For Beaux Barfield, newly-announced director of Race Control for the IZOD IndyCar Series, each brick at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway start/finish line may be an unexploded mine. (Photo: IndyCar)
The first person that Beaux Barfield ought to call, now that he has been officially announced as the inheritor of the worst job in organized motorsports, is the NHL's Brendan Shanahan.
Those of you who follow professional ice hockey don't need to be told who Shanahan is. For the rest, let's describe Shanahan this way - he is the only player in NHL history to amass more than 600 goals and more than 2,000 penalty minutes. In other words, while he was still playing, he could score on you and then deprive you of your teeth, all in the same game.
Shanny's current gig is acting as the National Hockey League's Vice President of Hockey and Business Development. Impressive as that sounds, his main job is to act as "the NHL's top cop," a job formerly held by Colin Campbell, who was about as thoroughly reviled in his execution of the post as Brian Barnhart was when Barnhart ran IndyCar race control.
Campbell was frequently excoriated for his perceived subjectivity, no more so than when any sort of disciplinary issue arose around any team for which his son Gregory played. He was accused of inconsistency, a reticence to update his point of view to modern hockey (ironic, considering he chaired the committee that issued the massive post-lockout rule changes that fundamentally altered the face of pro hockey in North America), and favoritism - the latter issue coming to a contentious head when a series of his e-mail messages was published that showed Campbell complaining to the NHL's head referee about on-ice calls prejudicial to his son.
Campbell remains with the league as Director of Hockey Operations (sound familiar?), but Shanahan now is the League's top enforcer. The hard-nosed, determined way he played the game earned him plaudits when he took the job, because people respected his career and philosophy. Everyone believed that a renaissance was due for NHL rules policing.
To be fair, Shanahan has to date been more open and thorough in explaining his disciplinary decisions than any of his predecessors. His frame-by-frame video analyses hit the Internet at the same time as the press releases explaining suspensions or fines, and his self-justification is meticulous.
It's just too bad that nobody seems to appreciate all that work. Shanahan, once the knight in shining armor who was initially seen as rescuing a league in distress, is now the butt of endless second-guessing and criticism, and - amazingly - the target of the very same accusations of bias that eventually got Colie Campbell kicked out of his crib.
I mention all of this because Beaux Barfield is in for the same treatment. It's a virtual certainty. Hockey and racing have much more in common than you think - most critically, a bipartisan fanbase whose loyalties are so divided that it is impossible to please either side, and competitors whose ego and self-interest is matched only by their utter indifference to how poisonous such attitudes are for the greater good.
Sure, right now the atmosphere is jovial and hopeful - much like it was when Shanahan took the reins - based on Barfield's stated assurances that, to paraphrase, "the buck stops here" and the idea that having too much competition regulation quantified in rulebook form, such as the infamous blocking rules that drew so much ire from fans and drivers alike, is his anathema. This begs the question, however: will fans and competitors be any happier if Barfield interprets racing situations on a case by case basis based on a nebulous, relaxed set of guidelines than they were when Barnhart inconsistently enforced strict, minutely-outlined rules?
A more important question lurks in the background, and that is - will IndyCar fans ever be satisfied? Because really, Barfield is as much a savior as Shanahan is, which means he is not one at all. He is simply a new face with a new philosophy - not necessarily a better one. And what that means is that sometime around midseason in 2012, Beaux Barfield likely will be weathering a withering fusillade of second-guessing and criticisms for how he does his job.
I don't know Beaux Barfield personally, but I hear tell that he is well-regarded by those he has worked with previously. He comes highly-recommended... but then again, so did Brendan Shanahan. And here's the thing - Shanahan is doing a fine job for the NHL, and I have no doubt that Barfield will do the same for IndyCar, particularly given his experience.
Maybe he'll even get the proper credit for it, too - he'll probably just have to wait until he's retired.