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Going rogue: The fallout from the errant safety truck at Baltimore

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Graham Rahal narrowly misses a Holmatro Safety Crew truck at the start of the IZOD IndyCar Series Baltimore Grand Prix.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Graham Rahal narrowly misses a Holmatro Safety Crew truck at the start of the IZOD IndyCar Series Baltimore Grand Prix. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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So the other shoe has dropped in Holmatrogate from Baltimore.

In case you have been living under a rock with the GEICO guy for the past couple of weeks, IndyCar fans were treated to the frightening spectacle of a Holmatro Safety Crew truck barreling into its station at the exit of Turn 1 just as the front row of Graham Rahal and Will Power were racing side-by-side through the turn on the first lap.

The lane the safety truck was using transitioned from the racing surface to a runoff road that was separated from the track by a retaining wall. The truck, going faster than the actual IndyCars at the point when the TV broadcast picked it up, had barely reached the section of runoff road that transitioned off of the racing surface when Rahal, in the outside groove, came alongside it.

The closure rate between the truck and Rahal's car had to have been over 150mph, and if the truck had been delayed by less than a second, it most likely would have clipped Rahal at best - or, at worst, rammed the young driver's car head-on.

On Thursday, INDYCAR announced that the driver of the Holmatro Safety Crew truck would be suspended for the upcoming races at Twin-Ring Motegi and Kentucky Speedway. INDYCAR president of competition Brian Barnhart cited "simple procedures and protocols" that were not followed that resulted in a "near catastrophe" and "an extremely close call."

Barnhart and INDYCAR officials met with the entire Holmatro Safety Crew and, he told RACER Magazine, "re-established protocols and talked about complacency."

The incident apparently happened because the Holmatro truck had been adjusting tire barriers during the pace lap. According to INDYCAR's official statement, the truck's race station was supposed to be between Turns 2 and 4, not the Turn 1 station that the truck ultimately approached.

INDYCAR's and Barnhart's statements indicate that the truck driver ignored established procedure, which gave them grounds for the suspension. Left unsaid was how much INDYCAR Race Control knew about the situation and where the truck was on course when the decision was made to throw the green flag.

According to Brendan Kaczmarek, a volunteer track marshal who was working the Baltimore GP for INDYCAR, the marshals' radio communications were already suffering serious issues prior to the green flag being thrown. In fact, as the minutes ticked down to the race start, the marshals were scrambling to move to a backup system because the primary system was unusable.

However, while the marshals are routinely polled prior to each session about whether the track is clear for action, Kaczmarek says that the Holmatro Safety Crew is exempt from the marshals' attentions. "[Race Control] tell(s) us to ignore (the Holmatro Safety Crew) because they know where they are at all times," he explained via Twitter.

That is not to say that the marshals did not attempt to give their input to Race Control. Kaczmarek says that he attempted to give Race Control feedback on the tire barrier issue but was ignored. It speaks to the complicated relationship between the track marshals and the Safety Crew - neither group being employed by INDYCAR - and Race Control.

In the fallout from the near-miss in Baltimore, the question everyone seems to be asking is why the race went green even with a Safety Crew truck out on the track. Exactly how much Race Control knew about the truck's whereabouts on the track is uncertain, but considering that Race Control apparently ordered the truck to a different track station than where it ended up, it seems obvious that they were aware that there was traffic on track prior to throwing the green flag. The marshals, of course, would have had first-hand intelligence on where the truck was, but because of the radio issues and the marshals' orders to essentially ignore the Safety Crew, they did not communicate that information to Race Control.

The conclusion that we can draw from INDYCAR's and Barnhart's statements and the video evidence is that Race Control assumed that the errant truck would be off the track at the Turn 2/4 station by the time the field took the green. The truck driver, therefore, would be guilty of violating procedure and orders. However, the accusation of complacency rings hollow when brought against the Safety Crew - considering that Race Control is the ultimate arbiter of when the green flag flies.

Compounding the issue is the evidence that two other Holmatro Safety Crew trucks stationed at the entrance of Turn 1 were still backing into position when the field poured into the first turn. This changes the situation from one errant truck driver to one where multiple members of the Safety Crew were caught off-guard by the green flag.

Why would this happen? The obvious explanation is that the Baltimore street course, like all street and road courses, produces long caution-period laps that last several minutes. With a tight TV schedule and the desire to start the race on time, it seems as though Race Control went ahead with the green flag anticipating that everyone would be in their appropriate spots at the appropriate time.

There is something to be said for procedure and protocol - expecting people to fill their assigned roles to a level as close to perfection as possible is understandable if not always realistic. However, an assumption like the one INDYCAR Race Control made shows both a cavalier attitude towards a lack of situational awareness and a mistake in judgment that could have been easily avoided by accepting a very small inconvenience.

In this situation, INDYCAR Race Control was faced with several factors: an unreliable spotter/marshal radio net, potential tire barrier issues, and Safety Crew units out of position. None of these issues was confirmed to be resolved when the field was coming to the green flag. It seems incredible, therefore, that Race Control did not simply wave the start off until they had solid confirmation that everything was in place, preferring instead to rely on "procedures and protocols" and the assumption that things would fall into place without the need for direct confirmation.

On one hand, this shows an admirable level of faith in the people assigned these tasks. On the other, it is as much an irresponsible act on Race Control's part to go green on a track not confirmed to be clear as the Safety Crew truck driver's was to proceed to the wrong station.

In the best case scenario, these lapses can be written off to the heat of the moment and a "perfect storm" of errors. However, the attitude of displacing or deflecting blame has become systemic over the course of this season; thus, no one can be certain that situations such as these - or worse - might not recur in the future.

It seems obvious to most that the issue at Baltimore was not simply of a rogue worker making a poor decision - it was also one of a failure in oversight and procedure at the Race Control level. The question then becomes, does INDYCAR have the courage and objectivity to hold their own actions under the same microscope that they use on subordinates?

The answer to that question will figure prominently in whether INDYCAR will be seen as a top-level enterprise or a bush-league pretender.