The Pit Closure Debate Continues

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This past Friday, David Malsher of Motorsport.com wrote an article that quoted IndyCar President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye as saying that the sanctioning body was in the process of reviewing various procedures for the 2018 IndyCar season. The one that caught my eye was the rule that automatically closes the pits anytime there is a caution. If there was ever a reason to stand up and cheer at a computer, this would be it.

Frye explained that the series is trying to eliminate randomness we’ve seen in recent years, in order to ensure that the teams that come to the track prepared with the fastest car and best drivers are rewarded, rather than the lucky ones. Some might balk at the idea, but I think it’s one that is way overdue.

How many times did we see Helio Castroneves or Scott Dixon use their skill to get better fuel mileage along with speed from their car, build up a big lead? Then by running out front and going an extra lap or two with better fuel mileage, they are penalized because they pitted late and were caught out by a caution, which essentially sent them to the back of the field when they finally pitted after the field bunched everyone up.

Part of pit strategy is figuring out how far you can go on one stint. But in this age of closing the pits immediately, you must factor in pitting sooner than you need to so that you aren’t caught out later than everyone else when a yellow came out.

Of course, this won’t totally do away with luck or randomness. Before this rule came out, I remember Gordon Johncock benefitted greatly from a well-timed yellow during the 1991 Indianapolis 500. The yellow flag flew just as he was coming out of Turn Four in the later stages of the race. He darted into the pits at the last second. With no pit speed-limit at that time, he was able to get serviced and rejoin the field not too long after the pace car even got rolling. He parlayed that lucky pit stop into a sixth place finish, but that’s a little deceiving since he was still twelve laps down at the finish.

Luck has always been a part of racing and always will be. But racing should not be a crap-shoot.

Caution periods are always random and can help stir the pot of an otherwise boring race. But the pot should be stirred by a team doing themselves in with a bad pit stop or the driver stalling the engine while anxiously trying to get out ahead of everyone else. When a driver has done everything right and driven a brilliant race, it shouldn’t be blown up because there is an end-plate in an obscure part of the track. Why not just shoot water cannons at the cars on the front-straightaway, if randomness is what you’re searching for?

If IndyCar chooses to leave the pits open next season, it will not take the randomness out of the equation totally, but it will help. Those that benefit may be those who got mired back in eighteenth place for one reason or another. An open pit may or may not help them to move into the Top-Ten. But for those out in front because they had performed all weekend; there is not a big a chance that they would be penalized for something that is no fault of their own other than not pitting just as the pit window opened.

I know that not everyone will agree with me on this. They will say that is how the smaller teams have to win races. While I’m all about seeing small teams and lesser known drivers thrive and have their moment in the sun, isn’t racing supposed to be about what team came to the track best prepared with the fastest car and driver?

Even my good friend, Paul Dalbey, formerly of More Front Wing, does not feel as strongly about this as I do. He wrote a post on it here just this past spring.

Personally, I’m glad Jay Frye is taking a long look at this policy. He and the owners may decide that it’s best to leave the pits closed or some type of compromise solution. Even if they end up doing nothing, I like knowing that they reviewed it. That’s why I like Jay Frye – he listens. Not only does he listen to the fans, he listens to the drivers and their team owners. He is not content to blow things off because that’s the way things have always been.

The pit closure rule went into effect in 1992, before some of these drivers were even born. Even the reigning IndyCar champion, Josef Newgarden, was barely more than one year old when this rule went into effect. So whatever changes they make will be a big adjustment for all of the drivers, because none of this current crop knew anything different.

But I’m hoping that Jay Frye and the powers-that-be will try leaving the pits open at least in 2018, as an experiment. After next season, they can review it and analyze the pros and cons. Then they can decide whether or not to keep the rule, trash it or make some tweaks to it. Like all new rules, there will be some unintended consequences. But I think it’s worth a try. Otherwise, watching an IndyCar race – especially a road or street race – will end up being a crap shoot; where no matter how hard a team prepares and how fast a driver is, the outcome could be decided by a piece of carbon-fiber lying harmlessly on the track. I don’t think anybody wants that.

George Phillips

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9 Responses to “The Pit Closure Debate Continues”

  1. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’ve always loved the element of organic unpredictability in most any sporting event and leaving the pits open can only add another variable to that equation. Many years ago, mechanical issues were often as big a variable as yellows/crashes.

    The other ‘end’ of this Pit-open question is also how the safety car picks up the field in the case of a yellow. Rules will need to be very clear, and race control will need to be very quick, clear, and precise about getting the car out to pick up the field in the proper place when a yellow appears.

    With pit road speed limits and other safety measures in place, pit road is far safer than it ever has been (although still a dangerous place for crew), which would be a priority over competition for me.

    If increasing safety is still a factor in this decision, and lowering the pit speed limits made it safer while keeping pits open all the time, I’d be in favor.

    Ultimately, I’m completely in favor of leaving the pits open at all times during the race, regardless of flag color.

  2. The Lapper Says:

    I always thought that closing the pits made no practical sense. This is long over due and if things turn bad then change it back the following season.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I’m fine with not closing the pits under caution, provided the series has a plan in place to prevent racing back to the pits once the yellow flag flies. Yellow means yellow, whether the pits are open or not.

  4. James T Suel Says:

    I think the pits should always be open , unless there’s some problems in the pit area. Iam a old purest, if the the yellow comes out and your near pit entrance you should be able to enter. Next time someone else may benifit. The more you keep the officials out of the outcome the better. We have way to many rules now days. Everyone needs to remember it’s a race not a somekind of ballgame. He’ll don’t like speed limits in the pits ! There has been more crashes and people hit in the pits since they started this crap of everyone lining up behind the pace car and all pitting at the same time.

  5. The pit closure actually makes sense for safety reasons, especially on a road or street circuit where the root of the caution period might await behind every blind corner.

    However, they should not award double points for any of the races.

  6. I also think the pits should always be open for service, but I also want Indy to go back to its traditional qualifying format, the apron to return, and double points to go bye bye. So at the risk of sounding all “bitter-Gordon-Kirby-bring-back-the-old-days” on ya, I’ll just say in Jay Frye I trust.

  7. Kyle Brown Says:

    It looks like I’m in the minority here, but I enjoy the strategy that currently surrounds pit stops. No one forces the leader to stay out with the pit window is open – it’s a gamble the team chooses to make.

    If a team doesn’t want to risk getting passed by cars that already pitted, then they can stop earlier. They’ll still probably have a shorter pit stop since the car doesn’t need as much fuel. I’m surprised that teams often choose to stay out and risk getting caught out by a yellow just to gain a few seconds over the car behind them.

    The laps between other cars’ pit stops and the leader’s pit stop are currently extra intense because of the possibility of a yellow. I’d hate to lose that.

  8. I am for anything that favors the fastest driver, the most skilled driver, and/or the the best prepared equipment, so I am in favor of keeping the pits open under yellow. Jay Fyre has been a breath of fresh air since his IndyCar hire. Having said that, I am a strong believer that “YELLOW MEANS YELLOW”. So, any driver breaking that rule by racing back to the pits during a yellow should be made to drive his car to a yellow “time out” area in the pits, and he or she should have to sit there until the rest of the field has made a complete lap after the race goes green.

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