Moving In The Right Direction

Reminder:  Before I start today’s tirade, I wanted to remind everyone that Susan and I will be at Road America this weekend for the Kohler Grand Prix. We will leave Thursday morning and will be on the grounds Friday morning, long before the first Verizon IndyCar practice at 11:00. Be sure and follow us here throughout the weekend. I wanted to remind everyone, since Fridays are by far the slowest traffic day here on this site, while Wednesday is usually the busiest. Go figure.  – GP

One of the more popular pastimes in any sport is to complain about the officiating. When things don’t go their way, fans are always eager to scream that referees are either crooked, incompetent or both. Most rational fans know that officials are not normally crooked…normally. But incompetence in officiating is something that can raise its ugly head in any sport at any level and at any time.

Fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series have had plenty to gripe about over the past few years, and most of it was justified. From Brian Barnhart singlehandedly throwing down whatever judgment he deemed as fit, to the revolving door of guest stewards during the Derrick Walker administration – there were many things to complain about. Consistency, or the lack thereof, was the main thing that would inflame fans.

Perhaps the worst was last year. Not only was Race Control inconsistent with their interpretation and enforcement of the rules, but a penalty for an infraction would not be announced until the following Wednesday. Whether it was a fine or a loss of points; competitors had to wait three to four days before they found out if they were being penalized or not.

I laughed when I heard the outcry from the pundits on sports talk radio regarding golf’s US Open this past weekend.

For the record, I am not a golfer. I used to play at the game when I was in my twenties, but I was never very good. My idea of a good game of golf was to ride around in a cart with a cooler of beer. If I played well, great! If I didn’t, so what! I had a standing rule. If I had reached ten strokes to a hole without the ball in the cup; I simply picked up the ball, scored it as a ten and moved on to the next tee.

I never understood the people that got so upset at the game that they would wrap their clubs around a tree in anger. Was that really their way of getting in some relaxation? If I had beer, I was fine.

My golfing came to a screeching halt about a month after my daughter (my oldest) was born. It was a beautiful Saturday and I was invited by some friends to get out of the house and go play a round. I had been married for a couple of years and I had the blessing of my wife (at that time), so I thought “why not?” When I returned home after eighteen holes and almost as many beers, I was greeted by my scowling wife holding our screaming daughter. I thought my daughter was screaming loudly until my wife opened her mouth.

“You’re never doing this again, ever!” was what I think I heard. I’m not sure because my ear drums seemed to burst after she bellowed out her first syllable. As my hearing slowly came back, one thing was certain – my golfing days were behind me. Eight years later, so was she.

That episode took place in 1988 and we divorced in 1996. To this day, I’ve never played golf again and it’s now been almost thirty years. Fortunately, my second wife (Susan) is much more patient and understanding about my hobbies than that other person was. I take pity on her new husband, but I digress.

The point is I no longer keep up with golf, nor did I watch the US Open. But with all of the hand-wringing I’ve heard about how poorly the USGA handled the officiating on Sunday, I feel as if I watched every minute of it.

If you are unaware, Dustin Johnson won the Open. During Sunday’s round on the fifth hole, Johnson’s ball moved as he inadvertently touched it with his putter. He immediately informed an official, who told him to proceed. After video review however, Johnson was informed on the twelfth hole that he may end up being penalized after all; but he wouldn’t be informed until after his round was complete.

Golf is like racing. You have to be aware of how your nearest competitors are doing, when you are at or near the front. It’s better to know what your penalty is right then instead of wondering if what you’re doing will be enough to overcome a possible penalty.

Johnson was ultimately penalized, which was apparently the correct call. What infuriates everyone is that he was not informed of his fate until after the round was finished and he was in the clubhouse. As it turns out, it didn’t matter because he had built up a lead big enough to sustain the penalty and still win. But the USGA has been chastised unmercifully from all corners, and rightfully so, for not assessing the penalty immediately.

Had some of the IndyCar (in)decisions from last season ever made it to mainstream sports talk, I wonder what they would say. Granted, most of the Wednesday penalties were fines. But there were some mid-week penalties that involved points being deducted from a driver’s total. When the race is over and the car is loaded onto the transporter, it would be logical for a driver to think he or she knew their standings in the points as they headed for the airport. That was not the case last year.

One example was when Helio Castroneves had eight points deducted from his total following the 2015 Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis for his actions at the start. A drive-through penalty early in the race would have provided Helio a chance to make up the penalty. When a football team is penalized ten yards for holding on first down, they still have three more plays to make up for first and twenty, before being forced to punt. Some make it up, some don’t. It’s tough to make up an eight point deficit four days after the race.

The practice of announcing penalties on the Wednesday after the race has come to a merciful end this season. Race control now answers to Jay Frye. They no longer feature the guest steward approach. The same three men work race control every week and vote on whether or not an infraction has been committed. They also follow the rulebook when it comes to dolling out penalties.

They came under fire at Long Beach for not penalizing Simon Pagenaud for violating the blend line rule exiting the pits. He got off with a warning, which is one of the choices allowed in the rules. Logic said that Pagenaud should just give the spot back to Scott Dixon, who ultimately finished second. The problem was, that scenario was not one of the choices in the rulebook. It was either a warning or a race killing penalty of being placed at the back of the field. Ironically, it was the owners that voted giving the spot back out of the rulebook.

Fans may not have liked the way the incident at Long Beach appeared to have been handled; but looking back, they used their best judgment given the parameters of the rulebook. In my opinion, it would have been grossly unfair to send Pagenaud to the tail end of the lead lap for a blend line violation.

Never will there be a time when everyone is happy with Race Control. It just goes against human nature. It’s a very thankless job. When you are dealing with judgment calls and the human element, there is no way to satisfy everyone.

But for the first time since following CART in the nineties when Wally Dallenbach was making calls as Chief Steward, I feel very confident in the ability of Race Control to make the right calls. Most importantly, they will make them in a timely manner so that competitors will know where they stand and what they are dealing with. That is the way Jay Frye has set it up and it is working.

I have quickly become a Jay Frye fan. If you listened to his interview last month of Trackside or saw his brief appearance on television at Texas last weekend – you know how impressive he is. He is quick, decisive and gets things done. In my opinion, he is the best thing to happen to IndyCar since the SAFER barrier.

So, gone are the days from 2015 when drivers had to wait for days to find out if they were being punished and what the penalty would be. Golf fans went nuts Sunday when Dustin Johnson had to wait until he had finished his round. Imagine if they had to wait until today to find out. That’s what IndyCar fans, teams and drivers dealt with last year. Things are definitely moving in the right direction.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Moving In The Right Direction”

  1. Brian McKay Says:

    Enjoy your racing weekend.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    George and Susan are heading in the right direction………………north.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Even after the mess in Long Beach, Frye and the series acted quickly to more clearly define the blend lines and remove the judgment call element from blend line violations. They did well.

    Have a safe trip you two.

  4. Chris Lukens Says:

    Apologies George, this has nothing to do with your post, but it is a truly terrific story that I thought people would be interested in.
    Sam Schmitt to drive in Pikes Peak Hill Climb

    • Ron Ford Says:

      Wowie Kazowie! What wonderful news! Thank you so much for posting this Chris. I had not seen it mentioned elsewhere. I will share this story with folks at Road America this weekend. I think of Sam and what he has accomplished whenever I get a bit whiny about my bad knees.

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