A successful first Baltimore Grand Prix nearly ended in tragedy when a safety truck was still on track at the start of the race and almost collided with front-row starting Graham Rahal. RACER got the opportunity to speak with Tony Cotman, who assists IndyCar president of competition Brian Barnhart in race control, regarding the Baltimore situation along with some other items that have popped up in race control this year.
RACER: What happened regarding the safety truck on track headed for Turn 1? That was the one that was out to fix the tires in the Turn 5 chicane?
Cotman: There was obviously a miscommunication on the truck trying to get back to its station or where it was meant to return to. We often station two safety trucks at the first turn at the start of the race. It was a simple miscommunication whether it went back to a location to be determined by race control, and I think they misunderstood or thought they could get back to the location determined for the start. Obviously, it ended up being on track a little longer than it needed to be.
There was another truck that was just backing into a gap on the front straight. Why not hold for another lap since it looked like lap 1 was done under yellow anyway?
I think it's difficult – the green was just being called at the time we alluded to it. There's a truck on track and it's not always in camera view. For us, it's not a matter of being fixated on watching a truck go around the track. When you call the green, you think it's in its location and we're ready to go racing.
What's the line of communication between race control and the safety team when trucks are on track, knowing it's more than just you three in race control?
There's a safety dispatcher and he is in communication with all sorts of things – trucks, sweepers, fire ambulances, and others.
Regarding the question of defending or going on the inside rule into the corner, correct me if I'm wrong, but in Champ Car, it was pick a line, either inside or outside and don't change it. Whereas now, it's if you're on the inside, it's blocking. How did the rule evolve to this point, and why do you think so many drivers have fallen foul of the rule as written?
I think the rule's been the same for at least 10 years. It was the same used in IndyCar, was the same used in Champ Car. You stayed on the racing line. And so from that perspective, the rule has not changed. The interpretation of Europeans is a lot different than here. If you look back the last 10 years, a large number of those penalized are Europeans. They have different rules in Europe. I know [Giorgio] Pantano was one of the last guys to get it. [Robert] Doornbos got it. I can name a few guys in Champ Car where it took them a couple of times to figure it out.
It's very simple. You remain on your racing line – that's how you race in the U.S., and particularly with the amount of street circuits there are, it's the safest thing to do. Either people don't understand the rule properly, or don't get it clearly explained to them. It's no different than any other rule. I think there's been a lot of noise made about nothing, quite honestly, and there's a lot of publications out there or media attention paid to it because of the dislike of some people.
I think that really takes away from what's going on. It's really irrelevant, because it's how the rule is written, and we need to be clear about how it's enforced. Whether people like it or not, it doesn't matter. As a racing driver, or team, you need to be clear on how the rule is enforced and we need to be clear on how we as officials enforce them. That's probably the bigger item/issue here.
In your estimation, is the rule there to help improve passing?
If the rule wasn't there, two things would happen: We'd have a lot more accidents, and we'd have no passing.
I'll use St. Petersburg as an example; if you can run down the front straightaway, and defend or run the inside line or move over when someone's trying to pass, that provides a terrible product. Some of the tracks we go to now, passing is difficult enough, not to mention dangerous. In the current situation (with the cars), there is far greater contact, far greater chance of wheel-to-wheel contact when making a pass if you end up front to rear, and then you end up with airborne cars.
If it's a temporary circuit, you're already operating within a tight and confined infrastructure. Those are the major reasons it was brought in for. Things evolve and safety evolves.
Is it foolproof? Absolutely not. But, to me, I don't think the rule's that bad. There's been some questions about it, absolutely. We ask ourselves this every off-season when we do the rules. Do we want to make changes to it? I'm sure if you polled the drivers, you'd have a 90-95 percent strike rate on knowing why it's there, and while some of them might like to block or defend, they generally agree with the principle.
One thing Randy Bernard touched on at Infineon Raceway was that they would do a 100 percent re-evaluation of the rulebook at year's end. What's on the table?
I can't comment on what he said there, as I was in Europe. But every year, there's an evaluation process of the rulebook, of the rules, of clarity of interpretation of the rules, how they're written. Everyone wants things black and white but that's impossible.
I'd say it's no different than any other year; there will be a thorough evaluation of the rulebook. If there are specific things Randy wants to go after, that's fine. That's his prerogative. I just think we need to sift through it. We've already started on the process, and every year if you think you want to change things, you make notes for the end of the year. There's a lot of people who want to see the rulebook written a little differently. And that's fine.
What were your reactions, or ones you heard, following the premiere of the race control camera in the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app?
I've seen the camera in there, and I don't even look at the camera because I'm working. I'm aware it's there; I don't know if there's sound. I wouldn't agree with that, if there was. But I can understand why it's there. It's fine if it provides a perspective of what's going on in race control. What it adds, I have no idea.
Fairly or unfairly, it seems like race control has been in the crosshairs far more than you would like this year. Why do you think this year has been more, if not challenging, then abnormal?
I don't know. Some years it's in the crosshairs, and as I've said before, some media outlets' dislike for the leader makes it difficult. That doesn't help. When you have this many cars, all the same equipment, with good drivers, racing becomes difficult. Everybody's entitled to their opinions. But when you look back on it, Brian [Barnhart]'s done a damn good job with what's happened. Ninety percent of the people have absolutely no clue what goes on in race control and how much goes on at one time.
There's good and bad years, and I think there's years where they're in the forefront. And there are others where you never hear from them. It seems at the moment that everybody's a critic and has some comment whenever they get out of the car. But that's how it is, and it's part of our job. Get it out and move on.
One of the things Brian told me was, “If you worry about the reaction or what people write or say, that it influences the ability to do your job.” Do you think that's accurate?
I'd say that's reasonable and pretty accurate. When you go up to race control, everyone's just a car number. And you need to confidently apply the rules as written in the rulebook. If you treat it like that, and understand that you're dealing with any car, it's not tough to do your job. Once you start worrying about what people think, or what they think if they get penalized, you won't ever be efficient.
We're not up here to penalize people. We're up here to run an efficient race. But when people do deserve penalties, you need to put the hammer down and do it, and not worry about what they'll do or say. Let's be honest, when anybody gets penalized, they ain't gonna be happy. If you do get happy for being penalized, you shouldn't be racing. It's pretty simple.
There's no winner for anyone who gets penalized. We're all humans. But from my own professional point of view, I deal with them as car numbers, I don't care who it is when they're replaying an incident. Either there's someone at fault or someone isn't. I really don't care who's driving the car.