Al Unser Jr. recalls the instance when he punted Mario Andretti during the 1989 Long Beach Grand Prix and went on to win the second of his event-record six victories.
"It was a total accident and I didn't mean to do it, but the end result was that Mario – a three-time winner of the event – was up against the fence and I went and won the race," said Unser at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he was watching more than a dozen Firestone Indy Lights drivers test on the 1.5-mile oval. "If we would have had these rules implemented at that time, I definitely would have been called for avoidable contact."
Unser was addressing the distinction between avoidable contact and racing incidents that came to the fore during last Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Paul Tracy, making his IZOD IndyCar Series season debut with Dragon Racing, was sent to the back of the line as a penalty for avoidable contact during a lap 25 incident in Turn 11 that involved the No. 78 car of Simona de Silvestro. On the other hand, Helio Castroneves' car was involved in two separate incidents within five laps – one involving the No. 22 car driven by Justin Wilson and the other on a lap 66 restart in which Castroneves punted teammate Will Power and also forced Oriol Servia to miss the turn in avoidance. Scott Dixon's car sustained rear suspension damage when it ran over Castroneves' front wing.
"You never want to crash into a teammate, and certainly that was not something I intended," said Castroneves, who didn't receive a penalty for either incident. "I wish I could go back in time and not be so stupid like that, make a mistake so horrendous."
IndyCar officials said Castroneves' on-track actions will be monitored at the next race – his "home" race May 1 on the streets of Sao Paulo.
"He has our attention because he has made poor choices in two of the three events," Unser said.
Sixteen camera angles around the circuit, plus in-car camera video are monitored by four officials in Race Control – president of competition and operations Brian Barnhart (with Unser, ABOVE), Firestone Indy Lights chief steward Tony Cotman, director of operations and Star Mazda chief steward Bill van de Sandt, and Unser, the Indy Lights driver coach. When issues arise, officials confer over the video replays.
"Helio made a poor choice going into Turn 1 and took out his teammate in the process, but he did not improve his position," Unser said. "As a matter of fact, if we were to have him do a stop-and-go or put him back at the end of the line – like we did with Ryan Hunter-Reay at Birmingham a week earlier – he would be in the same spot that he ended up because his engine died and he went to the back of the line anyway. He basically served his own penalty.
"With Paul Tracy and Ryan Hunter-Reay, they both improved their position by taking somebody out."
At Barber Motorsports Park, Hunter-Reay's car bounced off the Turn 8 curbing and veered into the car he was attempting to overtake, driven by Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe.
"We moved him to the back of the pack for avoidable contact," Unser said. "We did the same thing with Paul. He was being too aggressive going into Turn 11 trying to make a pass. He overshot the person he was passing and took Simona out.
"We look at what caused the accident. There were definitely two causes for the two individuals who got spun out. Helio was not being too aggressive, he was not trying to make a pass, he was following. It was too much on the fence whether it was a racing incident or, in fact, did Helio do it on purpose? It was too close of a call. Tony Cotman and I made the call after Brian asked us to review the incident.
"We have to be careful about what avoidable contact is and what a racing incident is because when you really get down to it they're racing out there. For sure, Paul Tracy and Ryan Hunter-Reay were aggressive driving, trying to make a pass and didn't get it done. They were blatant. There's the avoidable contact. Helio's was not."
Unser equated the role of the four officials to that of an NBA referee.
"If we were to make a call of avoidable contact every time they touch wheels, we'd be penalizing everybody," he said. "You don't want to take away the thrill and the drama and the competitiveness of racing. We have been consistent on all of our calls this year and we will continue to be consistent on our calls in the future."
Going back to his own memorable incident at Long Beach in '89, Unser insists that it was a different era.
"There wasn't avoidable contact in those days because we had different cars, different tires and different engines from the year before and from our competitors," he said. "This is one of the things that is a double-edge sword when you have your competitors so close together, as it is now. These rules have to be implemented and enforced now because the competition is so close. Everybody has the same equipment, and they've had the car now for nine years.
"I think it's a great thing that the competition is so close, but the other side of the sword is you really have to watch their driving. That's why we have the avoidable contact rule and the rule of defending or blocking a corner to keep your competitor behind you – like Helio did at Edmonton last year and was penalized. These rules are in place to allow for passing."