Random Thoughts On Sonoma

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Just when the IndyCar Series gives you no reason to suspect that yesterday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma would be anything but a snoozer, they go and throw you a curve. After a caution-free race at Mid-Ohio, yesterday’s race was almost comical with the amount of minor on-track skirmishes that saw a lot of carbon fiber pieces flying and tempers flaring resulting in an event-record seven cautions. In the end, there was one controversial call that may have decided this year’s championship.

Scott Dixon led for the majority of the race until a routine pit-stop incident late in the race brought the fury of some and the delight of others. He was assessed a drive-through penalty and finished fifteenth. Will Power, who was running second at the time, inherited the lead and went on to take his first win of the season. More on the call and the penalty later.

We had an indication of how the day was going to go on the first lap as the Mid-Ohio winner, Charlie Kimball, spun and brought out the first full-course yellow. It was pretty much downhill from there.

The large amount of yellows prevented the race from developing any type of rhythm throughout the day. Several drivers drove like they were driving for their jobs. Others drove like they had their head in an inconvenient place. EJ Viso comes to mind. Marco Andretti also drove more like the old Marco than the newer and wiser Marco.

Altogether it was a sloppy day at the track that was punctuated by a very controversial call and topped off with a humorous comment from Scott Dixon regarding the call afterward. Thank goodness the series reconvenes on the opposite coast in Baltimore just five days from now, instead of the five week gap that awaits drivers, teams and fans after the Baltimore race. It’ll be interesting to see if the emotions from all parties will have cooled off by then.

TV Coverage: I’m not sure who was to blame, but throughout Saturday’s qualifying show, there was a Firestone commercial that ran at least twice that finished with an ad for the Grand Prix of Sonoma in two weeks on Aug 25. No big deal, but someone fell asleep on that one.

The entire “regular” NBCSN crew was on hand this weekend, for the first time in quite a while. Leigh Diffey does a good job as traffic cop between Townsend Bell and Wally Dallenbach. They both bring an interesting perspective, although I put more weight in what Bell says. Not only has he driven IndyCars – he has driven a DW12 in competition as recently as May. So his point of view is fresh and much more relevant. Still, Wally makes some good points as well.

Kevin Lee and Jon Beekhuis were their usual stellar selves, but I took issue with Marty Snider’s interview with Ganassi Racing’s Mike Hull regarding the pit road incident. Mike Hull was extremely fair and gracious during the interview. Not once did he assign blame, but instead stressed the importance of safety for the crew members. Snider then proceeded to put words in Hull’s mouth by asking “So are you saying you think it was intentional?” Mike Hull would have been justified by blowing up. Instead he just re-emphasized what he had said earlier. There was enough controversy swirling around without trying to manufacture some sensationalism. Come on Marty. You’re better than that.

The Call: First, my disclaimer. I am pulling for Helio Castroneves to win the championship, so my feelings may be slightly skewed, but I’m trying to be as objective as possible as I write.

I had already watched enough pre-season football the past couple of weeks to figure out there was going to be a penalty against Scott Dixon in yesterday’s race. If you’ve been watching the NFL this month, you’ve seen some ridiculous calls made in the name of safety. Whether you agree with the calls or not, everyone agrees that there is more emphasis on player’s safety than at anytime in history.

The same can be said for the participants in motorsports. It’s hard to believe that just over twenty years ago, pit crewmembers were over the wall performing pit stops with no helmets. Twenty-five years ago, there were no pit road speed limits. It was an uproar in the early nineties when they instituted a 100 mph speed limit at Indianapolis.

Not only does common sense prevail these days when it comes to safety, our litigious society mandates that safety be stressed above all else. That’s why I knew that Dixon would be assessed a penalty.

Do I agree with the penalty? That’s another question. To be honest, I’m not sure. Since I am pulling for Helio to win the championship, my guy benefited from the decision. If it was just a tire being hit instead of a human being, I’m not sure that a call would have been made. I don’t think that the right-rear tire changer took one for the team by intentionally walking into harms way. However, I’m not going to rule out the possibility that he purposely made Dixon’s exit a little more difficult.

Drivers do it all the time on the track, by making their cars as wide as possible. Am I naïve enough to think that a Team Penske crewmember wouldn’t try to slow Scott Dixon out of the pits? No. Two things were accomplished. The tire-changer’s driver won the race and the Team Penske driver in contention for the championship got to pad his lead. If he could impede Dixon’s release from the pits by a second or two – yeah, I think most would do it.

But not for a moment do I think the tire-changer thought he would ever be struck by the exiting car. Yes, I think he took a circuitous route around the back of the car, but I also think it was upon Dixon to take actions to avoid him. He didn’t. He didn’t exactly drive right into him, but he certainly didn’t try to avoid him. I’m sure if Dixon had the benefit of hindsight, he would have taken evasive action and then complained to the officials. Had that been the case, perhaps it would be Will Power being assessed a penalty instead of Dixon.

But when bodies are flying and a call can go either way – you can bet money that the call will err on the side of safety almost every time. And for those that say that Will Power lucked into the win – he said it best when he mentioned that it was about time something like that went his way. Remember when he was an innocent victim in the pits at Kentucky two or three years ago. That mishap more than likely cost him a championship. These things happen in racing. The most important thing is that other than some bruises and soreness this morning, everyone is OK. It could have been much worse.

Post-race comments: I’m not sure who this Dick Move fellow is that Scott Dixon was referring to after the race. Perhaps he’s the one that Will Power once referred to as being “…a bit of a wanker”.

In all seriousness, I saw a lot of holier-than-thou tweets after the race saying that Dixon should be fined, or even suspended for his temper-fueled post-race comments. Are these people joking? Right or wrong, I’m sure Scott Dixon thought what he did was the right thing to do. Then when a microphone is shoved in his face and he sees the replay for the first time, of course he’s going to go off. I’m surprised he kept the interview as clean as he did. It wasn’t a double-bird salute which is somewhat pre-meditated. It was a slip of the tongue and good internet fodder. Let it lie.

Strange reaction: The interview with the lucky individual that gets to ride in the two-seater on the pace lap is usually a little awkward. Either the connection fails and the passenger can’t hear or they just shriek with delight. Yesterday’s passenger sounded more like he was about to throw up. I can’t predict how I would act in such a moment, but I don’t think what we heard yesterday would be it.

Small reward: At one time, Ryan Hunter-Reay fell back to twentieth after starting fourth. He worked his tail off to get back into contention and finish sixth. For all of his heroic efforts, he was rewarded with gaining a whopping three points on Helio in the championship battle.

Don’t be too cautious: It was odd that Helio Castroneves did his best bit of driving, once he learned that Scott Dixon had been penalized. Prior to the penalty, Helio was tiptoeing his way around the track. To use a football analogy – when a team goes to a prevent defense, it usually prevents them from winning. The same applies in racing. Anytime a driver deviates from their normal driving style and becomes more conservative than normal – bad things happen.

As an Helio fan, I’m hoping that he learned from yesterday’s race that you must go all out and not drive to not make a mistake. When you drive to not lose instead of driving to win – that’s when mistakes happen. Of course, I know this from all of my vast race driving experience. Seriously though, I’ve seen it happen to too many drivers over the years to know that it does happen. Helio is lucky that he came away from this race with a bigger points lead than he had going in. Hopefully, he can dial it up a notch at Baltimore.

All in all: This race will be remembered for one thing and one thing only – the call. No matter what you think of it, that will be the one identifying factor that will make people remember this race. But before “the call”, it was already a much more entertaining race than what we are used to getting from Sonoma. Drivers were getting their cars sideways regularly. Then there was the infamous Turn Seven, where drivers were tagging each other more often than not.

It was good to see JR Hildebrand back in a car, after his unceremonious departure from Panther Racing after the Indianapolis 500. Lucas Luhr was underwhelming in his IndyCar debut, but rookie James Davison was much more impressive than his eighteenth place finish would indicate.

I’ll be curious to listen to Trackside this week to get the take of Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee on the race and especially “The Call”. It will also be interesting to see what carryover effect there is between the Penske and Ganassi teams in Baltimore. If only this had been a double-header…

But overall, I’d say this was the most entertaining race I’ve witnessed from Sonoma. Usually, the Monday morning conversations are about what a boring race it was. That is certainly not the case this morning.

George Phillips

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30 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Sonoma”

  1. The American Mutt Says:

    It’s not controversial at all, Dixon took a shortcut out through Powers pit box. Here’s the actual lines http://www.indycals.net/images/misc/willspitbox.jpg

  2. Power’s crew man made the mistake. Neither driver was affected by it. There should not have been a penalty assessed.

  3. Clearly carelessness on the part of the Power pit crew. Bogus penalty on Dixon. I understand the excuse but it doesn’t past muster with me. Having watched racing for years, they don’t enforce that line religiously. When Power left th pits he drove through several other pit lanes before going out on the main pit road. If its a penalty, its a penalty if someone is hit or not.

    I think at least there should have been no penalty. At best, a penalty against Will Power. There is no excuse for that crew member not paying attention.

  4. A five week gap in the schedule after Baltimore? Seriously? That’s the entire NASCAR off-season. They should just call it a day and try to do better next year. Jeez.

    Didn’t see the race or the incident, but I say Dixon is in the right because I like Dixon.

  5. As for the call….Rules are rules and there isn’t any gray area. Dixon hit the guy and so be it. By the way, I am pulling for Dixon.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    I agreed with the penalty, because you cannot have people getting hit in the pits, even when it is due to their own carelessness (and I’m 99.9% sure Power’s crewman was simply not paying attention). I did not agree with Beaux Barfield’s justification for the penalty, in fact, I thought it was utterly unconvincing.

    The primary problem with Barfield’s on-air explanation was his suggestion that Dixon did something out of the ordinary. That doesn’t pass my eye test. Dixon exited his pit box the way pretty much every other driver did/has. Barfield then goes on to be the first person in history to use the placement of pit wall banners as the official boundaries of a pit box. He would have been better served by simply saying “you can’t hit people in the pits” and leaving it at that. It’s unfortunate that officiating has had to play such a role in the championship in an otherwise thrilling season.

    No mention of Roger Penske angrily gesturing at Marco? I presume Penske was unhappy with Marco’s attempts to make the race exciting, thus upsetting Sonoma’s natural order of things.

  7. I’m rooting for Dixon overall but he was clearly at fault. When told to go he stomped on the gas, his rear slid to the left and at the point of impact his car was still sliding with the front wheels pointed to the LEFT to control the skid.

    Sorry, but Dixon was completely at fault. The fact that he only cared about the penalty and not about the human being he had just run down speaks volumes about both him and the new generation of young people who take responsibility for NOTHING.

  8. Mike Hare Says:

    Don’t recall Barfield ever saying much of anything, let alone something that ill considered in ALMS. Think other pressures at work in the Indy Car circus. Pit lane equipment struck. Obvious penalty. What was in the head/heart of Penske crew. Who the hell knows. He deserves a reprimand for inattention. Obviously complicit in his injuries.

  9. I was standing there pre-grid with Mario and the contest winner, TJ from Galveston. Mario tried talking to him, not a real conversationalist if you get my drift. He looked nervous.

  10. I’d like to know why IndyCar doesn’t use the marked pit stalls? That would clearly define where the pit box is, instead of relying on looking for where the pit wall banners end (which you can’t do when you are leaving the box, anyway).

    • I wondered that also, Arthur.

    • The white line markings are for the Cup race. Since that’s where Sears Point’s bread is buttered, I’m sure that they’d rather leave the stalls marked out for that race and save the cash on having to re-paint for every other event. Too bad, I guess.

      • I guess I’m sorta dense on this topic, Geek. I understand the stalls are marked up for Nascar. Clear white lines. It looked like the Indycar pits sort of overlapped those lines–they were marked out differently and not that clearly at all (at least from the photo I saw.) So–understanding also that they want to leave the stalls for Nascar–why didn’t Indycar just utilize the Nascar stalls as marked rather than define their own? Am I missing something obvious?

        • red, my understanding is that IndyCars are not (and never have been) all that nimble at slow speeds (has to do with the suspension geomerty that you want to optimize for taking lots of corners well in excess of 100 MPH instead of the 3-4 times you’ll come into the pits at 50-60 MPH). Add in the “no power steering” factor and you have a car that’s a little harder to turn at pit lane speeds. That requires a longer pit box for entry/exit. Also not to be forgotten is that IndyCars have refuelling hoses, which require the cars to be closer to the pitwall than NASCAR’s gas cans do (Cup cars can pit all the way out to the outer edge of the stall, which is simply impossible in an IndyCar). Getting closer to the pitwall requires a longer box for that extended trajectory. Anyway, that’s why IndyCar boxes are so much larger than NASCAR’s.

          • Mike Hare Says:

            And here I thought it was because they can be! IndyCar race, maybe 24 cars, NASCAR 43 so pit boxes can be almost twice as long.

    • The explanation during the race was that those pit boxes are too small for IndyCars. As to why they don’t make their own pit boxes, that is a mystery.

      Also a mystery is why Dixon was so careless. Oh well…..

  11. Chris Lukens Says:

    I’ll admit my prediction about this years race at Sonoma was wrong. I predicted a snoozefest and it was any thing but. Between the yellows there was some prettty good racing. However I think the broadcast crew was not nearly up to their previous high standards. Jakes went off course and could not continue, broken half shaft?, clutch wouldn’t engage?, the TV crew didn’t have a word to say. Carpenter went from P5 to P20 in two laps and not a word as to why. Of course he also went from P24 to P5 and they couldn’t mention that either. A lot of interest in Lucas Luer and not word on why he dropped out. When Dixon was penalized they didn’t analyze and report, they just ranted. I think it’s time to move Beekhuis back into the booth and maybe have Dallenbach help Robin with the gridwalk.
    And “the call.” After reading all of the comments on the intertards, and viewing all of the tapes, it is perfectly obvious what happened. The morning of the race the Captain asked for volunteers to jump in front of a speeding race car and the RR tire changer jumped up and said he would just love to have the chance of possibly being maimed or killed. Makes perfect sense. And of course he was carrying the tire wrong. The whole problem could have been solved if he had just carried the tire on top of his head !! My take, it was a good and necessary call.

  12. A penalty is almost a given when someone is hit, but the Penske crewman was walking with the tire perpendicular to his left side and he looked as if he was on a walk in the park. No one can know the crewman’s intent, but since he was hit with Dixon’s rear wing he clearly could see and hear Dixon leaving. With all the time leading up to this race one would think that the Sonoma track manager could have had the IndyCar boxes painted. NASCAR pit boxes painted, IndyCar pit boxes not painted. Twas ever thus.

  13. A preface: I am a Dario fan (he’s probably one of my top-10 favorite drivers of all time), a Dixon fan (I think he’s probably one of the top-3 drivers of this generation of IndyCar drivers and could probably hold his own in any type of car), a Mike Hull fan (from what I’ve read of his columns on Racer.com, I think he’s probably one of the five smartest guys in the IndyCar paddock) and even a Ganassi fan (they’ve had the highest hit rate in employing my favorite drivers for some 20+ years now). All of that said…

    …those guys are all wrong (though I would expect no less than for them to argue for their own side…you, me and everybody else would probably do the same in their shoes). That indycals.com picture that Mutt linked to above is all you need to know. Power’s Right Rear tire changer is only like 12″ away from Power’s rear wing and is on a path to just walk around the air jack guy by about a half step. Dixon takes an exit trajectory that is too shallow (cutting almost an entire car width into Power’s box), given that a car and an entire crew of guys is all laid out just in front of his box. Penalty: Dixon.

    Look at this one other way: Power had to swerve around Dixon’s Right Front tire changer on the way into his pit. Same as Dixon had to avoid Power’s Right Rear changer on the way out of his pit. If Power had clipped Dixon’s guy on the way in, I’d be arguing for a penalty on Power.

  14. Dixon’s rear end was not sliding left. His rear wheels were not spinning. The crew man carried the tire into Dixon’s car. Dixon has to watch his right mirror from traffic coming on his right. All crew members have to keep their heads up and be aware of what is happening around them when they are moving to or from their assigned jobs. The crew man was at fault.

  15. Is time overdue for INDYCAR to institute Pit Crew & Driver Training and mandate Standard Operating Procedures for all involved within the ‘Pit Box?’

    Any penalty to be assessed to Power for forcing Dario into the grass?

    Any penalty for Power driving through Pit Boxes while he exited his own Pit Box?

    Any penalty for Roger harassing a driver post-race?

    The bag of penalties is empty?

    • Come on, BW, has Dario ever been penalized for forcing Power off the track? How about the time he hit him and spun Power, causing him to fall from contention to last place while everyone squeezed by. I forget what race that was, but it was in 2011 or 2012. This stuff happens all the time, and rarely is there a penalty. It’s just racing.

      Your hatred of the Penske team is showing, and it ain’t pretty.

      • Toronto 2 years ago while Power was leading the race. Dario spun him out and won. Power finished 24th and it was part of what cost him the title that year.

  16. George, I completely agree with your comments about Marty Snider in his interview with Mike Hull. He was way off base, trying to suggest that Mike was saying the crewman’s accident was intentional. Mike did not even imply such a thing.

    I’d go so far as to say Snider should be disciplined by NBCSN, maybe being forced to miss a couple of races.

  17. Mike Hull said it best on “Query & Schultz” show on Monday.They leave the equipment on the ground after a pit stop.Maybe we do need “Pit Crew Training”. That way the human “intentions” cannot come into play. Glad nobody was hurt physically, maybe instead of a drive through, maybe take away “practice” time next weekend. Regardless, Barfield made the call, 27 other responses on the subject, and you thought Barnhart was bad, especially RM. Who says controversy is bad, we are all talking about it. Just did not agree with the call, but I will be watching this weekend for the next chapter.

  18. Wow, what a race, I hate to see it decided like that but it does happen. I think it is ridiculous to suggest the crewman “walked in to Dixon’s car” as Wally and Townsend did on the broadcast. To me, they went way overboard with their criticism of the crewman, almost to the point of ridiculing him. Marty Snider gets an F too for the way he tried to stir things up and put words into Mike Hull’s mouth. I’m glad Mike took the high road and showed a lot of class with his reply, as did Tim Cindric.

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