Race Control Gets Another Makeover

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There seems to be a wide range of opinions regarding the (once again) restructuring of Race Control for the upcoming Verizon IndyCar Series season. Some think that IndyCar should have one chief steward calling all the shots, the way that CART entrusted Wally Dallenbach to do things for twenty-two seasons (1979-2000). In their defense, that worked quite well. Dallenbach was a former driver, had the respect of everyone in the paddock and had a history of making quick and mostly fair calls.

Others feel that there is no way that any one person can or should be expected to make calls that affect a race or a drivers standing in the points.

I’m not sure that everyone appreciated what a rare commodity it was having the same person serving alone as Race Control in the same position for so long. Established drivers such as Bobby Rahal and Emerson Fittipaldi drove their entire Indy car careers with Dallenbach calling the shots.

Times have changed and more of a democracy is expected. The single-person calling the shots concept worked for Dallenbach in the eighties and nineties, but would it work today – even with the fairness and objectivity that Dallenbach displayed during his tenure? Probably not.

It certainly did not work for IndyCar, when Brian Barnhart was a team of one attempting to achieve in IndyCar what Dallenbach had in CART – respect among the paddock and total acceptance of his calls. He got neither.

That is what former CEO Randy Bernard was trying to overcome when he removed Barnhart from Race Control and hired Beaux Barfield in 2012 to replace him. For the record – I was never a Barfield fan. He seemed to enjoy being the star of the show too much for my liking. Anytime a race official, or any type of sports referee, enjoys the limelight – that’s not a good thing.

Like most in that position, Barfield received heavy criticism from drivers – especially in 2013. For the 2014 season, Barfield was forced to be supported by stewards in Race Control to make calls by committee. The idea was to remove the pressure of responsibility of one person making absolute judgment and get a consensus from the group on whether or not a driver should be penalized. It seemed to make sense, especially the way that Barnhart had bungled so many crucial calls in previous years.

There was a rotation of stewards in 2014 between Barnhart, Johnny Unser, Arie Luyendyk, Tony Cotman and Jon Beekhuis.

After three seasons, Barfield had had enough. He felt the committee concept sent a very muddled and unclear message and he wanted no more part of it.

For 2015, IndyCar President of Competition and operations Derrick Walker reinstated Brian Barnhart as race Director and set up his committee that had some revolving stewards but more permanent stewards as well; that included only one former driver for much of the season – Johnny Unser.

No offense to Johnny Unser, but he only started five races in CART (and failed to qualify for three more) over the 1993 and 1994 seasons – four of which were road courses.. He did have fifteen IRL starts between 1996 and 2000 in the all-oval era, including four starts in the Indianapolis 500. To his credit, Johnny Unser has a reputation for being fair-minded and level-headed. But I’m not sure that four starts on road and street courses more than twenty years ago made him the best candidate to officiate a series that is predominantly non-ovals.

For this coming season, the stewards will be the same for every race. Chief steward, Dan Davis has forty years of automotive experience, with fourteen as director of Ford Racing Technology. He will oversee former drivers Arie Luyendyk and Max Papis. The team of three stewards will ultimately report to Jay Frye, Walker’s successor.

Papis has extensive road and street course experience, having been very successful in sports cars for a couple of decades, as well as a handful of races in Formula One in 1995. Papis was a multi-race winner as a full-time driver in CART from 1996, as a replacement for the late Jeff Krosnoff, until the end of the 2001 season. He also drove in a handful of IndyCar races near the end of his career – including two Indianapolis 500’s.

Arie Luyendyk drove full-time in CART from 1985 through 1994, with the exception of the 1992 season when Vince Granatelli closed up shop after the 1991 season that saw Luyendyk win two races at Phoenix and Nazareth, while finishing sixth in the final standings. He won the 1990 Indianapolis 500 while driving for Doug Shierson.

After running only two races in 1995, Luyendyk made the jump to the IRL when it was formed in 1996. He joined Treadway Racing and in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, set a new track record of 237.498 that still stands today. Luyendyk retired from full-time driving after the 1998 season, having won four IRL races along with another Indianapolis 500 victory in 1997. Luyendyk has stayed heavily involved with IndyCar since his final race at Michigan in 2002.

I’ll be honest, I know very little about Dan Davis but like what I hear about him. On the other hand, I vividly remember the entire careers of both Papis and Luyendyk. They both have extensive racing experience and know what it takes not only to win, but to salvage a ride. They’ve both tasted both ends of the racing spectrum and each knows how to race cleanly. What I really like is that they each represent one end of the emotional spectrum. Max Papis is extremely emotional, while Luyendyk is calm and stoic. They will probably see situations differently and it will be up to Davis to interpret what each one saw.

Another plus is that Jay Frye has acknowledged that dishing out penalties in the middle of the next week was asinine. He has vowed that incidents will be reviewed quickly and any ensuing penalties will be handed down in a swift manor, during the race when possible.

Will this new crew be flawless in their new duties? Hardly. I would think it will take time for the proper chemistry. Will they blow a few calls? Count on it.

But having two former drivers in Race Control adds credibility among the drivers on the track. Having the same crew week after week adds continuity and over time, builds the needed chemistry where each person will know what the others are thinking.

Robin Miller called the panel of Papis, Luyendyk, Davis and Frye “a barbershop quartet”. He prefers the single person to make decisions and be one strong voice for IndyCar. I usually agree with Robin Miller, but this time he and I have differing opinions. He wants to recall the single voice of Wally Dallenbach a generation ago. While I certainly remember how Dallenbach doled out penalties with clarity, I also have vivid memories of Brian Barnhart making the wrong call by himself and carving the penalties in stone without being second guessed.

In reviewing any potential list of candidates even willing to take on that thankless job, I would imagine there would be a lot more Barnharts and far fewer Dallenbachs on that list than anyone would want to admit. Wally Dallenbach was the exception, not the norm.

It’s better to take a few more minutes to review something by committee and get it right, rather than have someone with an itchy trigger finger, or worse yet – an agenda, make the wrong call and stubbornly enforce it.

So I say let’s give this new team a chance. Be patient, while they get to know each other. It may not always be pretty, but after a few races we’ll probably start seeing the results of a well-officiated race. How will we know that? We’ll never hear them mentioned. That’s the ultimate compliment for an official.

George Phillips

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8 Responses to “Race Control Gets Another Makeover”

  1. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I think officiating any sport, especially at the highest level, is perhaps the most thankless job there is. As long as they’re prepared to focus on being consistent and fair at the expense of all else (including perhaps some existing relationships), there is no reason they can’t do a great job.

    Racing has moments when two competitors could easily be right or wrong (what precisely is unavoidable contact anyway?) at the same time in the same incident. Those are the moments that will test this crew.

    They must count on controversy.

    At what level and what amount they can handle will be the question.

    I suggest re-reading the rule book over and over again. You know most owners do.

  2. I will go with DZ. I think the new “crew” has the experience and as long as they are up on the rules this arrangement should work out just fine.

  3. sejarzo Says:

    The series also needs to clean up that rule book so the stewards can do their job correctly. Any attorney or government wonk who crafts contracts or regulations who reads it would have a conniption fit.

  4. billytheskink Says:

    I think the changes for this season are very good, but it will remain to be seen if the chosen officials are right for their jobs.

    The more turnover we see in race control the more it looks like Dallenbach’s level head was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

  5. Ron Ford Says:

    I think it is widely acknowledged now and likely during his tenure that Wally Dallenbach did a fine job with Race Control. It perhaps helped his legacy that he did not have to deal with social media at the time-such as instant tweets questioning every aspect of his persona and decision making skills.

  6. Brian McKay Says:

    I agree with George, DZ, and Ron.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    If I may depart from the subject for a moment: If you are looking for a bit of twisty racing between now and St. Pete, check out the Iditarod website. Single file restarts, no aero kits, and only brief stops for yellow.

  8. Lynn Weinberg Says:

    My comment is more of a question. Well first of all, I think the group of the same consistent stewards is a good idea. As long as they can come up with a penalty DURING the race.

    My question is: Are there any sports (non-racing) where the officials are analyzed so much? Not the officiating, but the actual human officials. I don’t have the attention span to watch baseball game until the end, but I do watch some football. I’ve never seen the actual official from the MLB or NFL that made a decision then have to face a group of reporters and defend himself. Don’t other sports do this through a spokesperson, or an analyst on the network?

    As much as I disliked Barnhart most of the time, I think it was a little unfair for the series to expect him to go in front of the press minutes after the race. It’s a crappy thankless job, but I don’t know what the answer is.

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