The Proverbial Can Of Worms

By the time you read this, the verdict of the jury may have already been announced. The announcement of the decision reached by the three-person panel to review the results of the 225 is due sometime Wednesday morning.

There is no way this is going to end well, no matter what the decision is. An already ugly situation got even worse after Newman/Haas Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing lodged a formal protest, appealing the results of the IZOD IndyCar Series race in New Hampshire two weekends ago.

I’m not blaming the two teams in question – especially Newman/Haas. They are hungry for their first victory since the 2008 season. If they are hungry, then their driver, Oriol Servia, is starving. He hasn’t won since winning a Champ Car race for Newman/Haas at Montreal in 2005. He is looking for his first IndyCar series win, and he truly feels he won the race – fair and square. It wasn’t his fault that the rulebook meant nothing.

No, it got ugly when Brian Barnhart announced last week that yesterday’s protest would only involve the top three cars. In fact, that’s when it got ridiculous.

Brian Barnhart is a very easy target, right now. Although I agree with most everything that has been said and written about him in the last ten days, this is not intended to be a piling-on session. That being said, I would like to hear someone explain the rationale of reviewing the top three finishers, while locking the wrecked cars behind them into the scoring of the previous lap.

In most other sports – if there is a bad call, the league or sanctioning body simply says; “Oops, we goofed. Sorry” before moving on to the next game or event. Racing is different because there are so many moving pieces. Right or wrong, sponsors have the potential to carry some weight in these situations. I’m not saying that happened here, but the potential is there. Plus, in racing there is one winner and a whole lot of losers. The victory is something very hard to come by and cannot be taken for granted. If technology can prove that someone else won a race that is in doubt, they should make sure to get it right.

The big problem is the murkiness of the IndyCar rulebook. Too many times, there is an “out” given to the Chief Steward in certain circumstances. I’ll throw out the disclaimer that I haven’t personally combed through the rulebook. But from what Kevin Lee said last night on Trackside, there are eighty-seven times that a scenario ends with “…or at the discretion of the Chief Steward.” That puts simply too much gray in a rulebook that is printed in black & white.

By “normal” racing rules, one would have thought that Oriol Servia and Scott Dixon passed Ryan Hunter-Reay before the start-finish line. The green flag waved briefly before the yellow flag was thrown prior to the cars crossing the line. But we’ve learned recently that there is nothing normal about the way the IndyCar rulebook reads.

There has been much talk that Brian Barnhart has outlived his usefulness as Chief Steward. I think Kevin Lee is being a little kind when he says that only a small percentage doesn’t care for Brian Barnhart in the role of Chief Steward. I think it’s much larger than he says. Whether or not Randy Bernard chooses to replace him remains to be seen. Unlike many, I don’t hate Brian Barnhart. I believe him to be a good man, but he has shown very questionable judgment at times. I think it’s safe to say that his future as Chief Steward is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that there needs to be a major revision to the IZOD IndyCar Series rulebook. It seems to be excessively vague and gives way too much latitude (read: power) to the Chief Steward to alter almost any scenario or outcome. Even the top drivers sound surprised every time a little known clause is exercised. There shouldn’t be that many surprises among the teams whenever the rulebook is pulled out.

Kevin Lee also reminded us last night how confused we fans were at Edmonton last year. I’ll admit, I knew nothing about a rule that didn’t allow the leader to choose his or her lane going into a corner. It seemed pretty natural that the leader could choose the inside line while defending his or her position. Not so, according to the current INDYCAR rulebook.

Whatever happens to Barnhart, I think Randy Bernard should appoint a committee to start ripping apart the current INDYCAR rulebook and start over for 2012. Get rid of the gray areas, where possible, and narrow the current latitude given to whoever is in the role of Chief Steward for 2012. That way, they can do their best to minimize the possibility of a repeat of the events of yesterday and today’s expected ruling. Randy Bernard and the IZOD IndyCar Series have made great strides in the past eighteen months. This was an unexpected setback. Like he has with other challenges, I expect Randy Bernard to analyze the problem and take steps to correct it.

Quite honestly, I don’t know how today’s ruling will come out. Logic says that there is not enough hard-nosed evidence to overturn the results ten days after the fact. On the other hand, I think that Newman/Haas has a legitimate gripe. Still, I’ll be surprised if the victory is taken away from Ryan Hunter-Reay and handed to Oriol Servia. I think that would open up a whole new can of worms on a situation that has already gotten too messy as it is. It’s probably best to close the book on New Hampshire, move on to Sonoma and immediately start on a new rulebook for 2012.

Shameless Plug: "One Take Only" video blog returns Thursday. John & I will trim it down and limit our discussion to the New Hampshire race and the fallout from the aftermath and today’s ruling. Check back tomorrow.

Update: INDYCAR has announced that the top 3 finishing positions of the New Hampshire race on Aug. 14 are upheld, after yesterday’s protest hearing.

George Phillips

15 Responses to “The Proverbial Can Of Worms”

  1. I agree with for the most part George.

    The rule book seriously needs to be looked at, but I would add that the way the President of Competition and Chief Steward positions are governed also need to be looked in a very different way.
    If anything, these positions should be separate, as together they present too many conflicts of interest.

    As mentioned by a number of folks in the last few weeks (and beforehand I’m sure), a driver steward for race control (preferably one without ties – if that is possible) would be desirable. It also needs someone who will be strong in the face of the team owners and to be honest, I don’t know if Al Unser Jr – as respected as he is – fits that mould.

    Tony Cotman seems like an interesting character; however we must remember it was he who came up with the “no defence rule” in the first place.
    Considering Cotman has been looking after the new regulations and some of the newer circuit designs, he appears to be overloaded with duties at the moment – none of which takes into account hos actual job with NZR Consultants.
    Indeed it may go some way to answer why he has been so quiet of late.

    In the end, I think it comes down to too few people doing too many jobs — and jobs they may not necessarily be best qualified to do.

  2. There was always the Mario Andretti/Bobby Unser fiasco, so no matter how badly this turns out, it could still have been worse.

  3. “No, it got ugly when Brian Barnhart announced last week that yesterday’s protest would only involve the top three cars. In fact, that’s when it got ridiculous.”

    That’s the whole thing right there. Complete BS. Either the entire finishing order is up for a reshuffling or none of it should be. This whole “lock in 4th on back” thing is a move with only one motivation: ensure Will Power gets his 5th place and thereby keep Roger Penske (and one of the two main championship contenders) out of the equation. With Power locked into 5th, the idea must have been that people would have less of a vested interest in the hearing’s outcome. I guess they’re probably right, but it’s a “one foot on either side of the fence” move that does not sit right with me.

  4. My rulebook: Go fast. First one to the checkered flag wins. If you drive poorly and blatently wreck a fellow competitor, you’ll sit for a lap or two. If you chop block a fellow competitor blatently, you’ll sit for a lap or two. Otherwise, have at it boys.

    (hum–last part sounds wrong, may have to make some changes there…oh yeah)

    Have at it boys…and girls.

  5. RHR won, so leave it alone. Look, I love Newman/Haas, but it wasn’t a win for them and it shouldn’t have come to this point in the first place. The way I saw it the flagman was still waving the yellow anyway. As for BB, well, I’m all for getting some new blood in the mix.

    By the way, all of this has taken the eye off of Will Power and his after race “greetings” to the race officials. George, you better be ready!!! 🙂

  6. Simona Fan Says:

    I have no idea what they will rule, but I have an opinion of what they should rule. The issue is not that the Race Director made a call and the teams are arguing with it. The issue is that the Race Director made a decision, didn’t like the outcome, and literally erased legal racing from the record book. I don’t think IndyCar wants to set the precedent that the Race Director has that power or else he’ll always be petitioned to eliminate some racing.

    The “mistake” that we talk about (going green when it was wet) wasn’t a real mistake. A mistake would be if they wanted it yellow and the flagman threw the green instead. Or if timing and scoring got messed up and counted to lap 226 instead of lap 225. Those are mistakes. Race Control wanted it to go green, asked for it to go green, went green, and THEN decided it was the wrong call when Patrick spun. Had she not spun, they would have left it green. It was an error in judgement but not a mistake they needed to go fix.

    Since the last green was legal, and the pass for the lead was legal. Even if Oriol only led for 20 feet as RHR says, it was the last 20 feet and it should count.

    • Actually, if Danica had not spun, others would have quickly spun and the race would not have remained green as you suggest. Many of the drivers expressed the view that when they got to turn one there would have been a festival of spinning.

      I believe the rulebook needs to have some changes made, but I also believe that any race director needs to have some discretionary powers. That is true for most sports.

      I think that Mr. Barnhart was most reluctant to have the race finish under yellow and made the wrong decision in authorizing a green flag. I also think he made the right decision in aborting the restart.

      Orviol Servia, while a fine driver, has won only one race in over 150 starts. If I were him I would not want my second win to have an asterisk next to it in the stats book.

  7. Br!an McKay in Florida Says:

    “Randy Bernard should appoint a committee to start ripping apart the current INDYCAR rulebook and start over for 2012. Get rid of the gray areas”
    “It was an error in judgement, but not a mistake … the last green was legal, and the pass for the lead was legal. Even if Oriol only led for 20 feet … it was the last 20 feet and it should count.”

  8. As to the poll, I think if you re-write the rulebook eliminating some or most of the discretionary powers of the Chief Steward, I am good with that. I also think, in retrospect, that someone, ANYONE with an ear to the cockpit communications should have called off the re-start in question.

    For the last portion of the race, RHR seemed to have the field covered. To take the win away from him, based on what Barnhart admits was a MISTAKE, does NOT seem like justice to me. Let’s be real. Barnhart came out and admitted that the re-start should hot have happened. Frankly, that is MORE than I expected of him given his penchant for selective enforcement and “rules” interpretation.

    One thing is certain: This series cannot afford to appear anything but above-board. We’ve all seen the effect that “phantom cautions” had on NASCAR, and frankly INDYCAR needs a more concrete rulebook.

  9. Chris Lukens Says:

    This is a serious question. Is the rulebook online anywhere so that an average fan can read it?

  10. I believe that some of “the sky is falling” comments left here and elsewhere, while displaying fan’s passion for the series, are a bit over the top. In fact, except for IndyCar fanatics, most people are not even aware of the controversy. Robin Miller will keep it going simply because of his anti-Barnhart obsession.

    I believe that along with a new car and new engines for 2012, there will likely be a revised rule book. Hopefully that will be done in a calm atmosphere, with all deliberate speed, and with input from the owners and drivers.

  11. billytheskink Says:

    While I’ve long supported the idea of replacing Barnhart, I have never been vehement about it because I think the series has several larger fish to fry and also because Randy keeping a member of the old “regime” was a good political move in a time of so many significant changes.

    Barnhart’s removal has been totally justified for years, but Chief steward’s are allowed a few mistakes because (unless they occur at Indy) no one remembers them. They aren’t allowed to lose the respect of the teams and drivers they police, though, and Barnhart has done that. The New Hampshire race really ought to be the straw that break’s the camel’s back, nd I’d be surprised if he survives the offseason.

  12. randy bernard says not enough people posting on facebook to fire brian. keep posting it worked for donald trump !

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