Officiating anything is a thankless job. Someone is always on the wrong side of a call and many will hold a grudge forever. I know this. I was a high school football referee for many years. At one stadium a fan screamed, “You &$%#@*% zebras!” at us as we entered the field 45 minutes before game time. At another, an athletic director at a perennial powerhouse let us know before the game that if the coach liked us, he would be happy to have us back again, offering the subtle suggestion that we were their officials. We had police escorts off the field, and at one stadium, we had a police escort onto the field. We were castigated for flags we threw and for flags we did not throw. But at the end of the night, we left the field knowing we had done the best we could, mistakes and all. And even though the triumvirate in INDYCAR race control does the best they can do, they find themselves in the news once again for their decisions.
At the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, race control’s call for a warning on Simon Pagenaud’s violation of pit exit rules in the closing laps was controversial. As with most official decisions, there was a winner and a loser. Pagenaud benefited from race control waving a rolled up newspaper at him while saying, “Bad dog.” Runner-up Scott Dixon was the one who had his slippers chewed up when Pagenaud’s clear violation of the pit exit blend lines allowed him to maintain his lead on Dixon. Not sure the “no harm, no foul” concept applies here.
Unlike other sports where violations have one penalty, INDYCAR race control once again put itself in the situation of having to make a judgement on the severity of the violation and went with the rolled up newspaper warning. In football, a flag means a penalty with clear consequences: offsides is 5 yards, offensive holding is 10 yards, a personal foul is 15 yards. The judgement is whether the foul occurred or not. Once that judgement is made, the penalty is clear. In baseball you are safe or out. A call is made and the consequence is absolute. Maybe INDYCAR can finally decide it is time to make consequences crystal clear. Remember, the calling of the violation is not controversial. Race control made the correct call. The penalty is what is furrowing brows.
Of course, the real problem at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is that the penalty was the only thing that seemed worth remembering. Yes, the end of the race battle for the lead between Pagenaud and Dixon was great, even without a pass. But the rest of the race? Put it this way. What we saw was less racing and more driving down the street trying not to make a mistake, albeit at 170 MPH. People tune in to and attend events to see racing. It’s called racing instead of driving for a reason. Passes are what people pay money to see.
The drivers complained post race about fuel saving making the race boring. Their suggestion was making the race longer to require three stops and allow racing throughout. That’s an easy fix. Drivers also complained about aero issues making following and passing difficult. No new news there, but the fix, while simple in concept, is not so simple in application. There is no magic wand to make the racing better. Aero kits changed all of that.
So for fans who enjoy the big Chevy teams lining up in their single file parade in the front while the Honda have-nots and smaller Chevy teams duke it out in back for best-of-the-rest honors, the Verizon IndyCar Series has you covered. Welcome to the new F1. For me, bring back the racing. Bring back anything that keeps a line at pit exit from being the big story of a Sunday drive. Excuse me, I mean a Sunday race.