Recent events in the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series have focused as much on the eyes and ears watching in race control as the racing itself. Several events – Long Beach, Toronto, Loudon and Infineon to name a few – have seen decisions made which impacted the running order and eventual results.
At Infineon, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard voiced “100-percent support” of Brian Barnhart, the series' president of competition and chief steward. The voice that hasn't been heard much this year, other than briefly explaining the end of the Loudon race on TV, is Barnhart's. We got the opportunity to speak to him on Friday before the Baltimore Grand Prix about how some of those controversial decisions come about.
RACER: When lapped cars do get moved, what goes into the process of where they are they moved to? Say, the James Jakes car got moved back from behind Helio Castroneves in second to behind Scott Dixon in fifth at Sonoma. Where was the line drawn on where the lapped cars get moved to?
Brian Barnhart: It's been one of the evolving challenges of how we've changed race restarts all year long. You know, at the beginning of the year, we talked about leaving the order as it is, and understanding the challenges of moving lapped traffic out of the way, and it's no different now. It's all a balance; it's a balance of integrity, of competition, of fairness, of not extending the event.
At Sonoma, for example or New Hampshire, that was the only time lately we got to a point we weren't going to reorder any cars. As we've adjusted the restart procedure as the year went on, there was a team consensus in trying to get the [lapped] cars out of the way, especially late in the event. I think we had the top five or six lined up at New Hampshire.
Then we started moving some cars at Sonoma, and got into this string at Sonoma of having lapped cars all throughout. We were running out of laps, so it would take too long to reposition them. You'd be surprised at how long it takes to reorder and how unresponsive teams can be.
At New Hampshire, we're running on a one-mile oval and the rain hit and we decided, say, “12 car, move in front of 67.” We called him for four laps. I was about to go and say, “12 car, you just screwed yourself!” It's a balance of how do we this, but on the other hand, you can't extend the caution, and if you extend that you cheat the fans or affect the fuel mileage someone could have under green.
At Infineon, we got the top five positioned, and I didn't want to start messing with anything further than that. Then we had a lapped car, then two lead lap cars, then two lapped cars and then another lead lap car. We would have been shuffling cars around and, they just aren't familiar enough with making that change, so at our discretion, you know what, we've got the top five here, that's all we're gonna do and we're gonna go. We're not gonna extend the yellow any longer than this.
And that's a word that's been used a lot lately – discretion. In terms of using your best judgment, what's best for the competitors, what's safest, what allows you to get back going. How do you determine the precedent that sets that?
Well let me ask you guys that – that's what I get frustrated about. We're officials. What do you think every official in every sport exercises?
Caution and safety for everyone involved?
Discretion! What do you think an official does? An official utilizes judgment. All discretion is, is judgment. And you know, as an official, you are looking to see that the competitors don't advantage or disadvantage themselves or the competition in an unsportsmanlike fashion. If you look at other sports, there are so many subjective calls. Holding in football…
It could happen on every play but isn't always called.
Why isn't it? Because officials are exercising discretion! Everyone's acting like we're the only ones who exercise discretion, but officials do in every sport. Did that offensive lineman violate the rules and disadvantage the defensive lineman in breaking the rules? Say if this guy would have sacked the quarterback, you're gonna call it.
That happens all the time in basketball. When [NBA referees] are miked? They make discretionary calls based on did that disadvantage that guy or not. Palming or traveling happens but isn't always called. When you dribble a basketball, the rule says you have to dribble with your hand on top. Nobody does that.
In their interpretation of the rules, what's called and what's not, as an official you exercise that discretion to see if a competitor has disadvantaged the competition in an unsportsmanlike fashion. That's no different than what we do. We're officials just like basketball, baseball, football. For an official, all they do is use their judgment. That's what they do. They adjudicate.
How does having both Al Unser Jr. and Tony Cotman in race control help you determine what should be the correct call?
I always make comparisons to other sports. The first answer I'd give, the more qualified pairs of eyes we have to watch things from race control, the better. Our sport continues to get more competitive. The goal post isn't changing much and the back half catches up. Now, when 22 cars at Infineon run within 0.9sec, the competition is so tight, that more eyes is a good thing.
Again, I guess, I know there are criticisms that say, “Oh, he isn't an ex-racer.” Well, does that mean the best NFL official has to be a former player? I don't see any former NBA players as officials. Why does it have to be a former racer to be in race control? I don't think there's fair criticisms applied to this series compared to other sports. I may have never driven, but I've been in it since I was yay-high, and just because I haven't put a helmet on doesn't mean I don't know about what goes on.
The big thing this weekend was introducing the race control camera on the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app. Your expectations?
I hope it shows how complicated this process is. The difference again, is because of the diversity of our schedule compared to any other. We don't even watch videos on an oval. We look out the window to see everything that's happening. The worst-case scenario – Long Beach – we did it inside the basement of the Long Beach Arena. We couldn't hear anything outside it.
When you're at an oval, you can control what you're looking at. At road courses, you're at the mercy of what the cameraman shows you, and what the producer focuses on. If there's a car that moves to the next corner out of sight, how do you know that car didn't just spin – you don't know. If he's sitting there and you don't know it, and the next guy comes around the corner and T-bones him, you feel like an idiot!
You're at the mercy of some of the places. What they show you changes. On practice days, it's not uncommon, you'll be at St. Pete or Long Beach and they'll zoom in on some good-looking gal in a bikini.
Still, safety is always paramount. I think that's one of the things we're hoping it shows. It's sophisticated, complicated, detailed, with an incredible amount of information that comes through. I think it will confirm that we are a professional organization; that we are capable, competent and qualified to make the decisions we need to make.
Would you say you have to make calls almost as much on instinct if you don't see it live?
We deal with a very complex situation as best we can. Things happen in a hurry. They [drivers] know they are counting on you to be safe, and that's when you're sick to your stomach if you made a mistake. You're so much at the mercy of what you're shown. We're watching up to 20 screens, so there are a lot of eyes shifting around.
When an accident happens, how is the info from corner marshals relayed?
Again, there are complications. I'll go back to St. Pete. [Sebastien] Bourdais crashed coming through the chicane, and his teammate [James Jakes] crashed in Turn 2. When two people talk on the radio, what do you get? Neither one. Corner workers call yellows. Luckily one screen showed one, we didn't even know the other one wrecked until 20 seconds later.
It's pretty complicated, communication-wise. There's a lot going on. There are pit techs, safety workers, corner workers. We try to manage and filter that communication as best we can. If we talk on race control, and say “local yellow in Turn 5,” (teams) might not have heard it if they were talking to their drivers. Multiple indications are best from a safety standpoint.
You mentioned how you hear about the criticism. Your response to how vitriolic it was?
I don't pay attention; I don't know how vitriolic it was. I don't think I could do my job if I read or paid attention to that stuff. Amy [Konrath, IndyCar PR] has heard me say it 1,000 times when she said, “Did you hear what someone said or wrote?” If you're in a position of trying to be an official and get concerned about personal attacks or what other people say or write about you, I think it can influence your ability to do your job.
I think the important thing I found out early, in terms of being a race control official, is that our sport is unlike others in many ways. We don't have timeouts. We don't have instant replay. Decisions need to be made instantaneously more often than not. To be successful in race control, you have to be ready and prepared to make mistakes.
If you're afraid of making mistakes, you won't make a decision, and it will paralyze you. You'll hesitate – and hesitation in this game is when people get hurt. You might make a mistake. I think our race control and me specifically have been right far more often than we've been wrong. But we're human. We'll make mistakes.
The human element is a part of every sport. It's funny – in baseball, if you argue balls and strikes, you get tossed. Our guys get to complain about everything! The human element from officials means the outcomes of games are never changed. They don't come back three days later and reverse the outcome after the Super Bowl if the winning catch by the receiver happened where he didn't get his foot down. They just say the official made a bad call.
We're right far more often than we're wrong. You can be right 98 of 100 times and the two you're wrong, you get called on.