Should Drivers Ever Be Suspended?

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After some violent collisions this past weekend, the NFL has announced that they will begin suspending players who, in the NFL’s eyes, commit dangerous and flagrant hits, particularly those involving helmets. How they are going to make such a determination is beyond me, but it got me to thinking. What would be the ramifications if an IZOD IndyCar driver committed an act so vile, that it warranted serving a suspension for one or more races?

Before you say that will never happen, remember that Paul Tracy was suspended for CART’s season-opening race at Homestead in 1999. After committing several violations in the 1998 season, including a pit-side shoving match with his car owner Barry Green at the street race in Houston; CART officials decided they had had enough of the brash Mr. Tracy. It was determined that sitting out the season-opener in Miami was the only thing that might get Tracy’s attention. Fines and drive-through penalties didn’t seem to work, so maybe it would set a good example to have him start out the season in the hole, points-wise.

Tracy stood by in civilian clothes and watched Raul Boesel qualify his Kool-sponsored Reynard to start twenty-third and crash on the opening lap to finish twenty-seventh out of twenty-eight cars. The last-placed car driven by Shigeaki Hattori did not start. Tracy was back in the cockpit by the next race at Twin Ring Motegi, albeit with no points in his column, but with a more contrite attitude.

Economic times are tougher now, but I’m still curious as to what the reaction was when Kool found out that one of the drivers they had invested in was no longer available, due to the disciplinary actions of the sanctioning body. I don’t know much about what is written into sponsorship agreements, but I would have to think there are some provisions to cover the absence of the primary driver. I suppose it is a team by team situation, but does a sponsor pay all of that money for the team, for the driver or a combination of both?

I noticed that it wasn’t too long after Mike Conway’s accident that the presence of Dad’s Root Beer became less and less apparent of the No.24 car. But that was due to a driver’s injury, which is not an unexpected occurrence. With Dreyer & Reinbold’s fluid sponsorship deals, that may have been the plan all along.

But let’s use a more tangible hypothetical example. What if Ryan Hunter-Reay blatantly chopped off someone and put them into the wall at Texas, causing serious injury. Also assume that he had been warned several times, but Brian Barnhart had had enough (I know, it’s make-believe) and suspended Hunter-Reay for the remainder of the season. Now, instead of being a competitive car that might compete for the championship with a name driver – Michael Andretti fills the seat with someone along the lines of Mark Taylor (remember him?). Do you think there might be a little grumbling from IZOD? This may be an unfair hypothetical example since IZOD is the series sponsor, but it illustrates the point I have been rambling around.

If a suspension were to happen, how much would it affect a sponsor and how much influence would they try to use to reverse such a decision? Not only was Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car (reluctantly) sponsored by IZOD this past season, but he is also their spokesperson via a personal service contract he signed with the clothing manufacturer in 2008. Although they probably would support such a decision publicly, how far would they carry their clout in trying to get Brian Barnhart to reverse or shorten a suspension?

Suspensions in racing have a different effect than in the NFL. Although both sports are dependent on sponsors, the NFL teams themselves are more affected by the loss of a player for a few games than say, Kroger – the official grocer of the Tennessee Titans. But in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Verizon might be quite upset if someone other than Will Power is driving their car, simply because Brian Barnhart got mad at him.

Keep in mind – I’m not picking on Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power or Brian Barnhart. I’m just using easy hypothetical examples to make my point.

This past season at Edmonton, many fans and media-types felt that Helio Castroneves should have been suspended for grabbing officials after the race. He was fined $60,000 for his outburst, but many felt that was a slap on the wrist based on Helio’s net worth. After paying attorney fees for his tax evasion trial, I’m not sure just how much of a fortune Helio has left, but many felt it wasn’t enough.

I think any racing sanctioning body is venturing into dangerous territory if they start suspending drivers. There are certainly exceptions; drug use by a driver would certainly warrant suspension and/or expulsion. The lives of the other participants are at stake when an impaired driver is on the track. Obviously, if a driver is completely unqualified (ahem), then the sanctioning body should have the right to park her (uh, or him).

But to remove a driver from the cockpit for one or more races, has a much more far-reaching effect than just punishing the driver in question. Sponsors are affected. In a down economy, a sport that is already suffering from lack of sponsorship cannot afford to alienate the few remaining sponsors it has. I don’t normally applaud Brian Barnhart for much, but the man deserves credit for having enough foresight to realize that suspending Helio last summer would have set a dangerous precedent in the future punishments of drivers.

The IZOD IndyCar Series needs to find other ways to discipline its drivers for their misdeeds both on and off the track. Although some may bristle at the idea of corporate America (and Brazil) controlling everything, that’s the nature of auto racing and it has always been that way. The series needs to keep their sponsors happy and leave the wholesale suspensions to the NFL.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “Should Drivers Ever Be Suspended?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I understand what you are saying George, the sport is in enough trouble without alienating primary sponsors, but I believe that if you take the possibility of suspension off the table entirely, you have just lost the biggest stick you have to maintain control out on the race track. I believe the big stick should be used sparingly, but in the case of either extremely dangerous ontrack behavior, or felonious off track behavior, the possibility of being suspended should remain viable.

  2. You bring up excellent points both for and against suspension. I firmly believe that IndyCar must keep that particular big stick in their arsenal. However, it’s use should be considered “going nuclear” and reserved for the gravest violations.

    Helio’s outburst, while very out of character, came perilously close to needing that stick. IndyCar would need to take all factors, including the driver’s record into consideration before going nuclear. Someone who has a record of similar offenses should be more likely to be suspended than someone who is acting out of character.

    Frankly, a serious punishment short of suspension can and should include points loss (very NASCAR) and fines. I have an alternate punishment that could be used that would be close to the nuclear option: the driver would have to start the next X number of races Dead Last on the grid. If the team switches drivers, then the car itself starts Dead Last on the grid.

    This would give the teams incentive to police their drivers, if the driver has a history.i

  3. the NFL had to go to suspensions because monetary fines were not a deterrence in a league where players make so much money.

    I think fines in Indycar (because of the much lower pay scale) would hurt the participants enough in most cases. Putting them last on the grid in a good idea also.

  4. Mike Silver Says:

    I think grid position penalties should come after fines/point docking. Suspension should be only a last resort except in the case of dangerous actions on the track. Sponsors also need to recognize htis is a possibility. Perhaps that will make them seek out more qualified drivers.

  5. I want to clarify my post: fines and/or points loss, last on grid for one or more races, then suspension should be the order. The problem with points loss is that, if a driver is not in serious competition for a driving award, points loss won’t really matter to them. I’ll admit that even starting dead last may not matter that much to them, but it is a better option than an outright suspension.

    What they really need to do, and what NASCAR and F1 do not do well at all, is apply all penalties evenly across the board. IndyCar should take the driver’s overall actions across the seasons into account when deciding if this was a “one-off” event, or is a pattern of behaviour or, even worse, a pattern of escalating behavior.

    E.G: If “Gentleman Jim” is repeatedly cut off, race after race, by “Frankie the Fouler”, loses his temper and gets in a screaming and shoving match with Frankie, then he should be dealt with more leniently for his “1st offence”. If Frankie has been getting more aggressive, race after race, even after being warned and fined, until he finally causes a serious crash owing to his chopping cars off, then he should receive the nuclear option and be suspended for one or more races.

  6. Timnothhelfer Says:

    In the case of feigning ignorance to rule of competition the offender should learn the rule(s) and how it applies, then demonstrate it’s understanding at the next drivers meeting. If the offense is part of a pattern of denied responsibility the demonstration can be filmed for a Jack Arute segment.

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