Blocking is in the eye of the beholder in IndyCar

Scott Dixon watched Helio Castroneves move his No. 3 Honda a

couple car widths to the outside entering Turn 1 at Edmonton two

weeks ago, in an attempt to cutoff Penske Racing teammate Will

Power.

Uh-oh Helio, Dixon thought. That’s a no-no.

IndyCar officials agreed, black-flagging Castroneves for

blocking with two laps remaining, a ruling that helped Dixon pick

up his second victory of the season while Castroneves was bumped to

10th.

The typically affable Brazilian erupted afterward, earning

himself a $60,000 fine for grabbing an official. Castroneves

apologized for his behavior but still believes he did nothing wrong

on the track, arguing the rule is too vague.

”The calls have been very inconsistent and I felt I should not

have been black-flagged and the rules do not say that,” he said.

”They change. So it’s sad.”

His fellow drivers disagree, claiming the first turn at Edmonton

is one of the easiest spots in the series to police.

The turn comes at the end of a long straightaway that’s actually

an airport runway. A series of black tire marks highlight the

typical path of a race car. Castroneves appeared to go well outside

it to keep Power in his rearview mirror.

”I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” said Dario

Franchitti. ”It’s such a blatant disregard for the rules. What’s

the problem?”

Yet drivers understand Castroneves’ frustration. Blocking in

Indycar is akin to holding in football or charging in basketball:

something that’s entire up to the eye of the beholder.

”It’s a hard call to make because half the time you don’t know

if it’s going to be called or not,” said Dixon, who has been

penalized three times for blocking during his career.

IndyCar president of competition Brian Barnhart said race

officials do the best they can trying to make sure two dozen

drivers racing in close quarters at high speeds remain on their

best behavior.

It isn’t easy, particularly when dealing with people whose

livelihood depends on getting around the next corner ahead of

everyone else. Barnhart maintains blocking ”is being as

consistently enforced as we can do it” but that the rule is

constantly evolving.

”We try to make it as clear as possible,” Barnhart said.

Even if it doesn’t always appear that way to fans.

Driver Graham Rahal watched the Edmonton race with his

girlfriend. When he saw Castroneves hop outside to shut the door on

Power, he immediately knew Castroneves had crossed the line. His

girlfriend didn’t see it that way.

His message: sorry, this isn’t NASCAR.

”I think that the beauty of our sport is the clean racing,”

said Rahal, who posted the fastest practice time on Friday for

Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio. ”Stock cars it’s like ‘Oh, I’m going to

get by this guy so I’m not going to break this corner and take him

out.’ That’s not racing. That’s bumper cars.”

Barnhart stressed the rules against blocking aren’t there to

prohibit drivers from racing, it’s to protect them from each

other.

Unlike NASCAR, where ”rubbing is racing” is part of the show,

IndyCar drivers have to be more careful. One inadvertent clipping

of wheels can send cars into the wall or worse.

It’s dangerous. It’s expensive and can make for a less than

compelling product.

If officials loosened up the rules, Barnhart fears races would

turn into nothing but a three-hour caution-filled parade with

drivers taking turns knocking each other out.

For a series trying to rebrand itself, that’s not exactly a good

business plan.

”We’ve got to do what we can to make our sport easy to

follow,” he said. ”We’ve got to do what we can to make our sport

entertaining.”

There is a middle ground, one the series hopes to find in 2012

when it unveils its redesigned car. The new car will feature new

safety measures that could allow drivers to race closer

together.

It’s an avenue officials are willing to explore, if it makes

sense.

And for all the controversy the finish at Edmonton stirred up,

Barnhart knows it’s up to the drivers to decide what to do, all

officials can do is try to keep them in line.

”They’ve got the controls, they’ve got the wheels and they’ve

got the pedals,” he said. ”They make the decisions, not us and it

all boils down to one thing: respect.”