I have tremendous respect for the thankless job Brian Barnhart has to do, but I need to discuss something about him on the pulpit for a moment. Before the race on Saturday the IndyStar reported that the Iron Hand of Justice had effectively come down on every driver, placing them ALL on probation. I don’t know if this is the double-secret probation Milka Duno is under, but nevertheless a few days and a fun race have now passed yet this edict only grows in ridiculousness.
It’s no secret that drivers are being aggressive, and part of that is because perennial front runners like Hornish, Wheldon and Castroneves are completely out of championship contention. In the middle of har-luck seasons they are racing solely to win because scoring a few points for a Top 5 is totally meaningless. “Ooh, with a little luck we can move into fourth place. Woo-hoo.”
So with less reason for conservative driving the drivers are of course being less conservative, and many of them are now hellbent on nothing but the checkered flag. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because racing is what this entertainment is all about. We don’t need another “lock step” finale like last year’s Chicagoland race where Sam Hornish Jr sat back in third with no competition behind him and no need to try to pass the two Ganassi cars ahead of him. Total yawn.
But for all the good the IHJ is attempting to do with this blanket probation, the entire approach is rather feckless for a number of reasons. First of all, why on earth is “everyone” under probation? Go ahead and single out the offenders instead of coloring the driving of someone like Dan Wheldon the same as Sarah Fisher. Dan is still a phenomenal talent but does anyone still think he didn’t “aggressively” slide up and inadvertently cause Dario Franchitti’s first aerial launch? What has Fisher or Manning or Foyt IV or the newly licensed Ryan Hunter-Reay done to cause such a calamity this season?
I mean, come on. We know which drivers are causing these problems.
Second it’s way too late to try to crack down on aggressive driving that has been happening for w ahile. Did Barnhart not notice Franchitti ramming Kanaan at St Pete? Did he not see Kanaan nearly taking out Castroneves despite being lapped at Chicagoland last year? How about Hornish and Scheckter at Indy this year? These incidents were MONTHS ago, and yet no one was penalized or placed on probation. Now that a particular Scotsman is flying through the air Barnhart’s suddenly feeling the urge to crack down.
And speaking of flying cars, what happens to Mr Judd? With all drivers on probation he committed the most egregious driving maneuver on Saturday, not just to himself but also to Kosuke Matsuura. When Paul Dana roared into Ed Carpenter last year several prolific “journalists” said it was because Dana was in over his head, but what is it when the reigning Indy 500 champion has a similar high-speed brain fade into a slowing vehicle? Is Dario in over his head? Is he out of his head, perhaps suffering from a concussion? Would the IHJ say Mr Judd was so caught up in “aggressive driving” he failed to acknowledge the conclusion of the race?
More importantly, will there be any repercussions for Mr Judd? How about a penalty for Spiderman who returned the “I may be lapped but I’m not letting you pass me” bump to Kanaan this weekend? Yeah, we’ll be waiting a while on those I suppose.
If the IHJ really feels compelled to curtail the aggression then he has a more formidable weapon at his disposal. It’s called the Black Flag. If he sees aggressive driving that can cause an accident – or better yet if he hears from several teams about a particular driver – then he throws a black flag during the race and tells them to take a pass-through lap. It’s that easy. If you can’t play nice then you can’t play at all.
Unfortunately Barnhart has a bit of a conundrum because hasn’t been applying a black flag policy since the beginning the year, so if he breaks it out now it not only seems capricious but it could also suddenly affect the championship. If Scott Dixon shoves someone out of the way at Sonoma does he get a black flag penalty that could effectively kill his season? What about Kanaan or Franchitti, who could find themselves trying to help each other out by applying the wheel-to-sidepod technique against Dixon or some other driver en route to their championship hopes?
More importantly, does he risk upsetting Michael Andretti or Chip Ganassi by penalizing them from a six-figure championship check? Boy, that’s the million-dollar question, literally. I’m sure Barnhart doesn’t want to make that kind of decision in the coming weeks, and slapping a $10,000 fine means nothing to a team trying to win that series bonus check. The IHJ has to penalize on-track infractions with on-track penalties. I mean, we are trying to keep the drivers safe here, right?
Look, it’s been a fun season so far but the carnage from all of this unfettered aggression has been left at tracks like Texas and Michigan. Those were exciting races, but they could have been epic finishes if a few more competitors had been around at the conclusion. Heck, maybe Iowa would have been a better event if everyone had used a little more sense – parking issues not withstanding.
The bottom line is these flying cars aren’t just the result of crazy driving. Brian Barnhart has kept his penalties to himself and therefore has a part in making this mess. And although I appreciate that he’s trying to clean it up it would seem he isn’t going about the solution in a meaningful way. Probation means nothing if it isn’t backed up by something more substantial, and right now we have people talking about this being an “all hat, no cattle” situation.
Stop throwing around this general probation nonsense and just throw the black flag.
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