Brian And Helio: Not A Love Story


By Jeff Iannucci

Note from George – It is an unexpected honor to welcome today’s guest blogger to this site. Almost two months ago, Jeff Iannucci suddenly announced he was stepping aside from his excellent site, “My Name Is IRL”. The events of this past weekend have pulled Jeff out of his sabbatical, if only temporary. We all hope that Jeff will return to his site one day soon. In the meantime, enjoy his latest musings. – GP

Since Oilpressure is the corner of the IndyCar blogging world known for “thoughtful” posts, I asked George if I may attempt a little thoughtfulness of my own for public consumption relating to this weekend’s, umm, controversial finish in Edmonton. And the only reason I’m saying anything about this is because no one else has said what I’m going to say. Perhaps with good reason since I might be completely wrong, but at any rate here goes.

I won’t waste any time rehashing the details of this now infamous blocking rule, the enforcement of this blocking rule, who created this blocking rule, or whether or not this rule should even exist. I think most of us would agree that when we find ourselves in a time where the league is releasing footage of a drivers meeting explaining a rule that we didn’t know existed a few days ago that we’ve unfortunately crossed into a vortex of tedium from which no enthusiasm can escape. I mean, I like my racing to have a story and some visceral excitement, not some ad nauseum discussion about “the rules”. But that’s just me.

And so it is that I want to note a couple of stories that you may or may not recall, starting first in 2006. Back then as the IRL season was down to the last event of the season at Chicagoland, Helio Castroneves, who despite his many wins has never won a season championship in the IICS, was leading teammate Sam Hornish Jr by a single point. Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon were also mathematically in contention, meaning these four drivers would be expected to all race for the win. However, within the first 20 laps Helio was called out for speeding on pit lane by Brian Barnhart, and had to take a drive through penalty that effectively took him out of contention for the win in both the race and the championship. To the best of my recollection this is the only time such an otherwise invisible infraction has been called in the last race on a championship contender.

Two years later, Helio was chasing Scott Dixon for the elusive championship and was leading Justin Wilson in the next-to-last- race at Detroit. At one point Wilson had a good run on Helio, but Helio made himself wide (like “double-wide” wide) during the pass attempt and thwarted Wilson’s overtake. Brian Barnhart ruled a “block” and that Helio then had to surrender the position to Wilson, who went on to win the race and deny Helio 10 more precious points towards catching Dixon.

And now another two or so years later we have the events of this weekend, where it should be noted a blocking move was now punished not with surrendering position but a more severe drive through penalty decreed by Brian Barnhart. As the axiom goes: once is an accident, twice is coincidence, three times is a pattern. So three times now Brian Barnhart has taken a possible win (and once, a possible IICS championship) from Castroneves.

It’s worth noting that any race has its share of moments where drivers can be penalized, and this last race is no different. Given that rule violation for which Helio was punished you can go back and see on the start of the race Will Power took a similar line but Will was not called for any infraction. And VERSUS cameras clearly captured Dario Franchitti tapping Scott Dixon’s tire in his pit box during a stop, although Dario was not penalized. And of course many fans cried “block” by Dixon on Power the very next turn after Helio’s infamous maneuver. And those are just incidents involving the drivers who finished on the podium.

So why Helio? Is he the ONLY driver who ever blocks or speeds in the pits or breaks the rules, or is he just the only one who ever gets called for a penalty in critical situations?

Now, it is with a certain irony many folks have noted that Paul Tracy defended the decision this weekend to penalize Helio, but would that I were having a beer with Tracy – hey, it could happen! – I might suggest there may be nothing ironic about this at all. Indeed, perhaps Paul’s most enduring claim to fame might be at the heart of all of this overzealous enforcement.

When Tracy was denied victory at the 2002 Indianapolis 500 much was made of the fact that the ultimate decision for awarding the victory to Helio Castroneves had rested with Brian Barnhart. Helio is and was then a driver for Roger Penske, and Brian Barnhart was at one time an employee of Roger Penske. Many folks connected these dots and concluded the fix was in for Helio in 2002 regardless of whatever evidence Tracy and his team may have presented.

DISCLAIMER: I’m only noting this for historical purposes – stay focused, people. Those aren’t the dots I’m addressing; I’m talking about those dots from 2006, 2008, and now in 2010 that indicate that if there’s any way to penalize Helio that the wrath of the Iron Hand of Justice will come down on him hard and heavy.

I’m not a psychologist and I don’t usually play one here at Oilpressure, but I can’t help but wonder if this is all some sort of over compensation on Barnhart’s part to show he doesn’t have any explicit bias for Helio or Team Penske. Or maybe Barnhart has grown bitter towards Castroneves over all the years of crap Brian has endured over that decision in 2002. Or maybe he just doesn’t like the guy and his happy dancing self. I don’t know Barnhart – who along with Tracy and Castroneves I’ve never had the pleasure of sharing a pint – enough to speculate, but the history here has the appearance that there’s something there beyond just a league official enforcing the rules.

Unless of course Barnhart comes out and throws a black flag at Will Power or Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti the next time either of them are leading a race. I know, I know – that appears about as likely as me hosting a beer summit with Brian and Helio (it could happen, I tell ya!). Until then, perhaps Helio could help keep everyone focused on the rage by appearing in the remaining races wearing Rod Smart’s immortal XFL jersey.

18 Responses to “Brian And Helio: Not A Love Story”

  1. Jeff,

    Interesting psychological profile on BB’s decision. Beats my “penis envy” theory.

    Welcome back.

  2. interesting, jeff–good to hear from you again.

    I’ve been trying to think when the last time I saw the blocker moved “to the end of the line” rather than just be forced to vacate the position and I realized I’ve never seen it before. I think part of the big problem here is that the rule seems arbitrary and selectively enforced. Not many understood (at the time anyway) what the penalty was and why it was being enforced now. sorta like calling holding on a touchdown pass with no time left in the superbowl.

  3. Lets not leave out the infamous “go directly to victory lane, do not stop onthe track, do not climb the fence in celebration”.

  4. While its an interesting theory, I have to disagree at least that Barnhart is doing it on purpose.

    Exhibit 1: That last 2 Indy 500 starts, Helio was allowed to jump starts and restarts so bad that he had 5-6 car length leads by the time he hit the start finish line. The most recent one I happened to be sitting on the front stretch and got a picture of it here:

    Exhibit 2: Helio’s fake qualification attempt this year. BB could have said no, or pulled him off the track, he did neither.

    Exhibit 3: Nashville 2008 – Danica in one of her better races was 2nd all 1st half of the race but repeatedly got chop blocked by Helio in the lead when she tried to pass, even though she was clearly faster. The 5th/final time he did it, the chop was so bad he nearly put both of them in the fence except Danica, wanting to be alive, slammed on her brakes lost 7 positions in the process and there was an audible gasp from the crowd over what Helio did, some reporters asked about it after but no call from BB.

    I honestly think its within BB’s simple inconsistency that it is just coincidence that some big ones have gone against Helio, but all the calls against Helio were clear violations toward the end of the season; don’t forget Helio went under the line during quals for last race and got called for it in 2008 too.

    • Exhibit 1: Your pic didn’t show up in that link (I just saw a collage of RedBull Indycar crashing?) or I scanned to fast. BB’s Indy starts have been a JOKE + he ordered the green to be waved. He looks like a bigger fool if he nails HCN here.

      Exhibit 2: Just Brian kissing Penske’s butt or him having a flashback that he still worked for RP

      Exhibit 3: If BB called Helio for blocking here, he gets a mini Edmonton 💡 + all the Danica Haters FREAK… screaming that the ICS was engineering a PR stunt to get their most high profile driver another race WIN 💡 💡

    • the american mutt Says:

      you must have been in a different part of the grandstands, as there was no gasping done in the area I was sitting in. Incidentily, she only lost two spots. While I certainly agree his on track behavior (which they all exhibit) was inexcusable you exagerate the severity substantially.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    Very entertaining read, certainly more so than most of what I’ve read about the penalty.

  6. Great to see Jeff again!

    I like the idea, but I think Barnhart is just incompetent. If you can’t start/restart races better than the SCCA/Local short tracks, how are you ever going to be able to call other penalties????

  7. Nice analysis! You may be onto something there. Some of the comments do provide a counter-argument, but I think you could be right. It may just be psychologically easier for him to call Helio for penalties for whatever reason.

  8. Thanks Jeff… you just ruined my Brainfart /Dancing with the Stars theory. I was convinced his Helio-Hate came from his wife after she watched HCN compete on DWTS. She spent thousands on dance lessons & demanded he attend those classes with her… explains his focus on Helio ❗ 🙂

  9. Travis R Says:

    Very interesting read, Jeff, and a lot of good thoughts all around.

    I’m curious – does anybody know how many officials the IRL have watching for these infractions? Theoretically, if you have anything less than one person per competitor watching their every move, there’s a chance that things can get missed. Is it possible the IRL crew is inadequately staffed to catch and enforce all the infractions?

  10. Ron Ford Says:

    I think Dr. Jeff’s take on the situation, while somewhat interesting, is a bit of a reach. I believe that at the heart of the matter is the fact that most of the road, street, airport races are as boring as a “dubya” speech. (we can’t allow any more of this liberal blockificatin’) During one of Barnhart’s tortured explanations of the need for the rule……safety, blah, blah, blah………..high cost of repairs, blah, blah, blah, he stated that the rule promotes passing and helps prevent boring follow-the-leader races. The Edmonton race (?), until Helio spiced things up a bit, was excruciatingly boring without any pastoral scenery or Brazillian babes as partial compensation. Belle Isle….beautiful but boring, Barber……..beautiful but boring…………Watkin’s Glen……..beautiful, charming and boring………Sonoma……….beautiful but boring, Edmonton………..just plain boring. What all this leads to is race announcers getting all giddy over a PASS. “Did ya see that folks?!! A PASS, an actual PASS!!!” Then we have post race bloggers saying “Well, not such a bad race. There were at least six non-Milka passes and gee, weren’t all those boats in the harbor a beautiful sight?”

    There are rumors that the Sonoma race will include a reading of the IndyCar rulebook by Scott Dixon during a tour of the Foyt vineyard.

    In the meantime I will be counting the days until Chicagoland and dreaming of the Izod girl in cut-offs. Thank you Helio for adding a little race and post race excitement to the Edmonton snoozefest. Almost as much fun as A.J. vs Arie, Danica vs Milka, etc.

  11. I agree with criticism of Barnhart for inconsistency. Just one example: Belle Isle, when he was called for blocking Wilson (a universally approved call by fans including me), he only had to give the position to Wilson, NOT drive through, which the IHJ now says is required under the rules. Unless the rule has changed since 2008, but we don’t know that, since rules are NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS. Don’t agree that this is a manifestation of the IHJ’s remorse over the PT at Indy thing, though.

    • Speedy Dave Says:

      I really think that IHJ’s lack of consistency is at the heart of the incredible display of fan anger. We can all name a half dozen or more missed calls from memory, and to be confronted with a rule we don’t know (NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS) that so obviously affected the race outcome was the straw that broke the camel’s back. IHJ may have been right about the call, but he’s earned a lot of the mistrust that fans have for him. It will be interesting to see how often he’s second guessed on this rule now that we know about it. Fans will be watching for it and asking why it doesn’t apply to one particular instance but not the next.

  12. Jeff,

    You didn’t mention what your “official beer of the post” was, but it kicked in with a vengeance after the second paragraph. What a buzz.

  13. Mike R. Says:

    I suspect that BB is probably the person most acutely aware of his inconsistent calls through the years…the Helio/Danica thing stands out in my mind so strongly, it still makes me wonder why there wasn’t any kind of penalty…but that may in fact be the reason why he did it. Include the “don’t climb the fence” transmission, and the multiple items that are pointed out, couple that with an apparent accusation that he has favored Penske due to the prior affiliation…I reckon maybe he (BB) is seeking to make some type of amends with the entire IICS community. I.e. “No, I’m NOT in Roger’s pocket” + “In hindsight, I should have called him on the blocking against Danica” + “the little prick didn’t listen to me at Indy last year”…so he’s (possibly) trying to make up for previous screw-ups.

    Bottom line, I agree with Robin Miller (again), that the guy is in over-his-head with the position (promoted to his level of incompentence) and he has demonstrated that he really shouldn’t be making the final decisions on critical (to racing) matters. There are others who are vastly more qualified to make these calls.

  14. Thanks for coming back Jeff! I still use your blogroll to find all the ones I like reading!

    However, I disagree with you analysis on Will Power not being penalized. Will Power was attempting to advance position, not retain position like Helio. As for Dixon, we was running the racing line when he “chopped” Power. Helio was obviously not running the racing line and had altered his path to prevent passing. Dixon had completed a pass. Different circumstance.

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