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Q&A with Common Sense about IndyCar Race Control

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BALTIMORE - SEPTEMBER 4:  Cars are piled up in turn 3 after a restart during the IZOD IndyCar Series Baltimore Grand Prix on September 4, 2011 on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE - SEPTEMBER 4: Cars are piled up in turn 3 after a restart during the IZOD IndyCar Series Baltimore Grand Prix on September 4, 2011 on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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RACER Magazine recently printed a Q&A with Brian Barnhart about the recent controversies surrounding IndyCar Race Control.

Pop Off Valve, sadly, is not as big a fish as RACER and consequently we have to be a bit more creative about the people we interview on the subject of current events in IndyCar racing.

Fortunately, after days of phone tag and voicemails, we succeeded in finding Common Sense and getting her to answer a few questions of our own about what is going on these days in Race Control. Since Common Sense usually avoids such environments as politics, professional sports, and Hollywood, getting her on the record in this context is a big win for us and we are therefore quite excited about the results.

Hit the jump for the full interview.

POP OFF VALVE: Exactly how stupid is it to not have a stated restart rule involving lapped traffic, or to make up the rules as you go along?

COMMON SENSE: An excellent question. The answer is, titanically. The thing is, you basically have only two fair ways to handle lapped traffic on restarts - either leave the lapped cars precisely where they are in the running order and force the leaders to deal with them, or formulate a policy to move lapped cars out of the way that is unconditional. NASCAR has done this for years - prior to double-file restarts, they put lapped cars on one line and lead lap cars on another. With the advent of double-file restarts, lapped cars are moved to the end of the lead-lap cars as a rule.

The only reason why IndyCar is having issues with resolving the restart order is because nobody knows from race to race what Race Control feels like doing in a given situation, because Brian Barnhart prefers to play a discretionary game instead of a regulation game.

POP OFF VALVE: But what about shortening the length of cautions? Certainly you don't want longer cautions when it takes 10 laps just to get the top five cars in the proper order...

COMMON SENSE: The reason the "reorder delays" happen is because there is no strictly-enforced rule. Period. So in essence, Race Control is making their own delays because they prefer to use "discretion." Make a rule, stick with it, and the drivers will have a procedure they know to follow that will speed up the process.

POP OFF VALVE: What do you think about Brian Barnhart's point that officials in other sports use "discretion" and subjective calls (i.e. NFL refs not calling every hold, NBA refs not calling every travel, etc.) as a justification for IndyCar "discretionary methods"?

COMMON SENSE: Get back to me when a linebacker drives a 1,500-pound race car through the quarterback's solar plexus at 200+mph. Barnhart is making an apples-to-platypuses comparison. There is not the level of nuanced action in racing that occurs in team sports such as football, baseball, basketball, and hockey.

Referees in other sports excuse their inability to call every single rule violation by saying that doing so would interrupt the flow of the game. A player dribbling a ball bounces it a couple of hundred times during a single 24-second clock period, so yes, you miss a few ball palms and maybe a slight travel or two.

But there's nothing that subtle when a race driver spins out another - it's right there in high definition and it usually results in a caution flag that arrests the race. Not penalizing a driver for contact is like an MLB umpire saying that a runner was "close enough" to first base to call him safe, even if the throw beat him by three or four strides. It's an invalid comparison and should not feature anywhere in a race official's justification for his or her actions.

POP OFF VALVE: Do you think the current iteration of IndyCar Race Control is sufficient to the task at hand?

COMMON SENSE: Sure, if you want to see controversy every week. And if you want to have a convenient excuse to explain away stupid mistakes. When you have three guys and a few TV screens as the sum of Race Control, you can easily blame missed key bits of information on either other people's incompetence or a lack of comprehensive intel.

Competent Race Control means having a neural network of official input at every key point of the racetrack. That means an official in every pit, official spotters at every corner to work with track marshals as well as spotters positioned at blind spots where television coverage may not be as complete. Then you add a staff to monitor and catalog the video feeds so that the actual Race Control administrators can focus on the incoming information from the whole network, instead of huddling around a collection of screens hoping the ESPN producer will get a good replay of an incident.

In other words, you don't wait to see what a track or television network will show you; you cast as wide a net as possible to collect as much information as you can so that you can make informed, correct decisions.

Yes, that takes the fun out of shooting from the hip, but last I heard Brian Barnhart, Tony Cotman, and Al Unser Jr. were not the Earp brothers.

POP OFF VALVE: But, as Brian Barnhart says, IndyCar racing doesn't have timeouts or instant replay like other sports, doesn't all of that add up to too much complexity in a fast-paced sport?

COMMON SENSE: I guess Mr. Barnhart hasn't heard of caution periods or... well, instant replay. But at any rate, you only get overwhelmed by events in racing if you are disorganized.

IndyCar Race Control should take its lesson from NASA Mission Control. An issue like a safety truck being on the hot track when the green flag flies would not happen in NASA, because a launch does not happen unless every single detail is resolved by its network of mission controllers. NASA operates by a flightplan that plans for contingencies instead of leaving them to chance; even in situations such as Apollo 13, there were backup plans that helped the astronauts survive even when a completely unforeseen breakdown occurred on their spacecraft.

Simply budgeting for mistakes is the lazy way out. And that is how IndyCar Race Control is seen after a long season of inconsistency and a lack of accountability - lazy, and prone to blame their mistakes on others. Brian Barnhart says that 98% of the time he is correct in his judgments - but that other 2% is like a hole in a dam. If left alone, that small hole will end up destroying the whole works.

Organization, preparation, and accountability are the best solutions to the ills Race Control is suffering. Not scapegoating or rationalization.

(We would like to thank Common Sense for agreeing to be interviewed for this article. She is currently accepting appeals from regular folks, and would like to ask folks in politics to stop making up stupid shit and attributing it to her.)