The Pits: To Close Or Not To Close?
Note – Once again, I’ve turned over the reins of this site over to Paul Dalbey of More Front Wing. Most of the time we agree. However, on today’s topic – we don’t see exactly eye-to-eye. Still, its a good topic worthy of discussion. – GP
Trivia: What do you the Colorado Rockies, Justin Bieber, Y2K, Harry Potter, Facebook, and the careers of every current Verizon IndyCar Series driver have in common?
Answer: Not a single one of them was around when Indy car racing left the pit lane open when a caution period commenced on course.
That’s right — there isn’t a single driver in today’s Verizon IndyCar Series that raced in a time when drivers were allowed to duck into pit lane before the pace car had the field in tow. In fact, there are a good number of today’s drivers who weren’t even born when CART and USAC implemented the rule prior to the 1992 season.
Without looking up the stats to be certain, I believe the last driver who would have driven in that era was Paul Tracy, who made his debut with Dale Coyne Racing in 1991 before finishing out the season as a test driver with Team Penske. (Ironically, PT’s debut race at Long Beach featured the infamous incident between Michael Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi that was a catalyst for CART’s rule change.) Yet even though there are very few people remaining in the paddock who were part of open-wheel racing prior to the 1992 rule change, there seems to be a renewed focus on the rule recently. It seems as though people had forgotten the rule existed or suddenly have figured out that it plays a major part of race strategy.
This past weekend in Long Beach, the issue came to the fore again when Chip Ganassi Racing’s Mike Hull lamented about the effect this rule had on Scott Dixon’s race. To be fair, this was the second race in a row where Dixon saw a potential victory slip away because another team was able to take advantage of strategy and get to the front of the field. However, I’m sure it hasn’t slipped Dixon’s (or Hull’s) mind how the #9 team was able to play that same strategy to perfection and take advantage of an optimally-timed yellow flag to drive from last to first at Mid-Ohio in 2014, beating none other than Sebastien Bourdais who used the same strategy to duplicate the same feat a month ago in St. Pete by beating Scott Dixon to the line.
There are many more examples of teams using the yellow flags to get a leg up on the competition. So regardless of what Scott Dixon or Mike Hull or Will Power might contend, this isn’t a new issue, and it isn’t a scenario from which they haven’t benefited.
So what exactly is the issue? The rule itself states that when a yellow flag is displayed, the pits are closed until the pace car has the field in formation behind it and INDYCAR has been able to confirm the proper running order. With the field packed nose to tail when the pits are opened, anyone who pits immediately prior to the yellow flag and stays on track passes everyone who pits, thereby jumping to the top of the standings. If a car pits one or two laps before the yellow flag, they are still essentially on the same strategy as those who pit later, but now they have erased a potentially massive deficit. Big advantage to the trailing car. (Obviously this strategy only works if a driver can pit prior to the yellow flag and remain on the lead lap.)
On the flip side of the rule and looking at how it used to be long, long ago, drivers would duck into the pits as quickly as possible when a yellow flag was displayed, often at dangerously high speeds nearing that of green flag racing on course, because all cars on track were required to immediately slow to yellow flag speed. If a driver was able to get his pit stop completed early in the yellow period while unbunched cars were moving a pace car speed on the track, they were likely to lose some of their time advantage on track but unlikely to lose positions. Big advantage to the car closest to the pit entrance.
It’s not as if all was perfect with the old rule either. Let’s imagine the scenario where the leader was ahead by 15 seconds and a yellow flag was displayed after the leader passed the pit commit line but before the second-place driver had done so. Suddenly the second place driver can pit immediately and get back on track while the leader is driver around at slow speed. Now the advantage swings to the second place driver and the leader is hung out to dry again.
My point in all this is that there is no perfect solution. The Good Old Days had their pit falls just as much as today’s rules. Everyone gets screwed sometimes, and everyone is a benefactor sometimes. In fact, the great Rick Mears once told me that the rule only stinks when you’re the leader. All the other times (which is a majority of the time), you benefit from it. You just don’t seem to remember those times. Right on, Rick. Right on.
Back in the Beau Barfield days, efforts were made to give the Race Stewards some discretion over leaving the pits open during a caution period or even delaying a caution for minor situations to allow all drivers to pit if a pit sequence has already started. By and large, the system worked satisfactorily, but there were a couple of occasions where delays in a yellow flag raised some eyebrows, and the unknowns of when the pits would be and wouldn’t be closed caused some second guessing. In the end, the procedure was abandoned fairly quickly and INDYCAR reverted to its standard rule shortly thereafter.
Now, nobody in an official capacity as ever once solicited my opinion on this matter, but that won’t stop me from offering one anyway. I don’t actually mind the pack-up procedure because I think it benefits everyone on track except for the top couple guys. For the benefit of the many, I’m willing to sacrifice the benefit of the guys at the top. (Racing here, folks. Racing!! Leave politics out of this!!) Leaving the pits open leaves just as much of a chance that drivers are significantly disadvantaged depending on where they are on track at the moment the yellow flag appears.
That said, I also hate how long the caution periods are while INDYCAR gets the field packed up and confirms the running order, allows teams to pit, rebunches the field, confirms the running order again, moves cars out of the way if necessary, scrubs the track, and then lets them race again. Instead of all this, I’d like INDYCAR to simply use the caution for what the caution was intended for — clearing a danger from the track. Whether there is debris that takes 15 seconds to clear or a major accident that take 15 minutes to clear, once the hazard is removed from the track, the racing should immediately return to green flag conditions. A team would be allowed to pit under yellow (again, once the field is bunched), but INDYCAR wouldn’t wait around for them to pit and get back in order. If they chose to pit and are caught on pit road when the green flag comes out, tough luck.
This usage of the yellow flag would result in debris cautions that should never take more than three laps (maybe one or two more at short tracks like Iowa or Phoenix) and eliminate the dreaded 12-lap debris caution. And who doesn’t like more green flag racing?
Would this system eliminate any and all inherent unfairness out of the equation? I doubt it. I’m sure there are unintended consequences that I haven’t considered, but it could be a step in the right direction. What this could do is discourage seems from trying to pit under caution knowing that a caution may only last two laps, especially if the race may go green only one lap after the pits are opened.
Is there a perfect solution to making sure no driver or team gets shafted on an unfortunately timed yellow flag? Probably not. The closest thing INDYCAR could do would be to remove the pace car and somehow remotely engage a pit-speed limiter on all cars when the yellow flag is displayed, theoretically keeping all cars at the same differential during a yellow flag as they were prior to it (kind of how the original PACER system was intended to work at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before Bobby Unser exploited that loophole). But if for no other reason than simply the entertainment value of “The Show,” I don’t think anyone wants to go back to this. Yellow flags now have a nice way of shuffling the deck, and that is often the saving grace of many races.
At this time, I’ve seen no indication from any official source that would suggest INDYCAR is even toying with the idea of changing this rule. It’s been in place for 25 years now (although the speed limits have gradually been reduced from 100 mph to 60 mph over the years), and whether or not it needs a slight tweak, the rule as it currently stands works well enough. Even for the guys consistently running at the front of the field, the benefits will always outweigh the occasional drawbacks over the course of a season, so suggesting a driver is an overall victim of the rule is disingenuous.
By this time, everyone knows the rules of the game, and as mentioned earlier, there isn’t even a driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series today that has ever raced in top-level open wheel racing under a different rules package. It would be nice if this issue just quietly faded away, but unfortunately, it seems to be gaining steam rather than sputtered to a halt.