The announcement of Brian Barnhart as the Verizon IndyCar Series race director came as no real surprise. Really. Although it is easy to see the appointment as another example of a tone deaf series leadership actively trying to alienate its dwindling number of hard-core fans, the fact is that it does not really matter.
Think about it. To whom does it really matter? The most important constituents are the drivers, who, while not really gushing over the appointment, are not lining up to hide-strap Barnhart to a pine rail and run him up the Monon Line.¹ Of course, he has not yet fumbled a call or made an egregious decision to race in the rain, either. Give him time. Truthfully, Barnhart is a known quantity who was in race control last year. He never really went away, continuing to do some of the weekly heavy lifting of the series. The drivers know him. While familiarity may breed contempt, it also breeds comfort. The promise from Derrick Walker is that a triumvirate of stewards will assure decisions are discussed and, hopefully, fair. It appears the drivers have bought into that narrative.
Another important constituent is the series itself. Again, Barnhart is a known quantity who has been very competent at his recent job. He kept his mouth shut when he was exiled from his race control fiefdom and accepted another position without public complaint. Basically, he has been a good soldier, and this is his reward. When Derrick Walker became president of competition and operations, the position of race director now had someone with a racing background to ride herd on the race director. In other words, former race director Beaux Barfield had a boss who knew racing and the same holds true for Brian Barnhart. Just like Barfield, he no longer has sole authority over competition. The series investing in modern technology also gives Barnhart and his staff of stewards a much better handle on the race. Welcome to the 21st Century, IndyCar! Nice to have Verizon on board, isn’t it?
While it rankles and burns, the least important constituents are the hard-core fans who follow the series. The Peter Principle states that people in an organization eventually are promoted to their level of incompetence. From the hard-core fans’ view, Brian Barnhart is the poster boy for this belief. More than that, the hard-core fans feel marginalized. As the few who are devoted to the series, they believe that their opinions matter. The powers that be at INDYCAR have clearly demonstrated that they don’t. And they have good reason to discount those beliefs. An organization that makes all of its decisions based on public opinion will fail. Just look at Congress.
The Verizon IndyCar Series cannot prosper by just placating the rabble. They must draw in new fans to survive, and those new fans do not care who the race director is. Nor should they. Who serves in race control should not matter. Even though Brian Barnhart is in the house, the stewards should be faceless. It is a guarantee, though, that many fans will have their pitchforks and torches ready just in case this all falls apart. And there is nothing wrong with that. The IndyCar hard-core are a pessimistic lot. And they have history to support that pessimism.
Will this work? I call it 50/50. If the three stewards are truly independent and honestly voice their opinions, then the vote on violations and penalties should be accurate. But if Barnhart has a minion in race control with him weekly, then watch out. That would be the recipe for a return to the autocratic choices of the previous Barnhart regime. If just one steward owes Barnhart a favor, wants to advance his own career, or just wants to be liked by the boss, then it will be a return to the past with one difference – Barnhart will be completely protected behind the human shield of a three person race control.
The drivers, series, and fans are all hoping that this choice works and the name Brian Barnhart remains unspoken for the rest of the short IndyCar season. If not, well, that’s what Twitter, blogs, and fan forums are for, isn’t it?
1. This is a paraphrase of one of my favorite lines from the movie Hoosiers. A parent tells Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) that this will be the consequence if he screws up the season. Seems apropos here.