Beaux Barfield’s Busy Week
Beaux Barfield has had a busy week and it’s only Wednesday. This past Monday, what had been rumored since before the start of the IZOD IndyCar Series season became fact. Starting with this weekend’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the pits will remain open throughout non-emergency full-course cautions on road and street courses.
Although the new Director of Race Control said he wasn’t going to re-write the IndyCar rulebook, he has done a pretty thorough job of “revising” it. Personally, I think Barfield deserves credit for tinkering with delaying yellow flags for a couple of races before making a mid-season rule change.
This will excite a lot of fans and may possibly anger a few. Being an old-timer, I’m in favor of this. Although I can’t tell you exactly what year this happened, it was in the nineties when they first closed the pits at the beginning of the caution, and I thought it was heresy. Gaining an advantage by being at the right spot on the track right as the caution came out was part of racing luck.
I vividly remember Gordon Johncock being an afterthought in the 1991 Indianapolis 500. Then a caution came out late in the race just as Gordy was coming out of Turn Four. Suddenly; he ducked in while everyone slowed, took on a load of fuel and got out before anyone else had a chance to pit. Johncock ended up with a sixth-place finish and a very nice paycheck.
The original intent of closing the pits sounded great in theory – the pace car would drive around and pick up the leader and allow all the other cars to bunch up behind. My interpretation of this rule change back then was to eliminate anyone gaining an advantage through dumb-luck.
To use the verbiage of Barfield’s predecessor – there was an unintended consequence of this rule. It brought everyone onto pit road at the same time, creating a very crowded and unsafe environment. Crews thrashed about with little knowledge what was happening to their blind side – all in the name of getting their driver out ahead of a rival. Injuries were common. Fortunately, few were life-threatening. Of less significance is the fact that this led to a lot of cars suffering damage due to the crowded conditions
Now, crews will work just as quickly to get their driver back out – but they’ll do it in an environment that won’t be quite as crowded or dangerous. The luck factor will be somewhat removed because Race Control will make a concerted effort to locate the leader and call the yellow due to his or her proximity to the pits. But the ultimate desired result will be a less crowded pit lane, and surely everyone agrees that that would be a good thing.
Speaking of unintended consequences, one new rule reared its ugly head on Tuesday. Marshall Pruett, from SPEED, reported that James Hinchcliffe would be penalized ten grid spots at Long Beach due to blowing an engine at a test session at Sonoma on Monday. I understand the intent of the new engine rule – it is to prevent teams from having special qualifying engines and to make engines last for 1850 miles between rebuilds for cost-savings measures. But to penalize a team or driver ten starting spots for something that happened at a test seems a bit absurd. The whole idea of testing is to push the limits of the car to see what works. How on earth can you push the limit during a test, if you are fearful of being penalized at the next race? That’s part of the reason the speeds were low at the test at IMS last week – no one wanted to stress the engine they needed at Long Beach.
This opens up a slew of questions – many of which were brought up on Trackside last night. Should they allow teams a testing engine? If not, does a team like Ganassi test only with Charlie Kimball’s car since he won’t likely be running for the championship? If that’s the case, then the smaller one or two car teams suffer yet another blow.
Surely the powers that be thought of this scenario when they implemented this rule. Again, I understand the theory behind the rule – but the practical implementation of it seems a bit harsh. The reaction I saw from fans on Twitter was mixed. Some felt as I do, that it was asanine that Hinchcliffe should be penalized for this. Others felt that fans wanted a black & white interpretation of the rules; something they didn’t get with Brian Barhart. My hope is that common sense will prevail and this situation will be addressed before Long Beach and not enforce the ten-spot penalty.
It’s a tough situation to get everyone to agree to a rule then have to enforce it, even in a circumstance it wasn’t intended for – but credit Beaux Barfield for meeting the problem head-on. While Trackside was on last night, we fans were tweeting away about the perceived injustice of the rule. In the midst of that, Beaux Barfield himself got on Twitter to address the situation with tweets like "…Rule developed and agreed to by engine manufacturers. Perfect? Absolutely not. Clear? Yes." and then wrapped it up with "Ultimately, there are better qualified people to comment on this than me. I just want all to know we hear you." Can you imagine his predecessor jumping on Twitter and interacting with fans like that? Hardly. This is why Beaux Barfield was a great hire. You can also tell that Randy Bernard hired him.
Of course, one rule change from the nineties that I would never want to see reversed is the speed limit on pit lane. Even most of us old-timers agree that there needs to be a speed limit there. Go back and watch green-flag pit stops at Indianapolis back then. It seems crazy to watch cars going over 200 mph in the pits, but that’s what was going on. Even in 1992, when a pit speed limit was first introduced at the Indianapolis 500 – the speed limit was 100 mph. Today, the pit-road speed limit is 60 mph. It appears that the cars are creeping and I’m sure it’s agonizing for the drivers, but a car going any faster with crew members operating just a few feet away with their backs turned is a disaster waiting to happen.
Hidden in the engine situation and the the open pits is the fact that Barfield also said that he will move lapped traffic to the back of the field in the last twenty laps of a race during a yellow before a re-start. He’ll do it by running them through the pits under caution just before the re-start. Actually, he did that at Barber, but it now becomes official.
I applaud Beaux Barfield for making most of these moves and especially for interacting with fans last night on Twitter. Things like that go a long way with fans. I still think the engine situation needs addressing, but I’m not sure I have any workable ideas at the moment. But almost every move that Barfield has made in his young tenure in his new position has been made with a common sense approach. That’s why I hope that some resolution can be reached regarding the Hinchcliffe situation. I’m sure it won’t be long before Barfield does something to tick off either the fans, drivers, team owners or all of the above. Perhaps the new engine rule may do it. Such is the life of the Director of Race Control, but for now – I would give him an A-grade since he has been on the job.
There may be some more “unintended consequences” pop up as this season progresses, but I have faith that Mr. Barfield has thought most things out fairly thoroughly. I credit him with putting common sense back into racing.