Is Brian Barnhart Really The Devil?

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When several points of controversy arose during and after the first race of the Toronto double-header a couple of weeks ago, Brian Barnhart was vilified on Twitter by many – myself included. After all, he had been relieved of his duties in Race Control by former CEO Randy Bernard and replaced with Beaux Barfield mostly due to the wishes of the fans. Due to an “immigration technicality”, Barfield was not allowed into Canada. By default, the director’s seat in Race Control went to a very reluctant Brian Barnhart.

We all know what happened. There were some calls during the race not fully understood by many fans. Most fans knew that the rule stated that the chance for a standing start would be aborted after only one try. That didn’t stop many from passing up an opportunity to blast Barnhart for old time’s sake during the race. Then a few chimed in for not doing a double-file re-start during the race. In all honesty, I didn’t even notice the lack of a double-file re-start until I saw fans complaining about it on Twitter after the race.

My bone of contention was the so-called blocking penalty called on Dario Franchitti during the podium celebration. A violation was questionable, at best. To make such a call after the race seemed to be utilizing poor judgment. The penalty would have dropped Franchitti from third to thirteenth. Fortunately common sense prevailed and the penalty was rescinded a few hours later.

The damage had been done, however. The glow was gone from Franchitti’s strong finish. The original call made IndyCar look like they didn’t know what they were doing. Even though reversing the call was the right call – it also made IndyCar look indecisive on top of not knowing what they were doing.

I joined the chorus of boos against Barnhart on Twitter. My complaint against him was that he always seemed to find his way into the eye of the storm of controversy. To insert himself as the story, when given one more opportunity, gave the impression that he somehow enjoyed being in the center of it all. I tweeted that sentiment in a much harsher tone at the time, in less than 140 characters.

It didn’t take long to hear from a very good friend of mine who is connected with IndyCar and is close to Brian Barnhart. I was reminded that all the naysayers lash out at Barnhart mostly because he is one of the last few holdovers from the Tony George regime and his role as Chief Steward always made him an easy target. Fair enough.

My friend also quickly pointed out that Barnhart did not make this decision on his own. Instead, it was done by committee. My response in anger was that Barnhart always acted as a committee of one. Once I cooled off and the penalty was eventually rescinded, Dario Franchitti took to Twitter and implored fans to lay off of Barnhart. I figured if the guy caught in the crosshairs of this controversy did not blame Barnhart, why should us fans?

It also got me to wondering…is Brian Barnhart really the devil that we’ve all made him out to be? After all; Race Director, Chief Steward or whatever else you want to call it – is a thankless job. Beaux Barfield is quickly finding that out. Although Brian Barnhart was very unpopular among fans, he at times had the respect of at least some of the drivers and teams. We fans accused him of being inconsistent and being too quick to pull the trigger sometimes, but if you listen to some of the drivers they are taking issues with Barfield as well.

Like Barnhart, many think Barfield is way too inconsistent in the enforcement of penalties. Blocking is seemingly called against one driver but not the next. But if Barnhart is too quick to make a call, Beaux Barfield seems too hesitant.

Then, there is this…there are some in the paddock who think that Beaux Barfield spends way too much time trying to be popular. From what I’ve seen and heard, I’m not sure that I don’t disagree. Barfield seems to spend a lot of time cultivating the image of sort of a fun loving free-spirit. Should the director of Race Control really have a Twitter account? I can see it if Twitter was used by him to explain calls or non-calls, but I’m not sure how much someone in that position needs to be interacting with fans about vintage cars and racing movies. I also thought his segment on Indianapolis 500 Pole Day Qualifying with him sitting on the floor in a suite while discussing a troll doll sitting on the couch bordered on the bizarre. To me, it lessened the credibility of someone who is charged with enforcing rules.

My point is; there is no such thing as the perfect candidate for this job. The person doesn’t exist. Someone will come away despising whoever is in this spot. It’s the nature of the position. Show me a Chief Steward who has made a lot of friends over the years and I’ll show you a Chief Steward who has done a bad job. If you are the Director of Race Control and everyone loves you, something’s wrong. You can’t be concerned about being popular, but if fans, drivers, teams and even series personnel despise you – well, something’s wrong there also.

With the exception of CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach, few people retire from this job. They are usually run off. Tom Binford served as Chief Steward for the Indianapolis 500 from 1974 to 1995. Technically, he retired from the position but his last race was filled with controversy. Prior to Binford, Harlan Fengler was a very unpopular Chief Steward.

I am not calling for Beaux Barfield’s head, but there are a few things I’ve noticed in his one and a half years on the job that concern me. Brian Barnhart did a lot of things that concerned me in his tenure, but he was on the job a lot longer than Barfield has been so there was a lot more time for mistakes to build up.

I have criticized Brian Barnhart here many times over the years. I’ve always said he seemed to be a very good and decent man, but seemed to be over his head as Director of Race Control. That stance hasn’t changed. But after reflecting on the events a couple of weeks ago in Toronto and gaining further understanding of everything involved, I’m willing to admit that I jumped the gun in chastising Mr. Barnhart. According to my friend, Barnhart was reluctant to assume Barfield’s duties that weekend because he knew he was a lightning rod for many. Looking back, I guess the series was lucky to be able to plug in someone with his experience. I wonder what would have happened had he declined to serve in that capacity that weekend. That’s something to think about.

George Phillips

Please note:  I’ll be taking a short break this weekend, so there will be no post on Monday July 29. I’ll return here on Wednesday July 31. Have a great weekend! – GP

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12 Responses to “Is Brian Barnhart Really The Devil?”

  1. This unfortunately is a thankless position that requires intelligence, great technical racing knowledge/experience, thick skin, patience, the ability to think critically and an even hand. The thinking person, perhaps the one most qualified for such a position is smart enough and knows well enough the stay as far away from such a position as possible… Nuff-said….

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    Definition of twitter: “A short burst of inconsequential information”

    Can we move on?

  3. I know this is somewhat off topic but I need to vent. I think the devil may be the consultants for the IMS. After being a season ticket holder to the Brickyard 400 for 20 years I get this in my mail. “Beginning next year, the Southwest Vista, H and A stands will become family general admission grandstands.” In other words no assigned seating. I lose my assigned seats in Stand A that I have had for 20 years. Of course they are “more than willing” to help move us to a new section. Couldn’t pick an area in the 150,000 plus seats that are empty now every year to do this?

    What a kick in the teeth for 20 years of loyalty. Add this to charging to park in the infield. Obviously my account will not be renewed.

    How can they be this stupid?

  4. They both do a damn good job.

  5. Steve K Says:

    I learned this past offseason to stop caring about anyone in charge of the rules, IMS, or IndyCar. It just drives me up a wall and ruins the sport for me. I couldn’t tell you who is in charge of anything anymore. A monkey is a monkey. My focus is on the drivers and the teams. As long as my “local” track Mid-Ohio draws a crowd it will be on the schedule and that is the only “political” IndyCar issue I would ever worry about.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Barnhart isn’t the devil, but he’s probably a demon or something…

    Seriously though, I think he’s a likable enough fellow whose heavy-handed chief stewarding was about as unpopular as it possibly could have been. I think most would argue that his stewardship was not good either (I would), but at least that is a matter of debate.
    Barfield’s more transparent style, though not without its problems, is certainly more appealing to the fans. He has yet to find a high-profile controversy (compared to Barnhart’s several) in his short tenure, which is a plus.

    I would think Barfield has as much right to care about his image and to use a Twitter account as anyone else. These things should only pose a problem if they interfere with him doing his job as Chief Steward, something I don’t think has been the case thus far.

  7. The thing that I noticed was that as soon as Barnhart was back in the captain’s chair, Race Control was once again a story-line foor the weekend. That tells me enough right there. There have been calls that Barfield has made with which I’ve disagreed, but RC has been out of the limelight with much greater regularity under his tenure thus far.

  8. I’m not so much concerned Barnhart was placed in Race Control, rather than the fact someone at IndyCar thought it was a good idea.

    Did those stooges really not know what the reaction would be? Did they really not know that any call he made would be scrutinized and second-guessed?

    In other words, do I think Barnhart is a disaster? Yes, I do. But I’m more concerned that IndyCar management actually thought it was a good idea to palce him there, or for that matter even consider it in the first place.

    TCH

  9. Ron Ford Says:

    I’m not a Barnhart fan, but with respect to the Toronto race this is much ado about nothing.

  10. After reading this, I believe you are in need of a break. Enjoy!

  11. I’d hate to be in either Barnhart’s or Barfield’s shoes. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. There’s always going to be guys that are better than others or worse than others, but I think it’s unlikely that most of the people complaining about either of these guys have ever sat in a booth and had to carry the weight of the driver’s safety or the sanctions rules on their shoulders. In other words, walk a mile in their shoes.

    On another note-it’s been my experience being in the booth as an announcer for short track racing, as well as being on the board of directors for two supermodified organizations, that trying to find a race director is next to impossible. Very few people want the responsibility or the headaches.

    Finally, maybe it’s time that we look at sanctioning body rules as opposed to those charged with making the calls based on said rules. I tend to think that there are too many rules that put the race director into a position of having to make a subjective call in a situation that isn’t always as cut and dried as the original rule may have intended.

    Thanks for a very well written post. Always enjoy reading your thoughts!

  12. Same people who bawl when there is no call, as in Sato swerving around in Brazil … to me a clear violation of the rule as written … are the same ones who bawl when there is a call (Dario). They want consistency, sort of … usually … except in the closing laps … when we should let ‘em race … unless it’s too much. One thing NASCAR’s no-rules racing has going for it is we get away from hearing people bawl about the refs (because there are none). Not that I prefer prison rules racing, but it does offer that silver lining. I personally respect someone with the stones/ovaries to make a call (even on the last lap! Gasp!) even if I don’t agree with it. Doesn’t take a lot of courage to swallow the whistle.

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