Commentary

IndyCar Series gripped by controversy

Updated: July 27, 2010, 1:07 AM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

Oh dear. Just when it seemed the Izod IndyCarSeries was starting to build some positive momentum, something like this happens.

With three laps remaining in Sunday's Honda Indy Edmonton, Indy Racing League chief steward and competition president Brian Barnhart assessed an on-the-spot blocking penalty on Helio Castroneves that not only cost the Brazilian a certain race win but could well upset the delicate equilibrium the IndyCar Series has worked so hard to earn the past few years.

Castroneves exploded into a profanity-laced meltdown after he learned that his hard-earned Edmonton triumph had been taken away. Helio later issued a statement of apology, but given that it was the second race he has lost in the past two years thanks to penalties assessed by Barnhart, he had reason to be upset.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves crossed the finish line first Sunday at Edmonton, but he sat 10th on the results chart.

In the 2008 Detroit Grand Prix, Castroneves was judged to have blocked Justin Wilson and was told by officials to cede the race lead to Wilson, which he did.

On Sunday, the incident occurred on the final restart with about four minutes remaining in the race; within a minute, Castroneves was black-flagged and informed of a drive-through penalty for blocking. He had two opportunities to enter the pits for his drive-through, but he stayed on the track and crossed the line first. Yet the checkered flag was held when the Brazilian flashed past and waved a second later when Scott Dixon was declared the winner.

Castroneves was classified 10th, the last car on the lead lap.

After calming down from his outburst, Castroneves talked to Versus pit reporter Robbie Floyd. "Man, I said it once, at Detroit in 2008, and I'll say it again, I have nothing smart to say," Castroneves stammered. "The only thing I can say is, 'Talk to my attorneys.'

"Two laps to go?" he continued. "It's just ridiculous. I never moved my line. I actually gave him room outside. When you go side by side like that with your teammate and the guy [Barnhart] has just swept ... literally, literally just takes it away from you ... it's just absurd."

At the conclusion of the interview, Castroneves said he was being sarcastic with the "Talk to my attorneys" line.

Given the infraction two years ago in Detroit -- which was the first time a significant blocking penalty was assessed in IndyCar Series competition -- perhaps it wasn't a surprise that Castroneves erupted the way he did. It was certainly a side the normally ebullient Brazilian rarely shows.

Maybe it was a payback call; Castroneves is, after all, the most notorious blocker in Indy car racing. But the move he made Sunday to try to prevent his Penske Racing teammate Will Power from passing him for the lead late in the Edmonton race was pretty tame compared with some of his past efforts and looked like clean racing to my eyes.

"Why we end up with that inconsistency all day, I have no idea," said Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. "I guess only Randy [Bernard, IndyCar Series CEO] can decide if that's good for the series or not."

The unique nature of the Edmonton circuit undoubtedly contributed to the ambiguity of what blocking consists of. Unlike normal road courses, which have an obvious inside and outside line into a corner, the wide Edmonton airport runway offers about 30 lines.

On the critical restart, Castroneves appeared to drive down the center of the track. Power pulled to the left, or the outside, just before the point where drivers would normally start to drift to the left anyway to take the fastest line through the 120-degree, right-hand corner.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves opted not to serve a drive-through penalty after being black-flagged late in Sunday's race.

When Power pulled out to pass on the left, Castroneves moved his car about a foot to the left, then continued on a defensive line straight down the middle of the track. Power, meanwhile, tried to drive around Castroneves on the outside and almost succeeded. He had to back off when Castroneves squeezed him wide on the corner exit, allowing Dixon to nip through into second place ahead of Power.

Power and several other drivers said that Castroneves' innocent-looking feint to the outside line in the disputed incident was indeed blocking. But the overwhelming majority of Indy car fans -- about 90 percent in a SpeedTV.com poll -- believed that Helio did not block Power and that Barnhart made the wrong call.

Barnhart explained his decision in a video posted on the IndyCar and Versus network Web sites:

"It's really disappointing that it comes down to something like this," Barnhart said. "In a situation like that, we as officials are just reacting to what happens on the racetrack. We don't create the situation; we respond to it. And the rule is clear in it. In every drivers' meeting, we talk about it.

"On road courses and some ovals, we divide the track in half," Barnhart explained. "On the road courses, from the braking point to the entry, they're told you can only be on the inside half if you are attempting to overtake someone. If you are on the inside half while someone is trying to overtake you, it's blocking."

The IndyCar Series even went so far as to release a transcript of Barnhart's remarks from the prerace driver's meeting:

"You have plenty of options on where to put your car and we should not have any defending or blocking," he told the field. "Again, we will be visually dividing the braking point through the entry into the corner in half.

"You can only be on the inside half if you are attempting to pass someone. If you are on the inside half because you are under attack from someone else, it is blocking. Don't move your car in reaction to a following car and don't impede the progress of a car with a run on you."

Here's the problem: That "line down the middle" concept might work well on a normal road course. But the Edmonton track -- especially the first turn, which uses the main runway as the front straight -- offers unique opportunities for racing that don't exist at other venues.

IndyCar officials want their drivers to get racy and try to pass each other to spice up the show, yet when hair-splitting calls like this are made, the motivation for the drivers to (in NASCAR parlance) "have at it" is totally taken away.

Speaking of NASCAR, it is known to be more heavy-handed in its officiating than IndyCar, but the guy who wins the race in front of the fans is always the guy who goes home the winner. Penalties are levied on Tuesday or Wednesday, not in the heat of the moment with emotions high and two laps to go.

We all get told all the time that you can't block, and unfortunately it continues to happen. You've got to give credit to Brian [Barnhart] for getting on top of it.

-- Scott Dixon

If you think Castroneves was confused and angry, think about it from a fan's viewpoint. Fans saw Helio pass Power once for the lead with 20 laps to go, hold off the Australian with what looked like some clean, hard racing on that final restart, then cross the line first, ahead of Dixon and Power. A few seconds later, the guy they thought won was listed in 10th place.

Even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio network didn't know what was going on. It announced Castroneves as the winner, only to start wondering why he was shown in 10th place on its scoring monitor.

And one more point: If the league is going to manipulate the result, why not reinstate Power as the winner? After all, he was ahead of Dixon before the blocking incident and was the actual victim of the blocking.

Reaction from other drivers was split. Not surprisingly, Target Ganassi Racing drivers Dixon and Dario Franchitti believed justice was served.

"We all get told all the time that you can't block, and unfortunately it continues to happen," Dixon said. "You've got to give credit to Brian for getting on top of it."

"I thought Helio was clearly blocking," Franchitti added. "Brian definitely made the right call there. Full marks to Brian for doing that. It's a very difficult job, but today that was the right call.

"It's tough for Helio; he drove a great race. But you can't be doing that."

Perhaps most surprising was that Power flat-out said his teammate Castroneves blocked him. Team Penske's next team meeting should be interesting.

"I got a run on him, and he blocked me," Power related. "I would say a black flag is a pretty harsh penalty, to be honest. Maybe if he was put back a position. But that's what it is right now.

"It was just one of those racing things. If you're leading on the last restart, you want to keep the lead."

Fans and some media members have been publicly clamoring for Barnhart's dismissal for years, and the spotlight is shining brighter than ever on the embattled chief steward. Fan reaction on social media like Twitter and Facebook was vehemently pro-Helio, anti-Barnhart in the immediate aftermath of the decision. A few examples:

• "Well that result sets open-wheel racing back a few years. Poor Helio, let's see how the rodeo dude [IndyCar CEO Bernard] handles this sham."

• "Now Helio knows how PT [Paul Tracy] felt after the 2002 Indy 500."

• "If Ropin' Randy hopes to lure fans back, firing Brian Barnhart today would be a good start."

• "I am still angry at the outcome of the IndyCar Series race, what a crock."

Even NASCAR star Juan Pablo Montoya chimed in, posting this on his Twitter account after another heartbreaking effort in Sunday's Brickyard 400: "Helio just got robbed a win. If I was supposed to be mad he beats me!!!"

The IndyCar Series has been struggling for attention, and the controversial and confusing conclusion to Sunday's race in Edmonton certainly delivered in that regard. But what was the cost in terms of harmony and credibility?

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.

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