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Late Tuesday night rant

June 10, 2015

It’s been six days and I’m still burning over the reduction in penalty to Helio Castroneves for his brain-fade, brake-check punt of Scott Dixon at the start of the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, held the day before Castroneves’ 40th birthday last month.

It was actually a month ago – today – when that incident occurred and INDYCAR’s Race Control decided to ignore this happenstance throughout race, something I still don’t understand. The following Wednesday Castroneves, who made his 300th start at that race, received an eight-point penalty plus probation for the gaffe, leaving him in fifth place by the time the tour left for Texas, and behind Graham Rahal. With the reduction to a three-point “penalty” – just call it a wrist-slap – the Brazilian moved ahead of the American driver.

In the past year, it seems that INDYCAR officiating has turned a bit to NASCAR for ideas. Major penalties are now meted out on Wednesdays, rather than at the time of the incident. While the open-wheel set hasn’t gotten around to assigning severity numbers to each crime as does NASCAR, it seems to be mimicking that more successful sanctioning body in many ways. Many of them illogical.

And the reign of former race director Beaux Barfield, while not always the best in the world, was much more fair than what’s happened since Brian Barnhart got the sheriff’s hat and badge back again and officially resumed his role as King of Race Control. When Barnhart was removed from that position after lackadaisically sending cars out to race on a damp New Hampshire Motor Speedway oval in 2011, he took up a new hobby: he got in shape.

Now that Barnhart has returned to the helm of Race Control (he began taking charge well before Barfield left and hastened that departure), so is the weight, along with quizzical responses to on-track activities.

Brian Barnhart at Indy drivers' meeting in 2006 - Anne Proffit photo

Brian Barnhart at Indy drivers’ meeting in 2006 – Anne Proffit photo

As president of competition and race director, he has the right to do whatever he pleases, it seems, and Barnhart is back to his usual tricks – particularly where it pertains to Castroneves, whom he punished only once that I can recall: 2010 at Edmonton.

That was when Barnhart decreed that Castroneves used the improper, inside line to defend. As race director, Barnhart had implemented an imaginary line in the track where drivers could and could not go to defend this positions as they competed. Castroneves, while he didn’t weave and bob in such a way as to make his defense of position obvious, disobeyed the imaginary line rule and was punished with an added 20-seconds to his race pace. He ignored the penalty and placed 10th.

Now, I’ve known Helio Castroneves since he first came to this country and before he began racing Indy Lights alongside countryman Tony Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion (who finished every single lap of every single race his title-winning year). He hasn’t changed much at all, both inside the race car and out of it. When he’s on his game, Helio is wicked good and fast; when he’s not, well, he’s neither. And it’s inconsistency that has cost the Brazilian the title he obviously lusts for.

If Helio Castroneves wins that elusive title this year by a small margin like the five points he just regained through whatever method was used, it will be tainted. And it will come down to Race Control as the diviner of such goods.

Thankfully there are still quite a few races yet to run in this calendar which, for the Indy cars, ends the final weekend of August. That means there’s a good chance for someone else to keep and/or take control – like Castroneves’ teammates, points leader Juan Pablo Montoya and reigning champ Will Power, both ahead of him in the standings right now. Or Scott Dixon, the man whose road race Castroneves ruined at Indianapolis. He’s got a 19-point advantage over the guy that brake-checked him a month ago.

By Anne Proffit

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