The optics of playing favorites

LONG BEACH, CA - APRIL 15: Helio Castroneves, driver of the #3 Team Penske Auto Club of Southern California Dallara Honda, drives during the practice for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15, 2011 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

Believe it or not, there is a real and valuable service that we bloggers provide.

Beyond the comic relief, beyond the ego inflation that we provide to paid and credentialed media ("What do you think I am, a blogger???"), beyond the occasional soft-pedal interview or "thank you for the credential, let me repay you with this glowing writeup"... we do perform a legitimate function for the sports we follow.

Namely, we act as a barometer for grassroots opinion. We are the voice of optics, the feedback over the trial balloons, the response of the gut to events within the sport.

So when we react to something like this, we are usually not operating off of in-depth interviewing, fact-checking, or painstaking research (although we are certainly capable of such things). We are providing the visceral answer to the implied question, "What did you think?"

And my reply to that question with regards to INDYCAR Race Control's decision-making process at Long Beach is, "Seriously?"

I like Al Unser, Jr. I won't lie. He's had his ups and downs but generally he's a genial sort and he's an asset to IndyCar racing.

That said, his explanation of the penalty-doling procedure at the Beach sounds like pure mule muffins - at least, viscerally-speaking.

I suppose Al and Brian Barnhart and Tony Cotman could explain their rationalizations all day about why Helio Castroneves was allowed to run rampant like Inspector Clouseau on a gin bender with no penalties, while Paul Tracy was given two quick black flags in succession with seemingly little to no provocation. I probably wouldn't buy them, no matter how they tried to justify them.

Why? Because from what Al Jr. said to Marshall Pruett, there's no getting around the fact that Race Control played favorites based on extremely subjective criteria. I mean, come on - a verbal thrashing from Roger Penske being worse than getting black-flagged for avoidable contact? I don't know Roger Penske personally, but as a kid I was able to withstand loud lectures and yelling far better than getting grounded. Hell, I begged to be lectured - that was as good as getting off scot free! No belts across the backside! No lost privileges! Just staring contritely, nodding, and basically tuning out my dad until he got tired of "laying down the law."

Beyond that, though, there is an undercurrent of sentiment here - real or imagined - that could be far more toxic to the sport than a simple (and wrong) judgment call like that. Namely, the sentiment that Paul Tracy does not deserve the leeway from Race Control that Helio Castroneves does. "[Helio's] a great race car driver. He's a champion. He's one of the most popular drivers on the circuit," Unser told Pruett.

Now, all due respect to Al Unser, Jr., I have to question his objectivity here. Not only did Al Jr. drive for Roger Penske for six seasons, but he also was Paul Tracy's teammate for three seasons. If we're being honest, the relationship between the two was not full of happy bunnies and glowing rainbows. Does that play into Unser's thought processes?

Let's compare Helio Castroneves' career statistics with Tracy's before we follow this line of thought further. Castroneves has 25 wins, 32 poles, and three Indy 500 wins between his CART and IndyCar stints. Tracy has fewer poles (25) but more wins (31) - more critically, however, he did win a series championship, whereas Castroneves has not (thereby making Tracy technically a "champion" driver in IndyCar racing and not Castroneves).

Popularity? Give Helio his due for his Dancing With The Stars appearances and his Indy wins... but go to any race in Canada (and most of them outside of the True North) and listen to the cheers for Tracy when he is announced in driver introductions and tell me he is not also one of the circuit's most popular drivers (actually, don't tell me that, because I don't want you to lie).

So the distinction Unser draws between Castroneves and Tracy is fundamentally flawed from a strictly statistical viewpoint. It follows, then, that there is significant subjective reasoning being applied. Maybe it's Unser's experiences as a Tracy teammate; deference to Roger Penske, perhaps; Tracy's role as an outspoken and brash detractor of the Indy Racing League during the Split while Castroneves, Unser, and Brian Barnhart played the loyal soldier. Were one or more of those factors at play?

Until we invent a telepathy machine, we can't know for certain - but the optics certainly do not help Unser's case. Nor do they help Brian Barnhart, given his history crewing for the Unser family, his position for the past decade-plus with the Indy Racing League, and, perhaps most damning, his role in the disputed 2002 Indianapolis 500 finish involving Tracy and Castroneves. Given that a consensus between Unser and Barnhart would overrule the third member of Race Control, Tony Cotman, the balance of "innocent until proven guilty" certainly seems to lean far more heavily towards Castroneves than Tracy.

I'm sure Al Unser, Jr., would find this article insulting (if he bothered to read it, of course - we bloggers aren't exactly must-read material except in bathrooms that are running short on toilet paper), as would Brian Barnhart. Fortunately, as a rule we bloggers are easily dismissed because of the nature of what we do.

But I would warn INDYCAR that if they dismiss me and others expressing similar doubts and questions that they should not dismiss the doubts and questions... because we're not the only ones voicing them. Fans are not blind to these things, and neither are observers of the sport outside of the fan and participant ranks. If there is a whiff of favoritism or subjectivity that influences or shapes a process that is meant to be fair to all competitors, INDYCAR loses credibility and legitimacy. It's that simple.

In the end, Race Control must be a dispassionate and transparent exercise. Al Unser, Jr., Brian Barnhart, and Tony Cotman should already know this. If they are not exercising their duties dispassionately and transparently, they are not just doing the sport a disservice - they are not adequate to the job itself and should be replaced by better-qualified candidates.

That, at any rate, is what it looks like to those of us outside of "the family." 

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