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Crisis of faith: A cry for help from an IndyCar die-hard

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I'm getting as tired of writing these articles as you are of reading them.

And to be fair, I spent a somewhat sleepless night trying to talk myself out of doing so because I have been starting to think that my "howling" (as one driver calls it) is becoming knee-jerk rather than the constructive criticism that I would like it to be.

In the end, though, I decided to forge on and take my lumps. Why? Because I run this blog because of my passion for IndyCar racing. I don't do it for the pay, the accolades, or the exposure (I pay my kids more in allowance that I earn for blogging, I haven't chased an award for five years, and have you seen this site's page views?). As such, I can freely express here what many others covering the sport cannot - that I am tired of seeing our sport as a punchline.

At least for over a decade and a half, there was a solid reason for IndyCar to be seen as ridiculous or laughable. The Split - with its unnecessary and destructive catering to ego, the "junk formula" that made the Indy 500 look like the bomber-stock version of open-wheel racing, the shallowness of the field, and so forth - was like a comedy gold mine for just about everyone else in motorsports.

Gradually, IndyCar became the equivalent of a Jay Leno joke - the easiest possible target with the punchline catering to the lowest common denominator. And all we fans could do about it was to beg them to come up with something more thoughtful if they were going to be joking at our expense.

That finally changed - or so we thought - when Randy Bernard took over the helm of the IndyCar Titanic. We all hoped that he would steer the ship out of danger and save it from foundering. But so far, he just got the ship off of the iceberg. It's still coasting in frigid waters and slowly letting in the sea.

The race at Twin Ring Motegi was probably doomed from the start. For every egalitarian impulse of soldiering on with the race as a gift to a Japanese populace who needed something entertaining after months of disaster, there was a Danica Patrick who pulled her travel preparations from the same playbook as the one that made people duct-tape their homes in saran wrap after 9/11. It got worse after minor aftershocks hit the day before the race, leading to an outbreak on social media of sentiments from loved ones who didn't make the trip that IndyCar racing in Motegi was an act of insanity.

Then, too, was the Motegi road course - a track that simply did not suit the outdated Dallara sleds, as evidenced by the fact that they were several seconds slower per lap than the minor-league Formula Nippon cars that are the venue's headlining series. We were afraid that the series would put on a snore-fest with little passing and less inspiration.

You want to know what we were most afraid of, though? Not a boring race, not even an earthquake - we were afraid of more controversy. Unfortunately, our fears were realized once again.

I had an end-of-race debate with a driver on Twitter about Dario Franchitti's penalty for avoidable contact. Like many others, I felt that moving Franchitti back two spots for his divebomb that involved several other victims was really no penalty at all. He was already back there because of a pit stop, and he was right behind the drivers whose races he jeopardized with his boneheaded move.

The driver made some very good points - one of which is that Race Control has been consistent this year in penalizing to the severity of the incident, and that green flag drive-through penalties were handed out to drivers who collided with cars that were knocked out of the race. Since the other cars involved in the accident were still running, it was wholly consistent with precedent that Dario was simply put at the back of the field.

Thinking it over, I have to admit that part of the outrage I felt about Dario's "penalty" was displaced anger, like a toothache that signals a heart problem. Everybody knew that putting Dario at the tail end of the field was simply a minor inconvenience. Dario's talent aside, his Ganassi-prepped Dallara simply was better than 3/4ths of the rest of the field, and we all knew he would carve his way through the field like butter - which he did. Better to give him the green-flag drive-through to penalize him time and track position - that would be a real penalty, something that would mess up his race as badly as he messed up the other drivers' chances, all things being equal.

I realize now, of course, that the driver's contention that Race Control penalized Franchitti appropriately based on precedent was correct, and I was the one who was being influenced or prejudiced. I was pushing for a harsher penalty because I knew that things were not equal, and that while an end-of-line penalty would have been appropriate for, say, Charlie Kimball, it certainly was not for a driver and car of Dario's caliber.

In other words, I was applying discretion, which I have previously made out to be one of the dirtier words applicable to the muddled science of Race Control.

Subsequent Race Control decisions - no penalty for Sebastien Bourdais' contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay, a post-race penalty for Helio Castroneves that moved him from 7th to 22nd because of a pass under a local yellow - also had people up in arms, but those are also explainable in a way that justifies IndyCar's decision-making (there was a camera angle that suggested that Hunter-Reay crossed Bourdais' nose or cut him off, and Castroneves never did end up giving up the spot like he was supposed to - although it is likely nobody from Race Control let him know he was under official penalty before the checkers).

So, in a fashion, we probably shouldn't be "howling" about Motegi's ramifications - even though the championship itself may be decided differently as a result. Actions were taken on precedent, and the real bone of contention should be that the precedent exists in the first place.

My opinion, which you can take for exactly what it's worth (i.e., virtually nothing), is that both IndyCar's rulebook and entire Race Control apparatus needs to be at least overhauled, if not outright replaced, in the off-season. I've already devoted many, many paragraphs on these subjects previously, and since I'm already past 1,000 words here I won't rehash most of my rationale.

I will say that Race Control should worship at the altar of "situational awareness" instead of "situational governance." Situational awareness is the process of gathering as much information as possible to make correct decisions in a fast-moving environment. Situational governance is applying leniency, or opting to enforce a rule or not based on the Race Control personnel's personal interpretation of intent or severity.

Situational governance is what has given us the green flag at Baltimore while the safety truck was still on the track; the "double-file" restarts that nobody bothered to wave off or penalize for poor execution; drive-through penalties for some and end-of-line penalties for others based on a single rule; giving the field a do-over (US 500 style!) at New Hampshire to cover up a bad decision.

One of my Twitter followers, a NASCAR fan, told me earlier this week that she doesn't watch IndyCar racing because "the series is a joke." She wasn't talking about talent, nor was she talking about a lack of prestige - she was talking about the perception that the people in charge of the sport either don't know what they're doing or are following their own whims when it comes to the sport's management.

The worrisome thing is that many of the hardcore fans of the series are beginning to agree with her. And considering that the hardcore fans are the ones who bother to stay up into the late night and early morning to watch races like Motegi, that should be concerning to the powers-that-be. But hardcore IndyCar fans aside, if people who are outside the sport look at IndyCar as a "joke," then how will the series ever prosper? Who will care about Las Vegas, new turbocharged cars, aero kits, or races in China if the people the sport wants to connect with consider the series a goat rodeo?

On a personal level, all I know is that I'm worn out trying to keep caring. Even attempting to criticize constructively, to offer solutions that are more than simply snarky methods of cutting people down, is exhausting. I think it's because I've despaired of anyone actually listening or bothering to note what I say or write as anything more than the rantings of a deluded fan.

That despair stems from what I see as a trend in IndyCar for the people running the series to maintain their own well-worn patterns of behavior and decision-making, ignoring or minimalizing any evidence that doing so might not be a good long-term solution. That trend has been around for decades, and not even Randy Bernard's new blood has done much to arrest it.

As tired as the fans are of complaining, the series' managers are tired of hearing it. Tony Cotman, one of the three heads of IndyCar's Race Control hydra, has taken to responding with belligerence in interviews, intimating that any issues with the way IndyCar manages its events are more likely the product of a fevered, ignorant perspective than any sort of productive criticism. And that is the guy that folks like Robin Miller want to see replace Brian Barnhart?

The die-hard in me wants to say, "Wait and see what happens in the off-season." It is a well-worn mantra that I have chanted to myself for years now. It is the detritus of hope, the side-effect of faith. It is the wish that the brave words spoken by those trying to reassure me will be followed up by action. But it gets harder every year to say it.

So what is the result of the latest round of second-guessing from an obsessed, die-hard fan ranter? A genuine crisis of faith, and the hope that I can hang on long enough to see if that faith is rewarded. I'm not ready to give up on people I have come to respect and admire, and I see too much potential left in the series to give it up cold turkey.

But please, IndyCar, do not squander another opportunity to make substantive change. I can't hold out forever.