The League Of Ex Used To Be Gentlemen

It just coincidental the Joliet race featured two events that make such a compelling argument for changing the “Gentleman’s Agreement” concerning racing back to the yellow flag.

On one hand you had Jimmie Johnson clearly violating that hoary old agreement by passing Michael Waltrip after the caution flag flew to take over third place. With passing as difficult as it is at Joliet, it’s hard to fault Johnson’s call especially since NASCAR turned a blind eye to Robby Gordon passing teammate Kevin Harvick for the lead racing to the caution at Sonoma. (Which, ironically enough, well and truly pissed off Jeff Gordon who happens to be Johnson’s car owner of record.) Waltrip was clearly incensed at the time then attempted to set a new standard of buffoonery with his post-race comments on the matter.

On the other hand you Bobby Labonte’s Chevy clipped by another car and sent backwards into the wall where it promptly burst into the biggest fireball seen in those parts since Mrs. O’Leary’s bovine punted the lantern. And as the car slid slowly back across the track enveloped in flames, Labonte got sideswiped by Ricky Craven who hadn’t taken the caution flag yet and arrived on the scene apparently having received erroneous information from his spotter to go low to avoid the wreck.

I didn’t use a stopwatch to measure it, but there was a long sickening pause as fans waited to see if Labonte was going to emerge from that inferno all right. He crawled out under his own power then promptly collapsed to the ground though as it turns out he was more frustrated and angry than hurt. And even as he lay there the emergency crews still hadn’t arrived to tend to Labonte or his flaming car.

Whether by design or by accident (no pun intended) at least Labonte’s car slid away from the wall. Had it come to rest that badly ablaze with the driver’s side window opening up against the fence and the wall Labonte would likely have had to go out the passenger side window opening of the car which is a tricky process with those new cocoon seats and the requisite jungle gym worth of rollcage in a modern Winston Cup car. Further with the car on the outside of the track rescue workers would have taken even longer to reach him and the results could have been tragic.

Fans who watch open wheel racing may have noted that when a wreck occurs during one of those sanctioning body events the emergency crews are often on the scene before a damaged car even spins to a stop. Why is that? For one thing CART has a traveling safety team not well meaning volunteers and they’re extraordinarily good at what they do. (And the arguments against NASCAR having such a traveling safety team hold about as much water as a sieve and look shamefully like the powers that be trying to spare a few bucks at the potential cost of a driver’s life.) But more importantly as soon as the yellow flag flies in an open wheel race, the field is frozen and racing stops. Those safety workers in their garishly painted Toyota pickups don’t have to worry about some Yo-yo hellbent on getting his lap back slamming into the side of their rig.

And with the Gentleman’s Agreement having gone the way of the slingshot pass by all appearances things are only going to get worse with drivers fighting tooth and nail for every position as they race back to the caution. It probably won’t be long until we see two drivers battling over a position with one of them using the wrecked car or even a fire engine as a pick to prevent his opponent from passing him in a potentially deadly game of chicken.

With the amount of fires we’ve seen lately in stock car racing the decision to end racing to the yellow seems a no-brainer. When a driver is in a flaming car, potentially knocked cold, he needs help and he needs it quickly. Seconds matter. Even in a best case scenario where the driver is quickly able to undo his safety harness, window net and radio cord and can scramble out of the car himself racing to the caution only invites tragedy. That same driver might have his belts off, his net down and one foot out the window when his car is struck by another driver racing back to the line.

The problem is particularly grave at a fast short track like Bristol. There simply isn’t enough time for a spotter to adequately relay to his driver where the wrecked cars have come to rest and whether the track is soaked with oil and other fluids as is often the case after a hard wreck. A driver might see the wreck in enough time to try to abandon his attempt to make a pass and avoid the wreck, but if the track is oil slick he’s often just along for the ride by that point.

Some will argue that eliminating racing back to the caution will further reduce the amount of excitement during a race. I’d say to those people that’s a pretty brave position to take for someone whose not going to be sitting in a burning and disabled car watching the field racing towards him through the driver’s side window. I’d also add that if the quality of racing is so greatly reduced that the only way drivers can pass one another is racing to the yellow there’s a more fundamental problem that needs to be addressed.

What about a driver with a strong car who just happens to cut down a tire or gets caught in the pits when a caution flies and is thus a lap down but has a car that might potentially win the race if he can just beat the leader back to the yellow? Several race series have added a rule that when a caution flies the first driver a lap down is allowed to make his lap up without having to pass the leader. That would seem to solve that problem without endangering lives and it would eliminate the leader making an ill-advised decision to stomp on the brakes and all but come to a stop to allow his teammates to make up laps.

NASCAR would like you to believe they leave these decisions to the drivers. In fact they already interfere with the process at their whim. You don’t have to be a long term fan to have seen a driver who apparently just got his lap back racing to the yellow told he has not. The “decision” is that that driver was “not in contact with the leaders” when the caution flew. What “in contact with” has never been defined and it seems to vary depending on who that driver is.

The sad fact is while in a perfect world the drivers would be allowed to police their own ranks, these guys are no longer just drivers. They are highly compensated endorsers and anything they can do to increase the likelihood they can take their sponsor’s ride to victory lane and thus increase their ability to continue to nuzzle at the sugar teat of corporate largesse, they’ll do it. Robby Gordon opened this can of worms and with their silence after the “pass” NASCAR condoned it. It would be nice to see the Daytona Beach mob do the right thing with a proactive approach to eliminating the practice of racing to the yellow rather than being forced into a reactive one after a tragedy.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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