Why IndyCar must give Race Control sharper tools

While the Verizon IndyCar Series' latest penalty system is cleaner and clearer, there are holes that urgently need filling – as the Grand Prix of Long Beach proved. Anne Proffit explains.

Why IndyCar must give Race Control sharper tools
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet race winner
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet race winner
Dan Davis
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Max Papis
Rolex 24 At Daytona Champions photoshoot: Arie Luyendyk
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet race winner
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet
Podium: Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet, Helio Castroneves, Team Penske Chevrolet
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Cody Unser and Wally Dallenbach in the Ford Mobility truck

Last weekend’s 42nd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was the cleanest and closest on record, with every single car of the 21 Verizon IndyCar Series entries running at the finish and with 18 on the lead lap.

There were no cautions during the hour and nearly 34 minutes of competition and only two penalties called during the race, which was won by Simon Pagenaud’s No. 22 Penske Chevrolet, despite receiving a warning penalty.

There was much to be excited about but there was, as so often happens in this series, some controversy as well. It’s been good for message boards, social media but not exactly what the series has been looking to achieve as it moves forward.

IndyCar has made strides in working to have transparency in its dealings with competitors since last season, and published its rule book and penalty guidelines prior to the start of the season with the intent of making certain everyone - whether on a team at pit road, driving a racecar, working in a media center, listening on radio or watching trackside and on television - knew what the rules and subsequent penalties might be.

In doing so, the series desired to give less visibility to Race Control, hiring 14-year Ford Racing honcho Dan Davis as chief steward and naming former/current drivers Arie Luyendyk and Max Papis to steward roles. For the first two races on the street/airport circuit at St. Petersburg, Florida and on the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval, everything worked as planned.

Then came lap 54 (of 80) on the 1.968-mile Long Beach circuit and Pagenaud’s pit exit, when he violated the blend-line rule, 7.10.1.1. This rule states a penalty is warranted when a competitor is “Failing to follow designated procedures entering or exiting the pit area, including the proper use of the acceleration and deceleration lanes.”

Pagenaud clearly broke that particular rule, by an estimated 4-6 inches.

The second-year Penske driver, however, was not the only driver to circumvent the blend-line rule, as both the second- and third-place finishers placed right-side tires over the line on exit. Drivers were told the right-side Firestone tires were to be right at the line; looking at replays of the race, there were several instances of drivers breaking that rule.

The real issue inherent in a subsequent ruling by the three-panelists in Race Control is the tools they were given to do their jobs. As Chip Ganassi aptly pointed out, there are no sensors, nor a dedicated camera to show whether competitors were adhering to the rules pointed out to them in two drivers’ meetings.

Walking the track, as we did post-race, it’s clear to see that this particular blend line is difficult to measure as it does have traffic bumps (Botts dots) and there’s lots of sticky Firestone rubber on the painted blend line that can take a race car off-line.

Stewards had only the broadcast TV feeds to assist them in determining a penalty for Pagenaud and the penalties dictated for this particular offense were not as fair as they could, or should be. In the guidelines, this offense warrants either a warning, being sent to the rear of the field or a drive-though, stop and go/hold. The latter two options were too severe for the stewards to impose and the first one most likely left a bitter taste in their mouths as it had no teeth.

The fourth option – one not allocated for this or any other offense – is moving the offending car/driver behind the competitor he or she fouled so that the race would properly resume.

The stewards would surely have preferred to place Pagenaud behind Dixon but there’s nothing in the penalty guidelines that allows them to do so. So Davis, Luyendyk and Papis did the only fair thing they were allowed to do and issued a warning to Pagenaud.

Now Race Control is getting pummeled for doing the job they were hired to do. Dixon wanted a stiffer penalty and said he thought warnings were off the table in 2016. His strategist Mike Hull and team owner Chip Ganassi echoed their four-time champion’s comments.

This is one of the [now] very few areas that need to be addressed by IndyCar before the next race this weekend, the Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.

If there are times - like this one - that they are unable to give a fair penalty based on the infraction, they need to be given proper tools to do so.

Following post-race discussions within IndyCar, the series needs to get a dedicated blend-line camera in place for the Barber road-course contest. And hopefully carry that camera - a small GoPro would do - to every subsequent event so that it can record every single driver’s activity as they exit the pits. All racetracks where the series competes - as with NASCAR - should have sensors that tell the tale of the tape at pit-out.

Hopefully this controversy will force the Verizon IndyCar Series to take a longer look at a few rules that need to be fine-tuned and/or tweaked to benefit the sport.

While INDYCAR can’t, at this time, go back to the days when Wally Dallenbach ruled the roost of open wheel racing with his fair and firm hand, the series can, at least, be open to making suitable changes so that this type of occurrence is a thing of the past and so that the penalty is correct for the infraction.

In this case a change-position ruling might not have altered the outcome at all, as Pagenaud and engineer Ben Bretzman opted for low downforce settings at Long Beach that enabled Pagenaud to make passes no one else could. Even with a change-position penalty, he likely would have won the race for his fifth career victory and first with Team Penske.

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