Some may think I'm overreacting to one bad race, an event which prompted Kanaan, of all people, to ask rhetorically, “Did we all need to go back to driving school?” But in truth this column was inevitable, following similar (if fewer) bouts of recklessness in St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Sao Paulo this year. Let me state categorically that I have no wish to see the IZOD IndyCar Series become a police state, where Race Control is deciding the outcome of a race or where drivers feel too intimidated by potential wrath from on high to go for it. But equally, drivers can't go racing harder without also racing smarter and picking their battles more selectively. Everyone accepts the give and take of 50/50 maneuvers; sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug and, over the course of a season, it tends to even out. But a driver who takes a 20/80 or 10/90 chance, damages his rival's car or race and continues on without hurt to self needs to accept responsibility. And needs to be punished.
What form should that punishment take, if we're trying to avoid Race Control dishing out drive-through penalties for every major transgression? Adding seconds to a driver's time at the end of a race is one way, but how you grade the severity of the clash in relation to the number of seconds added is very vague, subjective and random. If the driver dominated the race following an early accident, for instance, a 20sec penalty may still leave him as the winner, so he's effectively escaped censure. If the race ends under yellow, on the other hand, just a 10-second penalty could cost him 10 or more positions, which would be no less ridiculous.
Dock the driver a couple of places in the finishing order? Nah, that's barely less random. And besides, both these solutions are unfair on the spectators. One thing NASCAR has seemingly always gotten right over the years is that fans who leave the track or switch off their TVs at the end of a race know the results are set in stone, no matter what is subsequently decided regarding driver discipline and no matter what is found in or on the cars in post-race scrutineering. Admittedly, this frequently raises the ridiculous situation of teams or drivers who have more money than they know what to do with being fined a week's wages, and/or having their regular crew chief being forced to watch the next couple races from the parking lot rather than his pit. But it also means the fan doesn't feel cheated by discovering the next day that the drivers are no longer in the place he or she last left them.
So, should transgressors start the next race from the back of the grid? I don't think so. For one thing, given the number of drivers who deserved punishment in Toronto, what order would you arrange them in for Edmonton? Would 26th place go to the driver who screwed up first, who screwed up most often, or whose screw up caused the biggest crash? Pretty unworkable, I think you'll agree. Besides, I'm of the very firm belief that each race is a do-over, a clean slate, an event in and of itself. For the same reason – and the fact that it's too mild – putting a driver on probation isn't an answer, either.
To my mind, the best solution is to allow a driver to retain his finishing position come what may but if he's judged to have caused an avoidable accident, award him half-points. In the severest of cases or for multiple unethical maneuvers, give him or her the bare minimum of points which, thanks to the IndyCar Series' bizarre system where you get points just for finding your way to the track, is 10. The concept isn't watertight – for instance, one-offs, for whom points are irrelevant, would need to be punished with drive-through penalties instead – but I believe it's workable. It would even cover the gray area of whether the instigator has also served his own penalty.
None of this will repay the innocent party his lost points, obviously – although, just as an aside, one amusing idea did flit through the transom of my mind: Swap a transgressor's race day points haul with those of his victim! Of course, then an unethical backmarker would deliberately engineer dubious situations every time a Franchitti or a Power came to lap him, knowing that if the Race Control's verdict went his way, he could likely bank 40 or 50 points….
Enough of facetiousness. I am aware there will forever be three sides to the story behind most two-car accidents – Driver A's version, Driver B's version and the truth, which hopefully is what Race Control sees and acts upon. But no one – we fans included – should add a fourth or fifth side by, for instance, blaming double-file restarts or, as happened after Toronto, slamming the circuit design. For pity's sake, in every walk of life we have to work within the parameters we're given. A driver blaming a track layout for a failed passing maneuver is as pathetic as him spinning and then criticizing Firestone for not giving him enough grip.
So what now? Well, unquestionably bridges need to be rebuilt between drivers and Race Control this week in Edmonton. Each side has, with some validity, lost respect for the other, but now each side needs to listen to the other and together they must clarify the rules of what constitutes permissible on-track behavior. And then each side needs to follow through with whatever conclusions are drawn. Race Control must be unflinching and consistent in its imposition of punishments. Equally, if drivers want to avoid being disciplined, they need to be self-disciplined and take responsibility for their actions.
And, above all, every participant in the meeting has an obligation to remember that this ceases to be a sport if its competitors are rewarded for errors of judgment. Between green flag and checkered flag, everyone needs to be accountable.
David Malsher is the Editor of RACER magazine