I learned something watching the 12 Hours of Sebring this weekend, or at least, I thought about something in a different way than I had before. I watch a lot of racing, but it seems there's always more nuance to absorb.
I'd always known being Race Director was a complicated job, given that decisions to enforce rules and ensure good racing have to be made quickly and consistently. In some instances, decisions are clear-cut: the timing loops in pit lane say a car was speeding, the car is assessed a penalty. I also know that there's strategy when calling a yellow and closing the pits so as not to hand any team an unfair advantage ... and that's often a matter of split-second timing on the part of the team in Race Control.
But what I hadn't considered--and what was brought home clearly in the Sebring race on Saturday--was the impact of penalties for avoidable contact. In principle, the idea of penalizing someone for making contact they could have avoided that hurts someone else's race makes sense. You want to stop drivers from using their cars to bash others out of the way.
But this is also racing. In NASCAR, "rubbin' is racin'" and all that. In IndyCar, contact can be disastrous. Sportscar racing lies somewhere between the two. There's some rubbing and leaning occasionally, but it's generally pretty clean racing (one of the SPEED commentators even praised the "old days" of totally clean racing, unlike the current day).
The issue is where the responsibilities lies, when there's contact between an overtaking car and a car being overtaken. The ALMS Race Director (Paul Walter, who I've met and like) took the approach on Saturday that it's the responsibility of the overtaking car, full stop. So there were a number of penalties assessed for contact that many people in addition to the penalized driver questioned. In particular, Richard Westbrook, driving the ultimately class-winning #4 Corvette, who said the Ferrari he was attempting to pass was being shown the blue ("faster car coming") flag and seemed to be (if I remember the incident correctly) almost even with the Ferrari before the side-to-side impact.
Here's where I started thinking. Sure, a penalized driver is going to complain, and the "victim" of that impact will probably agree with the penalty. But there was plenty of other buzz, starting with the television commentators, about a strict line of penalties for the overtaking car ONLY creating an environment where the driver of the car being overtaken doesn't have to watch what's happening around him/her. And I think that could be pretty injurious to the concept of multi-class and multi-talent (pros and ams together) racing.
So I think some of those calls may have been wrong, because when you race with multiple classes, you MUST be prepared at all times to pass or be passed. To me, that's one of the fundamental rules. The car being overtaken bears responsibility also for keeping racing clean.
Of course, I haven't reviewed tapes of the incidents in detail, and I'm no race director. This is a point of principle, not me saying Paul Walter sucks. This is me saying he's got a tougher job than I realized.
What do you all think? How does a race director keep the racing good and the penalties fair?