Who's ruling whom?

This year’s Indianapolis 500 was marred by controversial decision making which led to the winner covering 505 miles…

Only in auto racing would the premier event be played according to different rules and officials than the balance of the season. Imagine the National Football League switching to Canadian Football League rules for the Super Bowl, or the Rugby League final being played with Rugby Union rules and officials.

Yet that’s what happens each May when Indycar racing makes its pilgrimage to the USAC-sanctioned Indianapolis 500.

In contrast to the other five oval track events in the PPG Indy Car World Series, practice and qualifying at Indianapolis takes two weeks rather than two days, and qualifying speeds are based on a four lap average not the best of two laps; not only are stock block engines eligible, they’re competitive, and, on race day, pit lane is closed to competitors during a caution period until the field “packs-up” behind the pace car.

Meanwhile, Wally Dallenbach, Kirk Russell, Dennis Swan and Bill Kamphausen, who officiate the sport of Indycar racing for 11 months of the year a la CART, put their uniforms away while USAC’s Tom Binford, Johnny CapeIs, Mike Devin and Duane Sweeney take over.

At CART races Johnny Rutherford and, occasionally, Gordon Johncock and Pancho Carter with five Indy 500 and 53 Indycar wins to their credit drive the pace car. At the start of this year’s Indianapolis 500 that job went to Jim Perkins, vice president of General Motors and a man with drag racing but no Indycar experience. The pace car was subsequently driven by former dirt track stock car racer Don Bailey. The last time Bailey paced an IndyCar race was on May 29 1994 precisely the last time Binford officiated one and the last time Sweeney started one.

Should it come as a surprise then, that the 79th running of the Indianapolis 500 was a messy affair? First came Bailey’s inability to bring the field in line behind leader Jacques Villeneuve during an early caution period. Binford insists the Player’s Reynard fell in line behind the pace car only after the three attempts to flag it down; Villeneuve and Team Green admit they did not know they were in the lead but say the signals from the pace car were ambiguous at best.

Although USAC docked Villeneuve two laps, he was not the only one to suffer. Scott Pruett and Andre Riberio ran out of fuel waiting for the pits to open. Teo Fabi, Bobby Rahal, Jimmy Vasser and Stefan Johansson didn’t wait, pitted and were not penalised.

Later, Johansson ran over what appeared to be an exhaust pipe that had been lying on the pit straight in view of his crew for quite some time, despite their efforts to get USAC to call for a “debris” yellow. When Johansson slowed with a puncture and spun to a stop on the pit entry road, it took seven laps to get a tow truck to retrieve him. He finished 16th, seven laps down on the eighth placed Fabi.

Later Raul Boesel’s Lola-Mercedes developed an oil leak and was black flagged on lap 183. Yet there was no caution to slow the cars or clean up the fluids. A lap later the spirited duel between Scott Goodyear and Scott Pruett ended when the latter clipped the wall in Turn Two. As Pruett was bouncing off the wall Goodyear radioed to his Tasman team to report the track was so oily that he had nearly crashed himself in Turn Two.

Then came the finish. As the caution resulting from Pruett’s crash concluded, Goodyear got on the throttle in Turn Three with Villeneuve in hot pursuit. When Goodyear got to Turn Four, however, Bailey and the pace car were still on the track, albeit on the apron.

Goodyear knew he would be a sitting duck for Villeneuve if he slowed. He’d taken the lead in the first place by passing Pruett on the previous restart after the Patrick car slowed to stay behind the pace car. Goodyear also knew better than anyone how difficult it can be to pass a competitive car in the closing laps at Indianapolis; especially on a day when the “marbles” from the soft Goodyear and Firestone tyres had turned the Brickyard into a one groove race track.

So he kept his right foot planted. Villeneuve, having been penalised two laps for passing Bailey earlier, did not and the rest is history. Goodyear got the black flag, ignored it and was subsequently banished from the scoring sheets. Villeneuve won the race, at 24 the youngest man since Troy Ruttman to do so.

In Detroit a couple of weeks later, a CART official discussed the fateful restart.

“USAC does things differently than we do,” he said. “Nazareth has a warm-up lane just like Indianapolis, and when the pace car turns off its lights we pull it off the race track into the warm-up lane. At Indianapolis the pace car stays on the Turn Four apron before it pulls into the pits. I’m not saying one way is better than the other, only that they’re different.”

CART’s officiating is hardly flawless. Who can forget the decision to penalise Emerson Fittipaldi at Detroit in 1993 for getting a better start than pole-sitter Nigel Mansell? In April, CART had an Indy-style controversy of its own when leader Affonso Giaffone was penalised a lap at the Phoenix Indy Lights race for passing the pace car on the final lap, And just last weekend in Detroit, the Tasman team was black-flagged for running a different car in Saturday’s qualifying session than they’d qualified on Friday after getting approval to do so by a senior IndyCar official.

Running an automobile race is an enormously complicated task, requiring split second decisions and a thorough command of the rules and regulations. Being human beings, officials and drivers will always make mistakes. But the odds of mistakes and controversy are raised immeasurably when the officials and the competitors only work with one another for one event annually, the single most important event of the season at that.

If nothing else, we can hope the impending Armageddon between CART and IRL resolves Indycar racing’s rules and officiating inconsistencies once and for all.