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Enforcement inconsistency betrays trust between series and drivers

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These rain-laden skies were not the only storm clouds looming over the 225 at Loudon, NH (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
These rain-laden skies were not the only storm clouds looming over the 225 at Loudon, NH (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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It took a lot for you to not lose your faith in this world
I can't offer you proof
But you're going to face a moment of truth
It's hard when you're always afraid
You just recover when another belief is betrayed

Billy Joel, A Matter of Trust

To understand why the events at Loudon, New Hampshire two weeks ago resulted in such a firestorm, you need to appreciate the racer's appreciation of and reliance upon rules.

So I'm going to try to explain it from my own very limited perspective as a racer.

I try not to do this too often because I am aware that I am quite possibly the worst available source of reliable information on racing subjects, but in this instance I will make an exception to try to communicate the visceral reaction to the aftermath at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Lucky y'all.

In any event, as a racer you normally don't have the rulebook placed on your motorhome coffee table or bookshelf for quick access. Why not? Because let's be honest here - the portions of the rulebook that apply to you as a driver almost always fall under the umbrella of common sense.

Most racing series rulebooks are like that - from a driver's perspective, the rules as written simply codify what you already know about etiquette, procedure, and limits. Your only detailed reading therefore usually occurs when you are new to the series and making your first starts, and then you rarely crack the book afterwards.

Obviously, the technical side of the rules is of far more consequence and interest to your crew. What is stated (and what is not) defines what you can do to gain a competitive advantage against your peers. So most teams not only read the rulebook, they pore over it with the finest-toothed comb available to mine loopholes, gray areas, and opportunities.

There is forensic curiosity about this from a driver's point of view, depending on how technically-minded you are. However, the main thing that concerns you, the driver, about the rules is that everyone is beholden to the same limitations that you are. It's why you suffer through drivers' meetings on race weekend, it's why you listen to race directors lecture you while you're in the cockpit, it's why you place trust in a group of people whose participation in your event is limited to watching from a glass-walled office high above the track.

In short, you and a group of your peers are out there risking your safety and well-being to accomplish a goal. Once you're in the heat of battle on the track, one of the most valuable assumptions that you possess - beyond the efficacy of your safety equipment, the reliability of your powerplant, the strength of the thousands of parts that make up your racing machine, and so forth - is that you and everyone else are protected by and constrained by the same rules.

These rules ensure that the guy in front of you does not shortcut the chicane you are approaching at 140mph... that if you're going to use the access road to enter the pit lane, the other guy won't stay on the track and duck in at the last second out of turn four... and, perhaps most importantly, that if you spin someone out and get penalized for it, that the next guy to do the same thing will get the same penalty.

When the rules are not enforced consistently, or when an interpretation of the rules seems shaded to favor someone you are competing against... well, hell, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that, to you, the driver, this is a violation of one of the fundamentals of racing competition. You put up with autograph signings, corporate hospitality, a hectic travel schedule, the possibility of being maimed behind the wheel due to freak happenstance... all of that, with the understanding that there are certain bedrock - and supposedly inviolable - fundamentals that keep the whole shooting match from blowing away in the wind.

Now you have the context of what 2011 has represented for the IZOD IndyCar Series paddock. It has not been a good year for Race Control - in fact, if we're being honest, it's been several years since the drivers have felt as secure about Race Control as they want to feel. It has resulted in a poisonous atmosphere between the drivers and the people making the rules (or, as some have privately stated, making up the rules).

But then you throw in the deus ex machina of IndyCar Rule #1.1C(2), and suddenly the bitterness becomes acidic and caustic, ready to boil over and wreak some very real damage that could take a long time to repair.

Before I go on, let me be clear - every race series has a variation of Rule #1.1C(2). The lack of such a codicil is simply unimaginable, for good reason - else, the inmates would do their damndest to figure out a way to run the asylum, because it's in racers' nature to exploit loopholes. Series need that safety net, that final yea/nay to shore up their authority.

But these codicils are understood to be last-resort options by both the management and competitors in any given race series. It's like those emergency credit cards your parents let you have as a teenager. It's there to get you out of a jam so that you are not lost without recourse; at the same time, it is understood that you will exhaust every possible avenue to get yourself out of said jam prior to falling back on the emergency credit card.

That is why people in IndyCar are so upset with Brian Barnhart. If the inconsistency from Race Control was not enough, the wielding of Rule 1.1C(2) to extricate himself from messes of his own creation is enough to get people up in arms (or, in Will Power's case, in fingers). Barnhart essentially took his emergency MasterCard and used it to buy himself a $5 footlong from Subway because he didn't like the beans and rice on his plate.

To the drivers, it's as though there is a loose cannon at play in Race Control. And that means that every week that they show up for an IndyCar race, they don't know from one moment to the next what to expect. In other professions, this is called a hostile work environment. And the longer something like this goes on, the more likely it is that folks are going to start looking for other places of employment.

That's why Brian Barnhart has to go. He may have the friendship of some of the drivers and owners. He may have the rulebook-backed authority to wield power. But he does not have the trust of those he manages anymore. And once that trust is lost, it is exceptionally hard to win back - and at this critical juncture in IndyCar's history, there isn't enough time for that to happen.