Imagine a one-goal hockey game where the referee makes an incredibly bad call that gives the trailing team a two-man advantage with 90 seconds to go in the third period. Then, the penalized team gets scored against twice and looks to have lost after going a goal down with a handful of seconds left.
But instead of swallowing his pride and braving the inevitable criticism for a job poorly done, the referee suddenly admits he made a mistake with the penalty call and decides to go back in time, end the game as of the 18-minute mark of the third period, rule it completed, and forget the last two minutes ever happened.
Sound completely ridiculous? Well, that’s exactly what IndyCar’s president of competition Brian Barnhart did two weeks ago at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In the Aug. 14 MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225, Barnhart, who also serves as the series chief steward, made a boneheaded call to resume racing in the rain despite several drivers and teams insisting it was too wet to be safe. The five cars caught up in a crash as the field accelerated for the restart on the 1.025-mile oval illustrated the depth of his poor judgment.
After a red flag stopped the action for good, Barnhart’s solution was to delete the restart and the subsequent five laps behind the pace car from the record and determine the final finishing positions by the race order prior to the accident. Andretti driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was declared the winner even though Newman/Haas driver Oriol Servia was clearly leading before the caution came out after the crash. According to the IndyCar rulebook, Servia won the race.
But the rulebook apparently doesn't matter after a three-person IndyCar panel rejected Newman-Haas’ protest of the results, choosing to uphold Barnhart’s decision in a ruling released on Wednesday.
Cynics might say the outcome was no surprise considering the trio tipped for the panel seemed to be too close to the series to make a fair call. One is the vice-president of the track where the incident took place, another is a sponsor of an IndyCar team, which is not bad in itself, but it does mean there’s a vested interest at play. The last heads the motorsports side of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which has a close relationship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that is owned by the family that controls IndyCar.
And who picked this blue ribbon panel? That’s easy, the guy who created the mess in the first place with his terrible officiating: Barnhart.
At the heart of the decision is a clause in the IndyCar rulebook that allows the chief steward the discretion to ignore its regulations. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that since every series should have a force majeure rule in its arsenal, which allows it to act decisively in the case of an unforeseen and extraordinary event. That said, it would be more than a stretch to consider correcting a gargantuan blunder due to poor officiating as a force majeure situation.
Unfortunately, IndyCar seems to allow Barnhart’s discretion to extend far past reasonable and gives him the power to make any racing-related decision he wants, no matter the situation. That’s apparently why the panel ruled to uphold Barnhart’s New Hampshire shuffle, even though no regulation exists that allows him to erase what happened from the official record.
In fact, the lean statement from IndyCar — it totalled a whopping 118 words — didn't even mention, and worse it seems the panel didn’t even consider, the merits of the two protests lodged by Newman-Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing.
In the end, the panel decided that “Barnhart had the authority under the governing 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series rulebook to render the decision that was made.” In short, the message here is that no matter how valid the protests and how flawed the decision in New Hampshire may have been, it’s all simply irrelevant because Barnhart’s authority includes going back in time and changing history. And he doesn’t even need the DeLorean, the Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor, and the flux capacitor that made Marty McFly’s trip in Back to the Future possible.
In comparison, when Formula One’s governing Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) holds hearings due to a protest of a ruling, it releases a highly detailed account of all the arguments put forth, the questions asked of the participants, and the rationale for its decision. For example, when the FIA imposed a fine on Ferrari last August for employing team orders to let its driver Fernando Alonso pass teammate Felipe Massa for the win in the 2010 German Grand Prix, it released a nine-page account of the appeal hearing.
And that’s the real point here. An honest examination of the situation instead of the farce of a hearing that happened Tuesday and the subsequent release of the decision Wednesday would have given the series an opportunity to explore what went wrong in New Hampshire and reveal the reasons why the drivers were put in a potentially life-threatening situation.
From his own admission after the race, Barnhart did not consult the drivers prior to making the decision to restart, even though he did so on a previous occasion when rain fell earlier in the action. While it’s hard to believe that any series would not include asking the drivers about the track conditions in its protocols when assessing whether it’s safe to proceed, if what Barnhart says is in fact what happened, it points to a serious flaw in the system he devised to make critical decisions. That is simply indefensible and the factors that contributed to it happening must be uncovered. A serious and responsible series would want heads to roll and a solution to emerge; instead, IndyCar holds a kangaroo court and creates a whitewash.
But, as badly as the outcome of this protest fiasco reflects on IndyCar’s management and its integrity as a credible racing series, it also seems to have no issue with treating fans like dunces along the way. Whereas a responsible person who created such a colossal mess would have tendered their resignation, fans are essentially told to accept that Barnhart knows best and that all decisions he makes in race control will be upheld, no matter what the rulebook says.
And, even if fans actually wanted an explanation as to why the series has a rulebook if it's chucked aside whenever the mood hits its chief steward, IndyCar wasn’t exactly about to help them out. On a day where any reasonable person in the series’ front office could have anticipated there would be questions surrounding what was widely expected to be a controversial ruling, IndyCar boss Randy Bernard was not available for comment.
Considering that IndyCar has difficulty finding people interested enough to watch its races, it seems an odd strategy for the series to treat their fans with such shameful disdain.
Or maybe the series simply thinks Barnhart can dream up a rule to make fans care.