‘Hell yeah, I blocked’: Debating a controversial last-lap call by IndyCar

1 Comment

LONG BEACH, Calif. – The debate isn’t if it was a blocking maneuver (Graham Rahal readily concedes it was) nor whether blocking is illegal (see Section 9.3.2 of the IndyCar rulebook).

Those are the only black and white elements in the last-lap controversy between Rahal and Scott Dixon that had several shades of gray and a team owner seeing red after pleading his case to IndyCar until he felt blue in the face.

“Right now I’m a frustrated, angry, disappointed team owner,” Bobby Rahal said outside the NTT IndyCar Series hauler, where he spent the better part of 20 minutes lobbying officials who had elevated Dixon to the podium and bumped his son to fourth.

“If that was a NASCAR race, and I touch the guy coming out of Turn 4 in the left rear on the last lap and pass to win, would they disqualify me? No,” Rahal said.

That fell on deaf ears.

“Oh yeah,” Rahal said, adding IndyCar officials essentially replied, ‘We’re not NASCAR.’

“I think it was a bad decision, but that’s my personal opinion.”

IndyCar declined comment publicly, but an official did provide background to reporters. Drivers were told in their prerace meeting that blocking was defined as “movement in reaction to a pursuing competitor” (in the rulebook, it’s described as “A Driver must not alter his/her racing line to pursuing Drivers”).

Dixon said Graham Rahal drew the penalty because he anticipated a pass by his Chip Ganassi Racing rival.

“You’re not meant to react,” Dixon said. “That’s exactly what he did. It forced me not to hit him. I had to brake, get off the throttle.

“I think had he not defended or reacted the way he had done, we would have got the pass easily done. I think it is what it is. We’re going to be OK with it. They’re not going to be happy with it. That’s the way it is. I think Graham has definitely been racing on the edge. Definitely at Barber, some pretty risky kind of situations, too.”

Rahal, though, said Dixon went unpenalized for making the same move on him three weeks earlier at Circuit of the Americas.

“Maybe I didn’t complain enough, but it wasn’t called,” the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver said. “So my biggest problem is that the consistency of the calls is it’s not consistent. It’s this simple.

“I stand behind it even more now that I actually watched it. … Hell yeah, I blocked. Anybody would have blocked. The thing is you can do it legally.”

Rahal said the replays validated his move was “100 percent legal” because the arc of his turn was consistent and to the right, and there were two lanes on the left and another on the right available for Dixon.

“(IndyCar officials) basically just told us, “It’s not going to be overturned, so just move on,’” Rahal said. “That’s the way it works. It’s fine. We’ll protest and continue to fight it, and nothing’s going to happen. But when you watch the head-on video, it’s the perfect case of what a legal block is. I’m allowed to make that move.

“I’m not going to roll over for the guy. I’m not going to roll over for anybody out here … and if they don’t want that, they need to flat-out just say you can’t make a move. But they won’t do that. And so they leave themselves open all the time to this criticism, which if you look at social media, and they certainly don’t want to right now, because it’s not good. You don’t need that. You’re allowed to fight for your position, I feel like.”

Graham Rahal said he looked forward to a discussion of the dispute with IndyCar president Jay Frye. “Jay is ultimately an extremely fair guy,” he said. “I’ll see what his input is on it later.”

Bobby Rahal said his son would have deserved punishment if he had squeezed Dixon into the wall, but “it wasn’t that way.

“I think it’s hard that when you put yourself in those kind of situations where you’re making judgements, you really put yourself between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “Because what are you going to do next time and what constitutes that, and how do you define that? And that’s the problem. There’s people blocking all the time. This morning, Graham’s passing (Josef) Newgarden in practice, and Newgarden is squeezing him into the wall. Is that OK?”

It still could have been worse for Rahal’s No. 15, which was penalized only with a loss of position (three points) instead of a 30-second drive-through penalty that would have been much costlier.

So it at least won’t be remembered as the call that cost Rahal a title.

“If we’re going to get to the end of the season and close but not quite there, Barber’s going to be the dagger for us,” Rahal said, referring to the dozens of points he lost last week because of a surefire top five ruined by a mechanical problem.

Long Beach was much easier to swallow.

“I’m not upset about it,” Graham said. “Is it frustrating? Yeah. But I’m going to go home, eat pizza and watch the Blue Jackets, so I’m OK.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

Leave a comment

In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
Leave a comment

McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500