OPINION(S): Scott Dixon's Sonoma penalty

OPINION(S): Scott Dixon's Sonoma penalty

IndyCar

OPINION(S): Scott Dixon's Sonoma penalty

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Marshall Pruett spoke with IndyCar’s Race Director Beaux Barfield about Scott Dixon’s controversial penalty last Sunday. To say their opinions were at odds at the start of the interview is putting it mildly, and they were hardly “as one” by the end, either. But here’s the conversation in virtually unexpurgated form.

Count this writer among those who were livid after Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen the replays, read the heated comments, and formed an opinion of your own on the tire-to-car contact that took place during the final pit stop between Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon and Travis Law, the right rear tire changer for the Verizon Team Penske entry piloted by Will Power.

IndyCar’s Race Control deemed the contact to have one responsible party, and Dixon in the No. 9 car was duly penalized. Dixon went from first to finish 15th and Power in the No. 12 won. But the call felt wrong. Two days later, it still feels wrong as if a sense of fair play was ignored.

The source of my frustration has nothing to do with how Dixon’s drive-through penalty could affect his chances in the championship. It has nothing to do with how it altered the outcome of the race. And it has nothing to do with the names of the teams or drivers involved.

In this situation, lines were crossed and errors were made by both sides. At best, it was a non-call. Somewhere in the middle, maybe a fine could have been levied to reinforce the notion about maintaining pit safety and awareness at all times. At worst, and in NFL parlance, there should have been offsetting penalties that resulted in making the incident a wash.

Rather than lay out a long list of evidence to make a case on how it should have been impossible for Race Control to convict one team in this two-team incident, I rang IndyCar Race Director Beaux Barfield to have our latest “You’re an idiot,” “No, you’re an idiot” debate. As in most instances where I can’t understand something, I wanted to figure out how he came to his decision, and to learn why the gray areas I saw were so black and white to him, and to clarify some of the nonsense that has run rampant in the past 48 hours. After 40 minutes of back and forth, we didn’t necessarily change our opinions on what took place in pit lane or how the verdict was ultimately rendered, but this is how the conversation went:MARSHALL PRUETT I’ll ask this in an intentionally simple way: Why was Scott Dixon penalized?
BEAUX BARFIELD It comes back to responsibility. There’s a level of responsibility that every participant in an IndyCar takes whenever they enter the property. In our review, we certainly looked at the behavior of the right rear guy on the 12 car as being nonchalant. But that by itself wasn’t enough to put the majority of the responsibility on him to either consider a penalty on those guys or refrain from penalizing the 9 car.

So in terms of his routine, within his rightful area of his pit box, he was going about his duties in the way that he was 1) entitled to, and 2) had done so before. And so the amount of the 12 car’s pit box that 9 decided to use on the way out was really the determining factor.

MP You made your decision in a relatively short time span, while I’ve had lots of time to review it over and over again, so in that sense, I’ve definitely had the advantage to look at the contact in greater detail than you were afforded on Sunday. I agree, Power’s right rear man did nothing different on the stop where contact was made than he did on previous stops. He held his tire out to his left, carrying it on his left hip. No question there. Looking at Dixon’s launch into Power’s pit box from the overhead camera, he’s essentially following in his wheel tracks from previous launches. There is one distinction on this stop, though, because he has more oversteer and his car swings into Power’s pit stall by an extra [Barfield jumps in].

BB So there’s two important points to what you just said. It leads to maybe more conjecture than I ever really consider in any call that I’m trying to make, time being of the essence. But one thing that you said is that there were tire marks there that had indicated what he had done from previous launches, plural. Which could have been earlier in the weekend when the 12 car wasn’t even there.

So just by nature of him being on the same tracks didn’t make it OK because those could’ve been laid down, like I said, when 12 wasn’t there. So with 12 being there, I think there’s a level of responsibility to not just drive past his right-rear; there’s still work going on, there’s still people around, there needs to be more margin for error. And that’s what we sensed and felt when we reviewed it.

Along the same lines, you mentioned the fact that maybe there was more oversteer in the car, which certainly I’m looking at. Yes, I get that it’s a race environment and it’s fractions of a second that are the difference between winner and loser, I can’t downplay that. However, the chance you’re taking by going absolutely flat-out and giving the car more oversteer than maybe previous times when maybe there was either a launch from the box that you gave it a little bit of a breathe [on the throttle] to not have so much oversteer and/or makes the car turn sharper to get wider around that I don’t think in the context of everything that happened that would’ve been so costly. And the reality is that those tenths of a second are never as costly as the possibility of a penalty.MP Understood, but what I’m looking at is that there’s one set of his fresh tire marks he’s following that are darker than the others, so we can infer those are his most recent marks. There are plenty of others that are faded, and you and I have been doing this long enough to tell the fresh tire marks from the old tire marks. It’s an assumption, but we’re not incapable of telling fresh marks from old marks here.

I agree Dixon could have tried to pull back on that launch, but you could apply that “pull back” scenario to both teams. Dixon pitted with Power right on his tail entering their stalls. It was the last stop. The guy who got out first would be in a better position to win the race. So both teams knew as the cars were coming down pit lane that it would be a race in the pits to get their guy out first. You would expect both guys to launch hard from their boxes, and you’d expect crew members for both cars to know they’d be racing out of their boxes and to get the hell out of the way. It was going to be fast and tight. None of this is a first-time situation in IndyCar racing.

The fact that Power’s tire man, for whatever reason, is clearly not even looking back at Dixon’s car is what makes this a shared incident. He’s staring at pit wall, seemingly unaware of what’s happening behind him. Did Dixon go too hard? Yes. Did Power’s crewman fail to recognize what was happening with an Indy car accelerating in close proximity to him? Yes. Do I think the crewman did anything intentionally to get in the way? No. Did Dixon try to create a problem for the Penske team? No. I’m seeing blame being shared both ways, so how do you single out just one side to penalize?

BB And that’s certainly a fair point for how we try to assess the blame or probably a better word is the responsibility in this case. And based on, yes, all of those kind of emotional issues should be important but shut that away and look at the facts: this guy’s going through his routine and he’s within the boundaries that are set forth by IndyCar and someone enters into those boundaries and violates a rule which says you can’t strike other equipment or people. That was kind of our guiding principles at the time. It still would be, honestly. I shouldn’t say that in a way that I’m looking back at it like it was the wrong call. Because I am absolutely not.

And so I think that the bottom line is that crewman was still in his territory, entitled to his space to do what he was doing, whereas the 9 car entered that space and violated a rule. And that’s the way we looked at it. If something bad happens, there’s a duty there to protect everybody.

MP Yeah, but we need to be honest here. The deal about Dixon running afoul of the rules because he drove into Power’s pit box just isn’t realistic. Every driver uses some amount of the next driver’s pit box when launching. Every single driver. A lot has been made about Dixon being penalized because of this, but it’s garbage. If you draw the lines around each driver’s pit box, and penalize every driver for crossing into that box by any amount you’d give every car a drive-through penalty on every stop at Sonoma.BB You’re absolutely correct. That’s not at all what I’m saying. Yes, cars often, if not always, enter another car’s pit box. And never once since I’ve been here or in my officiating have I simply penalized a car only for entering somebody else’s pit box. But if they enter someone else’s pit box and strike a person or equipment then that’s the difference. So really, for better or worse, it’s a “no harm, no foul” kind of thing. For getting cars and people situated in pit lane, driving through a pit box is okay. But if there are people, equipment or a car there that gets hit, then it’s not.
 
MP Understood. If we look at this from a different perspective, we can talk about crew responsibility. Looking at the rule book, section 7.10, Pit Penalties, it’s essentially all weighted and written for drivers. If a driver does this wrong, they get that penalty, and so on. There’s nothing in there governing negligence by a crew member for something like what took place at Sonoma. The rules are written to penalize a driver if contact is made, but what about if a crew member walks into a car? Or is holding a tire out on his hip, effectively doubling his width, and that tire makes contact with a car? I’ve been over the wall, and I’ve made mistakes, so I’m not holding Travis to a higher standard than I did for myself.

I also don’t believe any of the ridiculousness about him doing it on purpose. The team would never ask him to place himself in harm’s way, and if you look at where his head was pointed during the stop, we know he wasn’t looking at Dixon. If you’re trying to block someone, you need to have some visual reference to judge where you’re standing and he’s not doing that. But if I’m in his shoes, and I’m choosing to hold my tire on the outside on numerous pit stops, even the most remote chance of tire-to-car contact has to be within the realm of possibilities, right?

If the right front tire guy doesn’t throw his air gun far away enough to clear his car and his driver runs over the hose, the driver gets a drive-through penalty. If we’re looking for ways to give out penalties, which I’m not a fan of, by the way, I’d think it would also apply to holding a tire out that could possibly create contact.

BB In the time that we had to make the decision, we considered and discussed all those things.

 

MP OK. Is this something where the need to give a penalty within the race to show the seriousness of what took place was considered a priority, or would a post-race fine to one or both teams have been a better way to go?

BB I don’t think officiating from a standpoint of sending a message is ever how we approach things. We’re dealing with what we see and we’re dealing with what we’ve got in the rulebook and we react accordingly. So, honestly, it was never considered to deviate from the precedent and the standard penalty as used this year and last year had already been, which is a drive-through. Any pit lane infraction, such as running over equipment, was dealt with the same way. And we haven’t had anybody run over in a race on my watch, until Sonoma.

(Barfield contacted RACER Wednesday morning and asked for an update to be made in the last quote, adding that one previous car/crew member incident did take place on his watch, at the 2012 Indy 500 with driver Mike Conway. Conway was black flagged for the contact, but crashed before he was able to serve the penalty. ~Ed.)
So in terms of starting to drag the emotion into it Scott was leading the race, there’s a championship at stake, all this well, no, it wasn’t considered. The precedent had already been set, it was a standard and it was resolved that way immediately. Because to me, the other officiating philosophy that you might often hear stated is: “We’re going to let this championship settle itself on the track.” By essentially claiming that you’re going to not interfere with the championship, you therefore are applying the rules differently to that set of people and you are absolutely directly interfering with the championship! It cuts both ways.

MP No argument there, but to be fair, your quote after the race on NBCSN contradicts the first part of what you just said. You said “If we have somebody who uses less than great judgment when they leave their pit box and we have an incident, then we have to make a statement by penalizing,” which really blew me away.

BB Yeah, and I think it was kind of harsh terminology in the realm of all the emotion that was there at the moment. There was kind of a lot going on and I don’t think I was in a calm enough place to be extremely precise with my words. If I had a chance to re-quote that, it would be a little bit gentler with how I stated that. And it would probably be softened by what I just said the precedent had already been established for similar pit lane violations.

MP During our conversation so far, when I’ve mentioned the scenario of what took place the mindset of this stop being potentially the race-deciding moment, or how a driver shares as much responsibility on pit lane as the crew members who are out there you’ve characterized those items as being part of the emotions involved with the incident, and should be pushed aside. But I don’t see them that way. These are, or should be, considered as black and white items.

BB And those are still facts in the situation. I think to me some of the emotions that had to be shirked away were the considerations to the current position of the No. 9 car in that race and in the championship, which we’ve already kind of talked about. People can disagree with the call at face value. I have no problem with that. But when you try to drag in championship implications and race leader implications, to me that’s considering parameters which just do not establishing a level playing field.

MP Gotcha. Yeah, my issue here has nothing to do with either of those items. I’m still somewhat convinced Power could have gotten by Dixon on pace alone, if we look at how the two ended their stints at Sonoma, so even if the pit incident never took place, the win might have gone to Power without a penalty to Dixon.
Regardless and I’ll pose it again to see if we end up anywhere different I think the easiest call to make was to assign blame and penalize someone. I think the hardest call, which wasn’t made, would have been to recognize the incident was shared, and that dropping the hammer on Dixon or Power individually would be unfair. How did this end up with one side getting tagged?

BB It goes back to the earliest points that I made and just at face value, Travis Law was in his normal routine of activities during a pit stop and he was entitled to that space. And maybe that’s some of the emotion stripped out of it in terms of me trying to get in that guy’s head and trying to figure out what he’s thinking, if there’s malice or intent.

I learned long ago in my officiating career, if we sit there and we have as a parameter to determine fault or determine a penalty as intent or malice, we’d probably still be there talking about it trying to figure it out. Because it’s just one of those things you can really never know. So it probably just comes down to what we thought was appropriate entitlement of space and him performing his duties within his pit box as he had before, and being struck by a car that should have gone somewhere slightly different.MP So if I look ahead, when we get to Baltimore, are you telling the team managers and drivers in their meetings to have a “be more careful out there” speech with their teams? Because you can’t really police every single action or move that gets made during stops. Personal responsibility has to enter into things to some degree.

BB Probably two points to that. One is that for some of the speculation about cars not “being able to turn enough to miss that guy” well, I wholeheartedly disagree because, lo and behold, we’re on our way to Baltimore where the pit boxes are seven feet shorter. So there is an ability to get out; it is tighter quarters there.
 
To that point and one that I was going to make to conclude, if we’re going to play the conjecture game a little bit, if that outside rear guy is a foot or two away from the car and really hanging that tire out there, away from his body, then we have to take some action. But the fact that we looked at it and noted where his right foot was, how  close he was to the guy that was bent down under the car with the starter, at the point he got hit, there wasn’t really much other place for him to go other than disappear.
 
MP That’s 100 percent true and looking at where his feet are placed, he wasn’t standing too far out or in Dixon’s way. But I haven’t really put that out there as the main issue. If the right rear tire was in front of him instead of at his side, this conversation never happens, the contact never happens and Dixon and Power go on their merry way. And I’m not saying Law committed a sin by carrying his tire on his hip. If there’s space to do so, no worries. But out of curiosity, I went back and looked at footage from Mid-Ohio in 2012 when Dixon and Power were in the same situation, and Power’s right rear man (Law was on Ryan Briscoe’s car in 2012) carries his tire on his hip on one stop, then he carries it in front of him on another, and on another stop, the left rear man actually takes the right tire from the outside man. On two of the three stops there seemed to be an effort to be as narrow as possible behind the car due to having Dixon launching.

Frankly, you can see lots of different methods being used up and down pit lane for carrying the outside tire back to the pit wall. But Sonoma and Mid-Ohio 2012 just seem to highlight that there are multiple ways of doing things, and some involve being narrower rather than wider. If I’m looking at takeaways, I’d think that leaning towards narrow would be a good thing to suggest as a standard practice for every outside tire man going forward.

BB If [Law] had been any further out on pit lane, then we’d have something different to consider for a penalty if something similar happened in the future. If he’s in a little bit different spot, it could’ve changed things, but we just didn’t feel he was far enough out for that to be the case.

And then fast forwarding to Baltimore, yeah, everybody’s got to be looking after each other. And those are items high on the priority list. You mentioned managers and drivers meetings, simply due to the fact that we’re going to the shortest pit boxes of the year. And we have greater expectations for the teams to look after each other and look after themselves.

Marshall Pruett argues “How would Dixon have emerged from his pitbox without going through Power’s?”  (No. 9 started where MP has “ghosted” Power’s car.)

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