Nashville chaos sharpens focus on IndyCar driving – and officiating – standards

Travis Hinkle/Penske Entertainment

Nashville chaos sharpens focus on IndyCar driving – and officiating – standards

IndyCar

Nashville chaos sharpens focus on IndyCar driving – and officiating – standards

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The email chain among NTT IndyCar Series drivers got an early start after Sunday’s Nashville Grand Prix. The drivers keep the finer points of those conversations private, but after the Nashville event, impassioned opinions from those who were on the receiving end of race-ending hits, and questions of overly-aggressive maneuvers among certain members of the group and how some incidents that seemed ripe for penalties were given a pass, are said to have dominated the exchanges.

“I do think that driving standards have definitely gone down into an area where it is wreck or be wrecked,” Conor Daly told RACER. “And I don’t think that’s IndyCar racing. I don’t like it because I grew up knowing that I could race side-by-side with people in any car. The joy of racing in IndyCar was the fact that you could race side-by-side with people, and there are still some people that you can. But I think with this current era of the car, it is harder to pass. And you do have to make a pretty aggressive move to get by people.”

Championship contender Marcus Ericsson shares in Daly’s assessment and points to Nashville’s layout as a contributor for the spike in contact at the event during its first two runnings.

“IndyCar racing, for me, is the best in the world, because it’s hard racing, there is a lot of action, there is a lot of wheel-to-wheel racing, and there is no one that wants that to go away,” he said. “What I think, though, is the way that we’ve been going the last two years, it’s getting a bit much, because some drivers start to take advantage of some situations. I think some drivers are greedy and that we need to give each other a bit more respect out there. That’s lacking a little bit sometimes, which invites these kinds of situations at Nashville.

“There is a lot of wide entries and then it gets really like a bottleneck, and it makes the situation worse. But in general, on normal road course tracks, for example, you don’t really see much of this behavior. It’s a bit more extreme on a street course when someone puts someone in the wall, compared to like the Indy GP where someone puts someone on the grass and corner exits. There is obviously a bigger price to pay when that happens on the street courses.”

Six-time IndyCar champion and winner of Sunday’s Nashville race Scott Dixon thinks the tank-like Dallara DW12s have played a role in how far drivers have been willing to push each other.

“The other way to look at it is that the car is probably too robust,” he said. “I even look at my crash – I got hit hard, man. Ripped the bottom of the floor off. That meant the suspension would have been broken off most of the time; that hit would have taken a corner off the car in other open-wheel formulas. I think it was Friday practice or Saturday morning where I hit the wall really hard on the inside of Turn 11. And it didn’t really do anything; I thought it would have folded the suspension up, but it didn’t.

“So in some ways I think the car – because we know it’s so strong, and it really doesn’t break like a typical formula car – changes the mindset of how you race. I know in some situations, you’re like, ‘Go for it!’, because the car’s going to be pretty strong and most of the time you’re just going to bounce off whatever you hit. When I was in the junior categories, or even the early days of IndyCar, you couldn’t really do that. You’d be out of the race, so it would make you think twice about driving that way.”

Just as some drivers were guilty of driving beyond the limit and knocking around those who were in close proximity, Dixon saw some opposing behavior that caused problems as well.

“I thought in the race, there were also some people that were fairly cautious,” he said. “And that’s what caused a lot of the backups in some corners. I even went and watched Jimmie [Johnson’s] onboard video the other night when I was flying and you can just see the cautiousness for some people, and I had a couple of situations as well where I felt like that caused more of the issues than some that maybe were taking advantage of it, or knowing that people will get out of the throttle for them. It definitely wasn’t just one thing causing all of it.”

The race had a happy ending for Scott Dixon, but the Kiwi believes that the hit that his car shook off along the way illustrates why some drivers see little downside to making aggressive moves. Gavin Baker/Motorsport Images

Ericsson points to another dynamic around where IndyCar’s race control fits into penalizing bad behavior. Count the Indy 500 winner among a growing number of drivers who aren’t sure what’s considered a foul and why the series’ referees choose to let other incidents go without punishment.

“It’s not as if we’re just talking about the Nashville race,” he said. “I think you can look at the whole season, there’s been a few situations where it’s been quite hard racing but sometimes you wonder if it went over the line. Like the Felix [Rosenqvist] and [Alexander] Rossi situation in Toronto, no penalty for Felix. [Romain] Grosjean’s had a couple where it’s been no penalty. So it sends a message to the rest of the field of drivers that that’s OK to do.

“And then people take advantage of that, because we’re all competitors — we all want to win. If we see a guy take someone out in front of us, and there’s no penalty, that’s something everybody will use to their benefit. But at a track like Nashville, that creates some tricky situations, and that makes it tricky for the stewards. They want to be consistent in the way they judge situations. But I think there is a discussion to be had, probably in the off-season. We need more clear guidelines. ‘This is OK, and this is not OK.’ Or, ‘This is a penalty; this is not a penalty,’ for example.”

Dixon likes the idea of the drivers getting together on their own to see if internal policing is possible. Drivers, in every series, have held many meetings like these over the decades. It’s hard to cite an instance where 100-percent buy-in was achieved and all involved adhered to a new driving standard.

“All the drivers just getting together and talking about it and then finding a common ground is probably a good start, but not everybody’s going to agree,” the veteran said. “And I can tell you right now that it’ll be 50-50 on people agreeing and the others saying let’s just have a go.”

Daly is leaning in Ericsson’s direction of having IndyCar’s referees set a strict tone for what will and won’t be accepted in the races.

“It feels like it’s a double standard sometimes, because in some races when a guy gets run off the road, it’s no penalty and everybody says it’s good racing,” he said. “But then we go somewhere else, the same thing happens, and depending on I don’t know what, maybe it’s a penalty or maybe it’s not a penalty. It can be confusing a lot of the time.

“Then on our end, on the driving standards, I do wish they would improve slightly. Will we do it ourselves? Doubtful. Maybe there needs to be a stricter principal in the room to make that happen.”

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