’s address the claim that Dixon should have avoided penalty because he didn’t intend to hit Power’s crew member.  Just as the rulebook needs to be blind to the lap number, car number, and position within the season, it needs to be equally blind to intent.  A driver doesn’t intend to run over an air hose, but doing so still earns him a penalty.  A driver doesn’t intend to exceed the pit road speed limit, but doing so still earns him a penalty.  Ryan Briscoe didn’t intend to spin Charlie Kimball late in yesterday’s race, but doing so still earned him a penalty.  Even suggesting that Dixon should not be penalized simply because he didn’t mean to hit Power’s equipment just doesn’t fly.  Nor should it.

Unfortunately, it seems that after a one-year honeymoon last year (which was actually only about four races), Race Control is finding its way back into the news more often than most people would like. Initially, I was on the fence about this penalty and would have been understanding if the penalty was not issued.  However, after seeing more replays (especially the overhead view that clearly showed nearly all of Dixon’s car within the confines of the #12 pit stall when the incident occurred), I truly believe Race Control had no choice but to issue the penalty to Dixon as he clearly violated the pit road rules and, while certainly not intentional, his actions put a crew member from another team in serious peril.

To me, this one is black and white.

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