Last week, I received a letter from a fan of the IZOD IndyCar Series who, a full 48 hours after the race, was still fuming about its outcome. Now, it's not our habit to highlight one particular reader's thoughts and opinions, but since they echoed what many were thinking following the ugly if fascinating spectacle of the 2011 Honda Indy Toronto, I make no apology for reproducing much of it here.
He wrote as follows:
"After watching the Toronto IndyCar race, I was left concerned by the path that this sport appears to be heading along, so much so that I write my first letter to you in the hope that whoever is in charge of that spectacle called IndyCar racing is reading this. My questions are:
- Can we only increase our fan base by staging this bumper car-style racing?
- Should we allow and therefore encourage drivers to drive with little regard to their competitors or should we encourage them to use the skills that got them to IndyCar?
- Is it not time to consider entrusting the management of the sporting rules to an independent group who not only has the experience but also the courage to stand behind consistent calls and issue penalties for bad driving?
- If, as Robin Miller tells us on SPEED and Versus, fans actually love double-file restarts, then isn't it time for IndyCar to provide teams with additional funding to cover crash damage?
- At what point does a driver earn the right to a corner when he is trying to pass or maintain his position entering a corner? My question refers particularly to the Will Power/Dario Franchitti incident. Did Power not leave Franchitti room approaching the corner? And didn't Power, by out-braking Franchitti into the corner and being almost a full car-length ahead, win himself the right to the corner? Can then Franchitti continue forcing the issue further into the corner even when there was no room to pass? Also, does anybody expect Power to be able to see in his mirror that Franchitti has decided to take another stab at mission impossible?
"Lastly here's a comment to the IndyCar drivers in general: You are better than this. Please try to avoid lowering your standard to the level we saw in Toronto. Don't bring the sport down to the lowest denominator for the sake of a few TV ratings."
Now, I can't say I agreed with this fan regarding double-file restarts (Marco Andretti nudging into Oriol Servia and taking out Justin Wilson too was the only crash in Toronto connected with that new-for-2011 rule), but his comments regarding driver discipline – or lack thereof – was something many of us share. Same with the consistency of the rulings from race to race. Back at Long Beach, I recall the reasons given for not penalizing Helio Castroneves were that he had effectively served his own penalty for that needless shunt with Power that also ruined Scott Dixon's race and lost Servia a chance of racing into a podium position. The consideration there was that Castroneves had dropped a bunch of places himself. OK…I can kind of see that, although it didn't explain why Castroneves went unpunished for tipping Justin Wilson into a spin at the hairpin when Paul Tracy was served a drive-through for the same maneuver on Simona de Silvestro.
Anyway, just two street races later, at Toronto, Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti and Ryan Briscoe clearly benefit from their misjudgments, do not serve their own penalty – nor do they serve any other penalty. This quartet go on to finish first, third, fourth and seventh, respectively. So what is or isn't allowed now?
Don't get me wrong – I have plenty of sympathy for anyone who serves in Race Control in any form of motorsport. It's one of those jobs where you get no praise if everything goes well, but thrown to the wolves – and publicly – if you are perceived to have screwed up. In pre-race briefings, you have to impose your will on 26 drivers and that must sometimes feel like herding cats. You have to withstand drivers and team owners occasionally bullying you or arguing their case during the race. You have to retain impartiality at all times. And you have to look at each incident in isolation.
The difficulty of that last point I demonstrated to myself, I'm ashamed to say. Of the perpetrators listed above, Hunter-Reay had the least amount of time to back out of his clash with Rahal, given the speed at which Graham swung back across to tuck in behind Dixon. However, on the other side of the coin, a blind man could have seen that gap was going to close, Ryan should have realized he wasn't going to have enough room to make the pass and he had only his car's nose alongside Rahal's rear wheel, therefore he should back out. Still, I thought a few moments later, Ryan had already suffered a broken wing and a puncture this race, he came into the event a completely unrepresentative 20th in the championship, he deserved a lucky break…
Oh, dear: it's no damn good to be thinking that way, is it? I was looking at an accumulation of circumstances around Hunter-Reay's godforsaken season, instead of looking at this shunt in isolation. Rather more relevantly, Dixon couldn't separate his personal emotions from the situation: frustrated at Rahal's earlier attempts to keep him behind and at twice messing up the restart, Scott basically said Graham got what he deserved. Hmm…It's clear that neither Dixon nor I could be trusted to call the right shots in Race Control.
So, who can? Well, just one person, in my opinion. Whether that's Tony Cotman or Al Unser Jr., I'm not sure I care: there are good reasons to trust each of them in terms of judgment. What I am sure of is that a three- or four-man democracy can't be as consistent as a one-man autocracy. The message regarding what's permissible that is delivered to the drivers in the pre-race briefings and out on track and is witnessed by fans in the grandstand and watching on TV will get muddied. And what about those times when Unser, Cotman and Brian Barnhart each have three interpretations of an incident, and each have three very different responses to how or if the perp should be punished? Allowing just one person in Race Control to call the shots would allow the decision-making to be far more consistent.