Bumping Up Against The IndyCar Rule Book

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When Alexander Rossi played some shenanigans with the start of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio a couple of weeks ago, many fans and a few drivers thought it was a dirty move. As the pole-sitter, Rossi had control of the field as they approached the starting line. By slowing down significantly and making everyone behind him slow down just as he took off, many felt that Race Control should have penalized him.

At the time, Paul Tracy called it a dirty move from the broadcast booth. After the race, Robert Wickens called the move “cheeky”. Many fans were outraged on social media about the move. As we all know, Race Control reviewed the move but decided to do nothing about it and Rossi went on to win the race.

I think Townsend Bell said it best during the broadcast when he said that “Alexander Rossi likes to ride right on that razor-thin line and he’s almost always on the right side of the law”. Later on, he stated that “Rossi knows better than any driver in the field, what’s acceptable and he pushes the limit every time and he always comes out clean”.

In other words, Rossi has learned the rule book, knows the limits and likes to bump up against those limits without going over the line.

Is that being dirty or being smart? I guess if you’re on the wrong end of some of his moves, you might consider it dirty – but I think it’s being smart for the most part.

Those that make a point to study the rule book learn two things. They learn what the rule book says, but more importantly – they learn what it doesn’t say.

Without even thinking about it, I can name two people right off the top of my head that are two of the most adept in IndyCar history at interpreting a rule book – Bobby Unser and Roger Penske. Bobby Unser was famous for running afoul with USAC officials, but mostly because he knew how to manipulate their own rule book better than they did.

In the infamous 1981 Indianapolis 500, Unser passed several cars coming out of the pits under caution. Mario Andretti came out closely behind and passed almost as many cars, basically because he saw Unser doing it. We all now know that Bobby Unser went on to win the race, but was stripped of the win before the next morning – with it being awarded to Mario Andretti. For five months, Mario Andretti was a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 – that is until car-owner Roger Penske and Bobby Unser took USAC to court and the win was handed back to Unser.

In court, Unser used the USAC rule book against USAC themselves. He pointed out that the rule book clearly states that under the yellow, he could pass cars that were above the white line as long as he stayed below the white line. The only car he was not allowed to pass was the pace car. The team also argued that if it was against the rules, he should have been penalized at that time, because they had enough time to get a lap back. But to wait and penalize Unser by taking away the race win was way too severe. The court gave the win back to Unser, but fined him $40,000.

This is the most famous example of Unser using the rule book in his favor, but it is not the only one. In an interview with Mark Monteith of 1070 The Fan in 2011, Unser describes how he would always study what was allowable under the CART or USAC rule book. Then he would go to the team and suggest minute changes that were either not covered under the rules, or would go unnoticed by officials during technical inspection. He takes credit for many innovations at Team Penske that were put on his car along with teammate Rick Mears. He also goes further back in time and discusses similar innovations he came up with while driving for Dan Gurney – little things that went unaddressed by the rule book. If they were discovered, they would either be copied by other teams or addressed in the following year’s rule book.

Roger Penske is another good example of someone figuring out what a rule book doesn’t say and using it to his advantage. A perfect example occurred in 1994, when Penske secretly built the 209 cid pushrod Mercedes-Benz engine to run exclusively in the Indianapolis 500. He had noticed that USAC had silently removed the restriction for “stock block” pushrod engines to contain some production-based engine parts. Penske realized this meant a purpose-built racing engine with pushrods could be built. Based on the equivalency formula at the time, pushrod engines were allowed ten extra inches of turbo boost at Indianapolis (55 inHG for pushrods; 45 inHG for all other engines).

USAC had no intention of a team utilizing a loophole to build a vastly superior engine, when they removed the requirement of production parts. They were simply trying to improve reliability of the existing pushrod engines. But they left an opening that Roger Penske discovered and took full advantage of. Was that dirty? Some thought so. Others thought it was ingenious on his part.

Andy Granatelli comes to mind with the turbines he ran in 1967 and 1968. The Pratt & Whitney turbine known as Silent Sam driven by Parnelli Jones was hated by many, including other drivers. But Graham Hill thought Granatelli was “bloody clever” and stated he was jealous. The following year, Hill himself was in another variation of the turbine that was created in response to USAC restrictions introduced a month after the 1967 Indianapolis 500. But Granatelli and Colin Chapman worked around the new rules and created the Lotus 56 for 1968, driven at even faster speeds by Hill, Joe Leonard and Art Pollard. But even Granatelli could not respond to further restrictions after 1968 that rendered the turbines obsolete.

There are many other examples of drivers, designers and team owners that have taken advantage of an existing rule or rule book and used it to their advantage. AJ Foyt and George Bignotti were rumored to have bent a few rules in their time together. So did Parnelli Jones and JC Agajanian in their storied driver-owner partnership.

There is an old saying in NASCAR of “If you’re ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’”. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Cheating is cheating and should not go unpunished.

But I have absolutely no problem with a driver or team owner taking the rulebook and using it to their advantage. In fact, I applaud it. Teams and drivers that go to the trouble to learn the rule book inside and out deserve to take advantage of what the rules say or don’t say.

Lately, I’ve had a couple of people accuse me of being an Alexander Rossi apologist because I’ve been defending his actions this season from the very first race in St. Petersburg, when he and Robert Wickens tangled in the late stages of the race. Rossi ended up on the podium, while Wickens ended up in the wall. Rossi has suddenly become the bad-boy of IndyCar. If he becomes a menace and does something blatantly wrong, I’ll take issue with it.

But I appreciate what I’ve seen from Rossi this season. Not only has he displayed an enormous driving talent, but he has also shown an ability to bump up against the rule book and use it to his advantage. Personally, I admire that in racing.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Bumping Up Against The IndyCar Rule Book”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Hats off to Rossi. He’s a very talented driver and is great for IndyCar. I hope he keeps pushing the envelope.

  2. BrandonWright77 Says:

    It’s one of my favorite parts of motorsports, seeing some clever person/team come up with a way to exploit the rule book, not because of what it says but because of what it doesn’t say. I disagree with outright cheating but I do believe “If you ain’t exploiting, you ain’t trying” because you can be sure the other teams are trying their hardest to figure out new things to exploit or what rules can be bent without breaking.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    I think playing with the rule book is smart, and a must if you want to win. I do however dislike the little stunt Rossi pulled on the start. Hope he doesn’t get the pole at Indy and pull that , your likes to see a big accident at the start. Rossi has shown himself to be one of good drivers, but I belive things will get tuffer for him soon , because the other drivers will give it back to him ,and watch how much whines!

  4. billytheskink Says:

    Rossi’s actions at Mid-Ohio are open to a little more subjective interpretation than most of the examples listed, which were largely creative and unconventional equipment solutions that fit in the rule book’s explicitly allowed parameters that were truly designed for other purposes.

    What I wanted to see at Mid-Ohio was not a penalty, but a waved off start and a warning to Rossi. Race Control has rarely been willing to wave off starts in recent years, so I was not surprised that they did not wave off this one nor penalize Rossi in any way. I will not applaud Rossi for his envelope-pushing for the same reason I don’t applaud a pick-up basketball player who bails himself out of ill-advised drives by constantly calling ticky-tack fouls, their actions made the sport less enjoyable.

  5. Quite often Rossi displays a lack of ability more than any degree of cleverness. The Mid-Ohio start is just one example of that. And no guts on the part of race control not to restart the race.

  6. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    It’s interesting to me because I am support one of two types of rules books – fairly wide-open rules/innovation/high-expense/high-diversity or tighter rules/micro-engineering/lower-diversity/lower-expense.

    The first is not practical (1970s Can-Am proved that), the second is the standard for today. Short of creating a 1,000 page rule book, there must be some base level of understanding and further interpretation allowable.

    I agree that Rossi has taken his job very seriously in doing everything within his skill set to be competitive, short of egregiously stepping over the line, and that is why he’s in the championship hunt, in my view.

    Is it enough to overhaul the likes of Dixon who appears to play more easily within the rules and succeeds on supreme merit? We shall see over the next month.

  7. “…more importantly – they learn what it doesn’t say.”
    the — it — is race control, and Rossi learned it stays silent.

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