As IndyCar’s rules for pit lane procedures are written, Kyle Kirkwood did nothing wrong on Sunday afternoon as he attempted to turn into his pit box with the No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda.
Alexander Rossi – the former driver of the No.27, with whom Kirkwood made contact – was also a blameless party in the unintentional incident that was triggered when he was exiting his pit box and did his best Roman Reigns impression by spearing Kirkwood.
Rossi’s race was ruined on the spot as the crisscrossing cars collided; his No. 7 Chevy needed repairs to its suspension which cost the team multiple laps. Despite being briefly slightly delayed, Kirkwood’s day was unaffected until an unrelated suspension failure took him out of the 250-lap contest.
Where heat and scrutiny began to rise with the situation was in the NTT IndyCar Series’ decision to penalize Rossi rather than Kirkwood, who was initially thought to have breached protocol. NBC’s commentators went hard against Kirkwood during the broadcast, which then led to a volley of criticism directed at Kirkwood on social media, but at least one host later apologized to the sophomore driver after getting a better picture of the situation.
As the series has instructed its teams and drivers, those in the outer lane — the ‘fast’ lane — are the top priority on pit lane when it comes to decision-making. Those in the middle lane — the ‘transition lane’ — are second on the priority list when drivers either pull away from or pull into their pit box. Last on the list are those who are in their pit box.
Drivers are also told to remain in the fast lane until it’s time to steer into their pit box; they’re only allowed to drive straight within the transition lane on approach to their pit box in the rare instance of finding some sort of blockage in the fast lane.
Otherwise, turning from the outermost lane across the transition lane and into the pit box, as Kirkwood attempted to do, is precisely what’s expected of each driver.
Whether Kirkwood did or didn’t make a late turn out of the fast lane to meet his Andretti Autosport pit crew sitting four boxes down the road from Rossi’s Arrow McLaren crew is immaterial. Unlike IMSA, which has a regulation that limits how soon drivers can start turning towards their pit box, IndyCar drivers are free to choose — within reason – when they start to turn out of the fast lane to make a pit stop. Considering Kirkwood’s late and sharp turn-in point, which happened after Rossi dropped the clutch and kicked his car sideways in his pit box with smoke pouring off the rear tires, one can see how a mistake could be made on where the No. 27 was headed.
Despite being unable to see each other from the confines of their open-wheel race cars, Kirkwood followed all of IndyCar’s rules for pitting, and accordingly, was not penalized. And Rossi followed the instructions from his team to engage first gear and fire out of his pit box after service was complete, but was deemed to be a rule-breaking instigator.
Their collision, a surprise to both parties, was initially attributed by the series as a breach of Rule 188.8.131.52, ‘unsafe release of a car from its pit box’, which led to a lap 62 drive-through penalty for Rossi. It was later revised to a violation of Rule 184.108.40.206, ‘contact with another car,’ which is an interesting adjustment as the penalty gives the impression of shifting the blame from the No. 7 Chevy’s crew to its driver.
Rossi followed orders from Brian Barnhart, his car controller, and was understandably incensed when he was told to serve the penalty. It’s here where a few points have emerged that would be worth evaluation by IndyCar and its rule makers.
Just as drivers have adopted the somewhat recent practice of exiting Turn 2 on ovals and weaving hard left to indicate to those who are following that they will be pitting — a signal to steer clear because they will be slowing significantly in a few seconds — it seems like a similar conveyance of information to crew chiefs and car controllers about a driver’s intent in the fast lane would do wonders to avoid future clashes.
It’s a miracle that dozens of crashes aren’t the norm on pit lane at every race. But thanks to the incredibly talented and quick-thinking outside front tire changers or car controllers who reside on the timing stands and decide when to release their drivers from the pit box, they are rarities.
Nonetheless, the person in charge of releasing their driver is asked to process an amount of information that would overwhelm most people.
In a pit stop that lasts around eight seconds or so, it starts with using the last two or three seconds of the stop to assess local information about the readiness of their car: Are all tires properly secured? Has the refueller successfully removed the fuel probe? Has a wing change been completed? Is the car on the ground and are all wheel guns and hoses clear of the car’s exit route?
Once that mental checklist is completed, the next task — done in the final second or two of the stop — involves looking up the road, judging the distance between oncoming cars and their own, trying to recall whether those cars are pitted in front or behind their driver, which is important to know as it’s used to judge whether those cars are driving out of pit lane and continuing on or are due to pull in and pit, and then, while making an assumption that those who are likely to pit aren’t serving a drive-through penalty or continuing without stopping due to being called in by mistake, the car chief or controller elects to hold or send their car.
All while the 100-plus decibels of racing sounds and other assaults on the senses must be filtered out, and all in less time than it takes to read these final few words. Multiply the number of cars entered in each race — at least 27 per round this year — and the number of pit stops per car — between four and six at Texas — and these rapid-fire calculations were performed more than 100 times on Sunday without contact. That only one car-to-car crash happened defies all odds.
In the case of the No. 7 Chevy, the team could have held Rossi for another beat or two and let Kirkwood clear their box. And had Kirkwood seen Rossi as he started to turn in, he could have tapped the brakes and waited for the No. 7 to drive off. But as he said in a post-race interview, with the narrow view out of the No. 27 Honda, Kirkwood only saw the two cars ahead of Rossi: Scott Dixon and Alex Palou.
But those things didn’t happen and we’re left to ask how some blind spots can be removed in the future.
Whether it’s a similar pit-in type of weave, provided it’s a pit lane like TMS that’s wide enough to safely perform such a maneuver, or to have the soon-to-turn driver straddle the white line between the fast and transition lanes once they get within a three or four pit boxes of their own stall, or the adoption of a Formula E-style overheard light that informs car chiefs and controllers as to whether the oncoming car has or hasn’t pitted, it’s clear that each car’s decision maker could use more visual cues to understand the intent of cars coming toward their own in the fast lane.
We just could default to the rule that gives cars in that outer lane top priority, but no team — not in a fiercely competitive series like IndyCar — is willing to surrender extra seconds on pit lane. The ability for most car chiefs and controllers to recall where their rivals are pitted from race to race and whether an oncoming car is likely to turn or go straight is another miracle that seems ripe for simplification and clarity.
Given a chance for a do-over, a no-call from IndyCar seems appropriate.
Thankfully, the vast amount of pit stops are completed without drama, but when a Kirkwood vs Rossi situation arises, it presents an opportunity to ask whether more can be done to help pit crews make better decisions in the fastest and most extreme aspects of their jobs. Start by removing the unnecessary guesswork about what the cars in the fast lane are doing so the odds of contact-free pit stops will edge closer to 100 percent.