Barnhart discusses controversial restart call
16 August 2011
The man under fire from all sides after the end of the MoveThatBlock.com Indy 225 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was most definitely the President of Competition Operations, Brian Barnhart, who had been serving as race director on Sunday.
He attended the post-race press interviews following the race, and tried to explain what had happened during the afternoon, what had gone wrong, why the decision had been made to restart in the first place - and what he had felt when he realised that it had resulted in arguably IndyCar's biggest mis-call in recent years.
"Where to start? It was obviously a challenging day for us out there from the get-go," summarised Barnhart. "Some of the more difficult calls you ever have to make from a race control point of view ... It would be one thing if it rained hard, your decision's a pretty easy one to make. But when you get calls from track safety and observer posts around the racetrack that report light moisture, the tough decision is to make that call whether you continue with the event or not.
"That's been the most difficult and challenging thing, because no matter what, our number one priority in every decision we make is safety," he said, accepting that he was "responsible for the safety of those 26 drivers out there, every time you go and give them a track condition, they're counting on you to make the right decision."
He conceded again that they hadn't done that with the decision to restart. "With the attempted restart, we made the wrong one. And that's one of those things that just makes you feel sick to your stomach, when you do it, because you know after the fact, of course, that you chose poorly ... When you've made the wrong one and it exposes them to a safety risk factor, no one feels worse about it than I do. Secondary to that comes the fact that you tore up some race cars and spent some money that you shouldn't have done.
"It was an error on race control standpoint, and clearly my fault," he concluded.
Barnhart explained that he was never talking direct to drivers, team owners or team strategists because it logistically wasn't possible in the time available: "We were frankly running out of laps. If you spent a lot of time trying to switch radio channels and talk to a bunch of people, you're counting laps in a hurry. We've got a pace car out there, we have track safety, we've got observers. And we trust and count on them."
Instead Barnhart explained that all feedback is filtered through the appointed pit tech liasons. When drivers were heard complaining over their radios, they weren't talking directly to race control: "They're talking back to their team managers or their strategist back in the pits, and they would have to relay that to the pit tech and pit tech would have to relay it up to race control, he explained. "That's the process that never got to us.
"We hadn't received anything from pit tech guys," he insisted. "We never had a single call from a pit tech ... We had not received any objections from any of the pit techs, from any that were assigned to the cars on the racetrack saying the driver of the #59 or the driver of the #5 or the driver of the #7 vehemently objects and says it's too wet to go.
"We didn't have anybody saying that. So combined with a lack of information from people saying we shouldn't go, combined with all of our track safety people saying we should go and all the observers around say the track is still raceable and going, you make the decision based on that information."
Barnhart pointed out that even Johnny Rutherford, driving the pace car, hadn't objected to the restart: "Johnny at that point in time hadn't relayed either that it was a bad decision to go at that point in time."
Asked where the system had broken down, Barnhart suggested that race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay might have nailed it. "I think Ryan said it best ... I don't think people really understand how little water it takes or how little moisture it takes to have an adverse effect on the ability of these cars to perform.
"I have great trust and respect for the people that we have out there ... There's a thousand times they've made these calls, and they're right 99.9 percent of the time," he insisted. "When you're up in an enclosed room, glass in there, you're not outside, you don't know, you're counting on information from other people, it can kind of put you in a Catch-22 position, and you're counting on a lot of information."
"I'm learning as we go along how difficult it is up in race control," contributed a rueful Al Unser Jr., the driver member of the race officials. "We had several tough decisions up there that we had to call [especially about moisture.] I don't know how many times I ran outside to see how the moisture was, because Brian's asking around the track, you know, of the observers and he's asking me to go outside. And I went up on the roof. And I went out back several times to figure out, you know, has enough moisture fallen to shut it down?
"It was a tough decision, tough call, especially the last one we were getting information that it was good to go."
Barnhart admitted that he and the rest of race control had held the pressure to deliver to the fans, both at the track and watching on television: "We could have tooled around behind the pace car and just thrown the checquered and the yellow at the same time at 225 and we would have made a lot of fans angry in the race grandstands," he pointed out. "Based on the information we had, we were going to try and put on a show for them. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the wrong way to do that."
Speaking at the same post-race press conference on Sunday, third-placed Scott Dixon had some sympathy for Barnhart and the race officials, agreeing that the conditions out on track had been "kind of confusing."
"It had dried up. It did start raining on the last lap coming to the green," he said. "It is a tough call. I wouldn't want to be the one trying to decide."
"It's a tough one," agreed race runner-up Oriol Servia. "They actually asked me. I said it's raining harder, I would wait another lap or something. But it's tough for them, too. It's five laps to the end, they're trying to get it.
"It's hard to guess how wet it is. I don't want to throw everybody under the bus. It's tough to decide. They asked, 'Hey, what do you think, should we restart?' I don't know what to answer," he admitted. "20 seconds before [the green flag], it started to rain again. It was a difficult call, I think."
Servia was still smarting at another of race control's decisions - to ignore the final 'aborted' restart and the ensuing laps under yellow. Seria had passed Hunter-Reay for the lead in the brief seconds under green, but lost the win when race control took the decision to roll back the race.
"I don't know if that's a precedent," Barnhart insisted. "You're in a position where from a rule book standpoint you count the yellow laps unless otherwise stated, but to me the logic behind it was that it's the right thing," he said, pointing out that drivers like Will Power shouldn't lose out because of a clear mistake by race control.
"That wasn't their fault. That was mine. So the right thing to do was to go back and not jeopardize them or ... affect their standings in the race result for the championship, go back to where the last stop was run before my mistake was made."
Asked if there would be repercussions for Will Power, who vented his fury toward the race officials so publicly in both words and gestures, Barnhart refused to commit himself either way.
"Obviously we'll review it. It's secondary in my opinion to what happened out there."