Brian’s Song: The Return & Other Tidbits
There was already plenty to write about for today, with the return of Brian Barnhart. Then we heard about the cancellation of the season-opening race in Brazil, late yesterday afternoon. Since this is still a developing story as I sit down to write, I’ll continue with my plan to write about Brian Barnhart and what I think this means to the Verizon IndyCar Series. But by Monday, there should be enough facts in hand to have a pretty good handle on exactly what happened with Brazil.
Since the news broke less than forty-eight hours ago that Brian Barnhart would be named as Race Director for the Verizon IndyCar Series, there has been nothing but hand-wringing on social media for the past two days.
Wednesday morning – John Oreovicz, of ESPN, tweeted out a tease that Wednesday afternoon, IndyCar fans would be told news that would make us think it was either April Fool’s Day or Groundhog Day. I had no idea what it was. I surmised that either the aero kits were going to be delayed or else the opening race at Brasilia had been cancelled.
I didn’t know I was so prophetic, but as I mentioned earlier – we learned late yesterday afternoon that Brasilia has, in fact, been cancelled. That was not the news that was forthcoming Wednesday. We’ve had two bombshells in two days. Quite honestly, the loss of the Brazil race is the bigger bombshell. As I said – I’ll have much, much more to say about this latest debacle on Monday.
An hour or so after the teasing tweet, Curt Cavin broke the news about Barnhart. I’ve been on Twitter since 2009, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a (bleep)-storm as I saw that day. The Legions of the Miserable were out in force. One thing was apparent – IndyCar fans are still very passionate; even in January.
I will admit, my initial reaction was not much different from those I was reading – it just wasn’t as strong. I wasn’t horrified like some, but I wasn’t particularly overjoyed either. Like everyone, I’ve taken my share of shots at Barnhart – some cheaper than others. Let’s face it – he’s a very easy target.
Most people associate Barnhart with a quick trigger for penalties and a very rigid and inflexible stance. He’s been given nicknames like The Iron Hand of Justice and TGBB (The Great Brian Barnhart). Those detractors are not incorrect in that association, but my bad taste comes from a slightly different direction.
Lately, I’ve referred to this current administration as returning to the “bunker mentality” of the Tony George administration. That is what I most associate Barnhart with – that bunker mentality. In the Tony George regime, my perception was that Barnhart was Tony George’s right-hand man and that he really enjoyed being that close to the throne. The two of them pretty much made all decisions, and if no one liked it – tough! To me, it seemed that their viewpoint was “this would be a great series, if we didn’t have all these fans we had to deal with”.
Since hearing Tony George speak was about as inspiring as a forty-pound bag of fertilizer; Barnhart was essentially the face and voice of the series. And more times than not, his messages were not pleasant. It didn’t matter who was the originator of the message – Barnhart was the messenger. Therefore he was always associated with negativity, deserved or not. If I had to narrow down the Tony George/Brian Barnhart era of the last decade to one word, it would be – arrogance.
When Tony George was ousted in 2009 and subsequently replaced by Randy Bernard in 2010, Brian Barnhart was operating alone without his main supporter. I am not a psychologist, so I don’t know if George’s absence exacerbated Barnhart’s behavior – but it sure seemed that Barnhart’s race officiating became a lot more visible…and more horrendous.
To make things worse, the more Barnhart was criticized – the more he dug in. His word was final, and he knew it. If anyone questioned his calls, his resolve strengthened and he turned a deaf ear to the criticism. Fans, owners and even drivers were scoffed at. They knew nothing and should not even be listened to – at least that was my perception.
After the debacle at New Hampshire in 2011, it was reported that Randy Bernard had fired Barnhart during the offseason. As it turned out, that wasn’t quite true. He was removed as Director of Race Control, but was still head of Racing Operations. Last year, he was in the rotation to serve as one of three stewards at IndyCar races.
As best I can tell, his new title effectively makes him Chief Steward of the total three stewards at any given race. It’s unclear to me if he is one vote of three or the deciding vote. Whatever the case, he no longer has the last word. That now belongs to Derrick Walker, his boss. As I understand it, Walker has the ability to override any decision of the stewards. That’s a good thing if points are taken away from a driver or if the finishing order is changed to reflect a penalty. I’m not sure what happens if Barnhart issues the random drive-through penalty for a foul a driver didn’t commit. Once the penalty has been enforced, they can’t really give the positions lost back to the driver. I suppose that remains to be seen.
Getting back to the big picture, is the angst that has been displayed throughout the IndyCar fandom really justified? Many feel that it is. I’m not so sure.
There are some that say that Barnhart has been rehabilitated and has changed his ways. I believe in second chances and all, but I also think that it’s pretty tough to change your core personality. To quote coach Bill Parcells – “You are what you are”.
Among what’s left of the IndyCar blogging community, I think I had less contact with Brian Barnhart than anyone. I’ve met him twice, just long enough to shake his hand; each time the morning before a race – and he had no clue who I was. Other bloggers and former bloggers have apparently had much more interaction with Barnhart than I have. But there is one common thread between those I’ve communicated with over the years – they all had good things to say about him. He is described as very accommodating, pleasant and easy to work with.
I also know some folks, whose judgment I trust, who count Brian Barnhart as a personal friend. They describe him as a good and decent man. They also say they are surprised he took the job that will throw him back into the spotlight he has purposely avoided for the past three years. It probably illustrates that not many people were lining up to apply for the job. It’s a very thankless job that few people would want. Who would want it? I wouldn’t.
The other night on Trackside, Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee made it a point to mention that even though this is not popular with fans, no one in the paddock is complaining. Barnhart is well-respected there – which is where it counts. I always questioned the integrity of a Chief Steward that had a Twitter account and wanted to be popular.
So while I think it’s tough to change your core personality, it can be controlled with hard work and discipline. People do learn from their mistakes. Over time, it becomes easier to control your emotions and resist your natural instinct. As we get older, common sense begins to override the first impulse to go through our head.
For example, I used to be considered an opinionated hot-head that needed a filter. Lately, I’ve grown into the tranquil teddy bear that everyone has come to know. I’ve learned to override my temper and my mouth with time and age. Only occasionally does the inner me surface. For those that are humorly challenged and tend to take everything literally – this paragraph is very tongue-in-cheek.
But it does prove a point. We may make it through the Indianapolis 500, Texas and Iowa without a problem. The system of three stewards with Barnhart in charge may work beautifully. But at some point, when there is a controversial moment that requires a tough call to be made, the inner Barnhart could surface. Will the new and improved Brian Barnhart be able to suppress the inner Brian Barnhart that lurks within? Let’s hope so. Time will tell.
Now that Barnhart has returned and we’ve lost the Brazil race, I’m hoping the aero kits are still on deck for St. Petersburg. Stay tuned.