It won’t have escaped anyone’s attention that IndyCar has been under fire for the past 10 days. In particular, fans and media have spoken long, loud and negatively about the re-promotion of Brian Barnhart to race director. Derrick Walker, IndyCar’s president of operations and competition, tells RACER editor David Malsher that it wasn’t arrogance, naivety, foolishness or desperation that drove him to putting Barnhart back in a role from which he was removed at the end of 2011. Instead, says Walker, it was his faith in the heavily revised Race Control procedures of the current era.
Why did you put Brian Barnhart back in the race director role?
There are several aspects to that question but in plain and simple terms…Brian was in Race Control all last year, and knows how to run it. In previous years, when he was a race director, he called all the penalties and had complete control of the whole process. In 2014, we changed it so there was a race director, and there were stewards. In other words, the race director is like a team manager who runs the racecar, and calls the plays, which helps run the race effectively, while the steward system we set up last year was three people looking at the activities on the track and deciding if any of the sporting rules were being broken. They would decide what was worth reviewing by looking at replays, information and data on the incident and together they would vote. The majority would decide what, if any, action should be taken. It was not a decision made by Beaux Barfield himself last year, and it won’t be Brian Barnhart by himself solely making those decisions this year.
I wasn’t in this position when Brian ran the competition department: I was a competitor, I saw Brian’s operation from a competitor’s standpoint and I’d say a lot of the concerns and criticisms voiced about him and the system back then were warranted. Not all of them, and I don’t agree with what appears to be a character assassination of him, but yeah, Brian, ran the show and in that role he must take responsibility for what went on. But we’re neither running away from the past nor carrying the past forward. What I will say is that I’ve seen Brian close-at-hand, working in Race Control, and I’m looking at a guy who now understands how to run the race, call the yellows, etc.
Everyone’s focusing on him as new race director, but there’s a group of perspectives in Race Control now, and so when you look at the calls and penalties and what went on once upon a time, bear in mind you now have a different system with the three stewards calling the shots and deciding what is or isn’t a penalty. We have carefully worded and thorough guidelines, which shows every potential circumstance or infraction and the stewards select from the three different degrees of severity for any given penalty. The stewards aren’t plucking a random penalty out of a hat; the three levels of penalties in the guidelines makes sure we have consistency for each infraction.
In addition, there is a further layer of control – an overseeing role. I’m in Race Control every race, and ultimately, it’s my authority to say we’re going to do it this, this or this way. If I think the judgment or conclusion that the stewards and/or race director have reached or that they’ve strayed from our established principles or procedures, I will weigh in and make a change. However, that’s not my aim at all; I have no wish to insert myself in every call or undermine the process by any means. We have capable stewards who I’m satisfied will do a good job, so that’s the system going forward.
I recognize that the fans have weighed in on this big time, and I’m grateful that they do; I like the opportunity to engage with them and I’m pleased at their passion. I’d also say we are guilty of not explaining our procedures well enough – the what we do and the why we do it. Because we’re so immersed in the job, we do sometimes leave our fans wondering about calls made or not made, and that we have to change. And by the same token, I’m afraid there are some reporters who look at a situation and skew the discussion by focusing on one particular aspect and don’t always seek more details on the whole picture. As a result, the fans don’t get the full story. I can tell you, I certainly don’t like it when we’re perceived to not be doing a good enough job, but to link the new system to the Race Control of four or five years ago is genuinely a stretch. That is not what IndyCar is about.
OK, but I think a lot of the anger about the past – and you’re right, it’s now quite a long ways past – stemmed not only from errors but from the perception that the races were being micromanaged, as if the drivers were morons who couldn’t be trusted. For one thing, that was patronizing to them, but worst of all, it gave the impression that Indy car racing was all about putting on a show, instead of being an out and out, wheel-to-wheel competition.
Well, our intent is not to overregulate and micromanage the races, and the incidents that happened back then when the race director was shouting in drivers’ radios…I can promise you that will not be happening again. I don’t want to see that, and I know none of the fans will accept that. I’m definitely in the camp of not over-penalizing drivers; we’re there to manage the race but definitely not to manage the racing. I don’t want our drivers intimidated into not giving their maximum. And that’s why over the winter, we’ve been going over the guidelines and making sure punishments fit the crimes. In other words, some penalties require a softer approach, a warning rather than an automatic drive-through penalty or something like that. However, at the same time, there are controls there for a very good reason; we are never going to go down the road of ‘Have at it, boys!’ There’s a responsibility to weigh in on the critical rules and racing ethics, and if someone ruins another driver’s day and is 100 percent in the wrong, they’re going to get penalized.
But you know, the way I look at it is this: I hate the fact that here you and I are, talking about officials and officialdom and about Race Control. It should never be about us becoming the story of the race for making bad calls. If we’re the main news after a race, then we’ve failed. We should be invisible for 99 percent of the time, and then upfront and honest the one percent of the time we make a controversial or even wrong decision. (I’m admitting we can’t always be perfect, no matter how hard we try.) The Verizon IndyCar Series should be about the stars in the cars and the fantastic events that it’s proven it can put on at any type of race track.
One of the most contentious issues that recurs time and time again is how you define a blocking maneuver. Back at Edmonton in 2010, Barnhart got it in the neck for strictly adhering to a pathetic rule he didn’t invent…although he didn’t get rid of it, either. It actually came over from Champ Car, and it said that a driver couldn’t even defend his inside line, couldn’t make the guy behind go the long way around. Basically, if he strayed off his regular racing line, he’d get penalized. These days, the way I understand it, if you align your car defensively in a proactive manner, that’s fine; if you move reactively to the guy behind’s passing attempt, it’s a foul. Is it that clear-cut? And would you say the definition is now watertight and understood by all the people who are going to be in Race Control as well as by all the drivers?
Yes, but I think we took a while to get there last year as it was not clear in the rulebook. When I looked at the rules regarding blocking, they seemed too vague and therefore allowed too many interpretations. And it was difficult to get more input and to clarify what was a block and how it should be punished. What we’re trying to do is tell the drivers, “Look, you have the right to race hard and there are going to be times when you move to certain places of the racetrack that you wouldn’t normally use because you’re defending your position. But if you move in reaction to a car pulling out to pass you, and you’re weaving over to chop him off, it will not be tolerated.” Some drivers can be very good at camouflaging a blocking maneuver, but it is our duty to penalize if it’s done reactively. So now there is a clearer description, which makes it a little easier to interpret correctly.
But still, each case does need careful examination. This winter the race stewards and Race Control group will all come together and have a full-day meeting. We’ll be looking at the rules as written, at past incidents, and making sure that whoever the stewards and staff are, that their calls are consistent with each other, but as always it does remain a judgment call because there are always going to be variations on the theme. So that takes a little bit of discussion, but at least those judges are now going to be abiding by a clear set of parameters because they’ve been equipped with the right tools.
And by the way, it’s not just about blocking; you’ve got to look at the attacker, too. If there’s a been a coming together and this time it’s the defending car that’s left sitting in the tire wall, you’ve got to look at whether the guy behind was just overambitious; did he leave his braking too late, pushed wide and put the other guy in the tires? Did he start the maneuver so late that the car ahead was already turning in? If that was the case, superficially it might look like the defender was pulling a blocking maneuver when in fact it’s the guy behind’s fault because he suddenly tried to rush through a naturally closing door.
Presumably, this obliges you to have at least one driver or ex-driver on the stewarding panel.
Yes, although my preference will always be to try for two drivers, actually. I realize it’s hard to find drivers and ex-drivers who wish to attend every event and be in Race Control every time IndyCar is on track so you have a pool of talent, and rotate them and work through the candidates. Ultimately we need five candidates, but rotating one steward from weekend to weekend is the maximum you want to do, otherwise you might unavoidably introduce an element of inconsistency. And again, the drivers in Race Control cannot go off of what was or wasn’t allowed at the time they raced. They must know the rules as they are in 2015, understand the intent of the rules, and react according to the guidelines.
I think that’s why the steward system is better, it’s not just one guy making a call, there are three of them who weigh in and make the decision and they debate it healthily; they’re not just three sheep all following the same direction. The system increases objective outlook, I’d say; it eliminates any chance of favoritism that could arise if just one person was calling the shots. In fact, seeing the interrelation between the stewards was one of the real positives about last year.
Is there still the intent to punish during a race, or will there be times when you might add a time penalty after the finish?
Our intent is always to deal with an incident as soon as possible, so you don’t have one of those situations where a driver might appear on the podium and then be removed. But it’s also important to not shoot from the hip, so if a conclusive review isn’t complete until after the event, then we’re not going to shy away from issuing a post-race penalty, whether it’s adding time or subtracting points. There are many punishments we can levy but again, they need to be consistent; we won’t issue a drive through for one driver, but issue a points penalty to another driver for the same crime.
How flexible or rigid is the penalty structure? For example, a drive-through penalty taken under a full-course caution could cycle someone to the very back of the pack, so they lose a lot of track position, but not much time. A driver who’s handed a drive-through penalty under green flag conditions will obviously lose more because of his speed relative to his rivals but theoretically, in extreme conditions, he could pit from the lead and re-emerge still in the lead.
Yeah, there are endless possibilities which is why we develop the guidelines to eliminate a lot of those variations and a lot of debate so we’re more consistent. So under the new guidelines, there are three variations of penalty: on the left hand column is the written rule regarding the apparent infraction. If the majority judges that a rule has been broken, then the stewards collectively weigh in and the senior steward who is elected prior to the start of the race is ultimately responsible for determining the penalty, and then it’s issued. Each incident is looked at in context; that’s the judgment part. But you then look at the penalty from the guidelines to decide how to respond.
Remember how you changed the rule about engine-changes requiring a grid penalty so that it wasn’t the driver/team who got hurt by something that was out of their control? Well, is there a way to adjust the rule for hitting pit equipment? So, for example, if a crew member screws up by leaving a hose in his driver’s way, either before or after a pitstop, and the driver runs over that hose, he doesn’t then get dragged in for a drive-through? I realize it’s a team sport – win together, lose together etc. – but what happened to Josef Newgarden at Mid-Ohio last year, for example… It seemed Josef was absolutely shafted for someone else’s blunder.
Like I say, there definitely have been some revisions to the guidelines to better allow a punishment that fits the crime. We don’t want drivers getting careless or thinking it’s OK to clip tires – theirs or someone else’s – nor nip a hose; we can’t have anyone put at risk in pit lane. But you’re right; in that instance, that was not Josef’s fault.
Another example of something outside the driver’s control is the reliability of the radios. If a driver’s radio isn’t working, then we’ll say to the team, “At the next pit stop, you’ve got to make an attempt to fix that,” because we do mandate radios. If they make an attempt to fix it and it still doesn’t work, then we have an option to say, “Bring it in and don’t move until you get it fixed” or we could say, “If you bring it in and can’t fix it, then you’re going to get an after-race penalty.” So we have to assess what’s fair.
Yeah that’s a tricky one. On the one hand you could say that if it’s a safety issue, there should be zero tolerance. But then again, it would be painful to see any driver lose a race because of faulty wiring in a radio! Surely the alternative, the safety back up, is to have warning lights on the dashboard/steering wheel…something like when a car’s going through a local caution zone (one yellow light), full-course caution (two yellow lights alternately blinking), one red light (race stopped), two red lights blinking (stop right where you are – track blocked around the next corner).
I don’t think a backup system such as you’ve described is enough. For example, on an oval, what if a spotter can’t communicate to his driver, and what if it’s a younger inexperienced driver who’s never driven without spotters and isn’t aware enough of what’s out there? So it is a safety issue and for safety’s sake we should bring him in. As always, there are multiple scenarios to consider.
Finally, Verizon IndyCar Series reigning champ Will Power has said, “Current drivers shouldn’t be consulted about anything except safety. We’re all selfish and we’ll just try and change things in a way that suits ourselves or hurts our rivals.” Do you agree with that? Do you discuss things with the current drivers?
Hmm, well, some drivers come to us with thoughts that are “big picture” and those make a bigger impression on us. Remember, everyone in Race Control has been around drivers for many years and can figure out if they’re being selfish to help themselves or whether their complaints or their ideas are legitimate! We’re thinking about what’s good for the sport of Indy car racing, and yes, certainly there are times when that isn’t in line with certain drivers’ opinions, let’s say… But having said all that, listening and considering ideas from drivers doesn’t cost us anything so we should do it. I seriously doubt that drivers would want to be in a series where they felt their opinions didn’t matter. Some of them have very good ideas.
You know, from the outside, I used to be under the impression that people in IndyCar weren’t listening to the competitors – it was ‘Do it our way or go away’ – and that attitude was a bit arrogant. If I was a driver or team owner, I’d want the series I’m in to always have its antenna up, always be willing to listen and consider my input, and then ultimately have the guts to make decisions that are always in the best interests of the sport rather than cater to the special interests of individuals. Well, that’s what we are constantly working toward, with all our decisions – on track, in Race Control and back at the office between races.