Sonoma IndyCar Postscript
If Roger Penske inciting a heated discussion is a secondary story, it had to be a crazy weekend.
However, The Captain’s rare form in giving Marco Andretti a piece of his mind, paled in comparison to everything surrounding the pit-lane incident, in which Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon hit the tire being carried by Travis Law, a crewman for Will Power while exiting pit lane on his final stop. The unfortunate collision, which thankfully saw only three Penske crewmen sustain minor injuries, and subsequent penalty on Dixon, created a firestorm of controversy at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
And heck, that's not even including the fireworks that continued into Monday.
Below, we will take a look at a few of the many subjects making headlines from the Izod IndyCar Series’ wild weekend in wine country, the ongoing controversy surrounding those events, and the numerous layers of intrigue they present going forward.
As stated earlier, Dixon hit the tire being carried by Law from Power’s car while exiting pit-lane on his final stop. Law was shot airborne and collected two other Penske crew members. Thankfully, all three sustained only minor injuries.
Trying to be as unbiased as possible, all indications are Dixon’s actions seemed relatively routine, as there was nothing particularly abnormal regarding his exit. Also, Law did seem somewhat casual, almost oblivious to the fact Dixon was nearby.
The first reaction most people heard was that of Townsend Bell and Wally Dallenbach from NBC Sports Network. Both adamantly claimed Dixon had committed no wrong. However, being somewhat dismissive regarding the condition of the crewmen aside, Bell and Dallenbach went a lot further in their commentary.
In fact, both suggested Law may have been deliberately negligent, so to speak, in making Dixon's exit from pit lane difficult. Dallenbach noted Law might have been thinking, "I'm going to hang around here and make him go around me." Bell added something to the effect of Law acting as if he saw “a nickel on the ground," that I guess needed to be picked up.
Yes, make no mistake: they suggested Law may have played dumb and endangered not only himself, but Dixon, and other crewmen, for the sake of a competitive advantage. That is at minimum an aggressive accusation, and I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that is a very aggressive, arguably reckless accusation.
At the very least, Bell and Dallenbach were of the opinion there was negligence on the part of Law. “The guy was not paying attention,” noted Dallenbach.
That may have been so. However…..
One thing Bell and Dallenbach never once cited, or even sought in their vehement pleas that Dixon was innocent of any wrongdoing was THE ACTUAL RULE. Of course, this has some precedent.
Remember, Dallenbach showed himself to be somewhat unaware of the rules in last season’s finale at Fontana, when he suggested that Team Penske should put Power into teammate Ryan Briscoe’s car. Power was of course in the championship battle and had crashed during the race. Dallenbach seemed to think that he could score points driving another competitor’s car.
In this case the specific rule I understand not knowing the finer points of pit road procedure. However, if you look at rule 126.96.36.199 on page 95 of the 2013 IndyCar rule book, the text is crystal clear. "Contact with personnel," calls for a penalty.
Now, I suppose, Bell and Dallenbach have a point in that Law may have violated some sort of protocol or gentleman's agreement. Of course, the Penske and Ganassi teams, seem to have differing views on what these gentleman agreements are.
However, in terms of the IndyCar rule book, which despite the objections of some is very relevant here, the opinions of Bell and Dallenbach weren't worth the hot air they created. Thus, their thoughts are also irrelevant with regards to……
Yes, if you go by the rules, Barfield did not make the right call or the wrong call, but the only call in assessing a drive-thru penalty to Dixon.
An added layer to this is the criminal, if you will. Dixon, is arguably the last person we associate with running afoul of the law. The smooth, calm Kiwi has in thirteen years racing Indy cars been wildly successful on track, and conducted himself with grace and dignity in the car and out (Sunday’s colorful comment aside). We don’t associate careless driving or reckless behavior with Dixon, not because Dixon is given preferential treatment. Rather, Dixon, and others, have earned such consideration.
Further, the penalty can from a certain perspective be interpreted as unjust. If Law was negligent and not mindful of Dixon coming, that oversight certainly Dixon a chance to win the race, and may have broader implications in terms of the series championship. And the fact the man leading the championship is Power’s teammate Helio Castroneves only further fuels any notion that Dixon got a raw deal.
Also, Dixon pointed out that Law was walking towards his car with a tire in hand, potentially a dangerous situation.
I’ll add a personal layer to this. Two weeks ago, Dixon took a few minutes out of his vacation to spend some time on the phone with me. While I have been around Dixon in press conference/media gathering type situations this was the first time I had spoken one-on-one with him. He gave thoughtful answers to questions, and overall could not have been nicer or more gracious.
In short, there are numerous reasons to sympathize with Dixon.
However, there is likewise nothing written above changes the fact Dixon was in violation of a rule, as the rule is written. Barfield applied the rule, as is his duty. Barfield would have been amiss of his duty had he not.
Ok that may be. But is the Rule a Good One?
This is a fair question. Admittedly, I have never taken part in a pit stop either as a driver or an over-the-wall crewman.
However, I will say this. As the rule is currently written the onus is on the driver. I suppose this position has merit, considering that a crewman is at well, a disadvantage in an encounter with a race car. In other words, short of throwing objects at there are rules dictating procedure for crewmen with regard to their cars, but few with regard to how crewmen must behave regarding competitors.
Maybe, greater clarity is needed regarding the over-the-wall personnel and competitors. But as the rules read, it is the responsibility of the driver to avoid over-the-wall personnel.
Such considerations were understandably not foremost in Dixon’s mind when he got out of the car and spoke with Kevin Lee of NBCSN. The Kiwi went on camera and told the world Law walked into him “on purpose,” and his actions were the most “blatant,” thing he’d ever seen. The Kiwi also had one particular sound bite, which will no doubt be remembered for years to come.
Dixon also expressed frustration to Lee with Race Control citing a lack of consistency.
On this point, I disagree with Dixon for this simple fact. There was no precedent for Barfield to go by. Barfield can’t be inconsistent, if there is no prior precedent as a reference.
Still, given the fact Dixon has yet to retract, or explain his comments, one has to presume he stands by what he said, which brings us to…..
Team Ganassi has been pretty unified in there opinions regarding Mr. Barfield the past 48 hours. It should be noted that there is some history here, as Barfield botched a call on Dixon last year at Milwaukee (which he admitted to). There were also rumblings earlier this season at Detroit that the paddock was fed up with Barfield, in particular his handling of this season’s Sao Paolo race. Dixon’s teammate Dario Franchitti expressed frustration that Race Control did not assess a penalty to Power, who Franchitti said used him "to complete is corner," on a late race restart. Yesterday, team principal Mike Hull also echoed the sentiments of his drivers.
As a guest with Jake Query and Derek Schultz on 1260 AM WNDE Indianapolis yesterday, Hull noted there was a "honeymoon" period, "where we though it (Race Control) would be improved." But at this point, when it comes to Barfield, "we're ready for the divorce."
Particularly upsetting to Hull was the fact Barfield questioned Dixon's judgment in speaking with the media. Hull noted that "this guy (Barfield) had time to craft a statement," and still slammed Dixon, who Hull understandably defended.
Last, when asked to rate confidence in Barfield on a scale 1 to 10, Hull said, "three."
Now, allow me to add that I’ve met Mike Hull and like him very much. I also respect his work and role in what is on no uncertain terms a wildly successful organization. Also, the point regarding IndyCar needing to do a better job marketing the series and building the IndyCar brand, which he also stated in the interview, is unquestionable.
However, when Hull talks about building the IndyCar brand, going on-air and slamming the Race Director, or “that guy,” as he referred to Barfield, does that endeavor no favors. If he disagrees with call, fine. If he wants to stick up for Dixon, who he believes got a raw deal, that’s his job as race strategist.
And if you have a problem with Barfield personally, by all means, take it behind closed doors.
But to go on-air, feed into a frenzy trashing the Race Director, or any executive for that matter, accomplishes absolutely nothing. Further, anyone who has followed IndyCar has seen this movie before. And simply getting out the pitchforks to run the latest IndyCar executive you don’t agree with out of town is an all too familiar, all too futile endeavor.
However, the point remains: if anything the Ganassi camp doubled-down yesterday in escalating the issue with Barfield. And while I very much respect Mike Hull, his words yesterday seemed not just a defense of Dixon, but an attempt to escalate whatever bad-blood there is.
And the bad-blood doesn’t end there:
No, team Ganassi seems united in not only their disdain for Barfield but Team Penske as well.
While Andretti Autosport is the reigning series champion, and winner of the most IndyCar races thus far in 2013, no one disputes sport's most celebrated team rivalry exists between the Ganassi and Penske organizations. They are the Ferrari and McLaren of IndyCar, if you will.
And while both teams have excelled in recent seasons, the Ganassi side has clearly gotten the better of Penske, most notably winning four straight series championships from 2008-2011. The Penske organization last captured a series title in 2006, and has seen one of its drivers finish second in the series standings four the past five years. Also, Ganassi drivers won the Indy 500 three times from 2008-2012, whereas Team Penske has won Indy once in that stretch with Helio Castroneves in 2009.
Still, despite fierce competition on track, all indications are the rivalry has been if not friendly, then certainly a sporting one. Sure, there have been some memorable conflicts with Dario Franchitti and Will Power. But generally speaking, the Penske-Ganassi rivalry has been non-acrimonious, if you will.
Not this time.
Clearly, we’re already familiar with the position of the Ganassi camp. They are if anything, unified.
But so is Team Penske. Team President Tim Cindric not only called the commentary of Dallenbach and Bell “unprofessional,” for suggesting there may have been foul-lay but noted that in reviewing pit-stops Penske did what they’ve been doing all year. To Cindric, nothing Law or any of the Penske crew did was wrong.
Power, who has spent ample time defending himself from accusations by Dixon and Franchitti over the years, seemed somewhat tired of it also. When the question of foul-play on the part of his crew was raised in victory lane, Power simply said, its not even worth talking about.
The Captain chimed in too. "I think they're way overplaying this thing as far as I'm concerned,” said Penske. “These are things that are pretty clear in the rule book. If a team member gets hit in the pits, there's a drive-through."
Translation: The Captain thinks this is much to do about nothing. Meanwhile, the Ganassi camp has shown no intention of rescinding their accusation that the Penske boys play dirty, and Barfield is a incompetent disaster in Race Control. Further, both teams seem united as teams in their opinions regarding the competition and Race Control.
And with the heels dug in as firm as the past 48 hours suggest, and a championship battle to be determined in the coming weeks, I have a feeling tensions between the various parties will probably get worse before they get better.
Brian Carroccio is an IndyCar Columnist for Autoracing1.com. He can be contacted at BrianC@AutoRacing1.com.
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