Wednesday, April 27, 2016

There Needs to be a Change in Etiquette

A week and a half ago, I ran the 10k portion of a 5k/10k run. The course was set up where at the end of lap one those participating in the 5k made a right hand turn to the finish line while the 10k runners made a left and did another lap of the course. Within a half-mile of the second lap, I and the rest of the 10k runner around me caught the tail end of runners as the starts were staggered by pace. It wasn't a problem. There were four lanes of roadway plus bike lanes. Plenty of room as the 10k runners stayed to the left. However, the second part of the lap funneled from four lanes to park trails that a Smart Car would have trouble driving along. Now the 10k runners were mixed in the 5k runners with nowhere to go. Eventually it widened enough that you could pass and the left hand side of the path was open to 10k runners.

A simple "on your left" or "excuse me" would be said to let slower runners know someone was coming and they would move out of the way and let you by. No one tried to intentionally cut a faster runner off. There was nothing to gain by being rude. It was a little difficult to have to navigate the crowd but it worked out.

A charity 5k/10k event isn't at the same level of a Verizon IndyCar Series race but the same difficulty of dealing with slower competitors came into play at Barber Motorsports Park last Sunday. Back markers played a significant role in the outcome of last Sunday's race. First, Conor Daly held up leader Simon Pagenaud allowing Will Power and Graham Rahal to catch the Frenchman. Then Sébastien Bourdais held up his countryman, which set the stage for the battle between Pagenaud and Rahal that eventually ended when the Ohioan clipped the back marker of Jack Hawksworth, damaging his wing and leaving him as a dead duck running four-plus seconds slower of Pagenaud per lap.

Many commented that back markers have a right to fight to stay on the lead lap and that it is a rule. However, the word "lapped" appears in the rulebook three times and once is in the glossary. No such rule exists. The "right to fight" rule is unwritten, just like kicking the ball out of play in soccer for an opponent that is down or not flipping your bat after hitting a home run in baseball.

I covered this a little bit after the race on Sunday but the "right to fight" belief is full of traps. First, it devalues leading and takes power away from the leader. The leader should always be the most powerful car on track especially when dealing with back markers. They are the leader after all. By allowing back markers the "right to fight," we saw the leader lose his advantage but the cars in second, third, fourth and so on do not have to face the same fight. The current etiquette is you have the "right to fight" but once you are a lap down you have to lie down like a dead dog for other cars on the lead. It is absurd that the leader has to struggle while second, third, fourth and so on get a free pass by the slower car.

Second, the whole idea of "right to fight" is absurd. You race what is ahead of you, not what is behind. If you are 20th, you aren't racing the leader; you are racing for 19th. The leader is the least of your concerns. You have a long way to go until you have to be dealing with the leader. Another way to think about it is if you are 20th and let the leader by and that etiquette is held by the entire field then eventually the leader will catch 19th and put that driver a lap down and so on. Either way, 20th isn't racing for the lead and shouldn't be racing the leader. Twentieth should focus on 19th

Third, Pandora's box is on the verge of exploding open if the current etiquette continues. The limits of "right to fight" is bound to be pushed by a back marker soon and there will come a race where a back marker has been emboldened to really fight the leader and might even hit them. A back marker should never be enabled to push the leader off course or bump them or take them out of the race but "right to fight" is on the verge of promoting it. Should a back marker take out a leader, especially later in the season and that leader be a championship contender, all hell will break loose. This needs to be nipped now so IndyCar doesn't have another pain-in-the-ass storyline that make the series appear even more incompetent.

Many who have been supporting "right to fight" say it made the finish exciting and while that is true that doesn't justify its existences. If having the flag man throw thumb tacks on the track at the start/finish line made the racing exciting, should IndyCar allow it? Hell no. If the back markers are allowed to hold up the leader and allow second and third place to catch the leader then why not adopt the "caution clock" NASCAR has implemented in the Truck Series? They both accomplish the same thing: Bunching the field back up and hopefully creating passing.

I bet some of you read that and thought, "The 'caution clock' is manipulative while 'right to fight' is natural and the leader should have to pass the back marker." The problem is IndyCar is closer than ever and with the cars being so aero dependent, even passing back markers is a challenge. This isn't Formula One where Mercedes is running 3-5 miles per hour faster a lap a third of the grid. A mile-and-a-half per hour covers the entire field in IndyCar. Even with push-to-pass, passing isn't a given and the leader shouldn't have to burn push-to-passes to lap cars.

I don't understand why people care if 20th stays on the lead lap. Lapping cars is a natural part of racing. Cars should finish a lap down. Not everyone should finish on the lead lap. I won't go as far as to say the culture of participation trophies is the reason why people want to see as many cars finish on the lead lap as possible but this "right to fight" idea seems to be relatively new.

Simon Pagenaud probably would have won Sunday's race by eight-ten seconds had it not been for back markers hindering his progress but should slower cars really be playing that significant of a role in deciding a race? The lead lap is a privilege and not a right. Some races will see one person dominate and there is nothing wrong with that. Enabling slower cars with a "right to fight" might have provided a thrilling finish at Barber but it gives back markers way too much power. Back markers will always exist but they shouldn't be the reason why a lead goes from over four seconds to less than a second in six laps. Knowing IndyCar, "right to fight" is only bound to lead to more trouble.