Not surprisingly, the recent announcement that VICS placed Brian Barnhart back into the position of Race Director has drawn a large volume of very loud criticism from the die-hard fanbase, myself included. It is no secret that Barnhart has been inconsistent on his best of days and risked the lives of drivers on his worst.
In an interview with Fox Sports, President of Competition and Operations Derrick Walker may be aware of Barnhart’s standing among the fans, but he really misses the point, much in the same way a car with massive understeer misses apexes.
“I’m not surprised by the reaction; maybe I’m surprised by the volume,” Walker told FOXSports.com. “I anticipated and said so internally here at IndyCar there will be some pushback by some of the fans.
“Some pushback,” he anticipated. That’s like saying you anticipate a slight bit of discomfort from smashing your thumb with a sledgehammer. Surely Derrick Walker can’t be that naive, can he? If he is, it frightens me even more for the future of the Verizon IndyCar Series.
The problem isn’t that Biran Barnhart will be in charge of making officiating calls for races, because he won’t be. He will be one member of a three-person panel of stewards that will make the officiating calls, with Barnhart in charge of the panel. That does mitigate some of the potential damage he can cause.
However, he already has caused damage, and I don’t mean the wrecked race cars from the 2011 New Hampshire race. The damage is in the perception of VICS and their ability to put on a fair race and the competence of the series’ leadership. Even considering Barnhart for the position of Race Director puts IndyCar under the microscope of every hyper-critical fan, journalist, team owner, driver and casual bystander.
Walker himself bore witness to Barnhart’s officiating style (if you can call it that) as a team owner, so he’s not oblivious to his past screw-ups. Walker says as much in another interview with Racer Magazine.
I wasn’t in this position when Brian ran the competition department: I was a competitor, I saw Brian’s operation from a competitor’s standpoint and I’d say a lot of the concerns and criticisms voiced about him and the system back then were warranted. Not all of them, and I don’t agree with what appears to be a character assassination of him, but yeah, Brian, ran the show and in that role he must take responsibility for what went on.
The problem isn’t just Brian Barnhart or whether he deserves some measure of forgiveness for his past transgressions. It’s not even that he has a history of making questionable or obviously awful calls that affect the racing. It’s a pervasive attitude within the boardroom at 16th and Georgetown that keeps their family in roles for which they’ve proven they’re unsuited to fill, and Barnhart’s appointment is one example.
If the fans are outraged that Walker appointed Barnhart as Race Director (despite his lessened power in the role), then others have to be outraged as well. Sponsors, potential team owners, and even drivers could see this as a reason to not pursue IndyCar in some capacity. If I was a business owner considering a car sponsorship, I would certainly have second thoughts about putting my money into a series that allows such buffoonery.
That begs the question: Is Derrick Walker the best person for the role of President of Competition and Operations? He appears to be almost oblivious to the perception of VICS as a joke of a race series because of actions like this, as well as the seemingly never-ending management changes. It’s not a perception of stability, and for anyone to consider bringing their money into the sport it has to be a legitimate concern.
As President of Operations, it may not be in Derrick Walker’s job description to consider how management appointees will affect the overall health of the series. Perhaps he isn’t high enough on the VICS food chain to have those concerns, but I find that very difficult to swallow. This is more likely the board dictating the decision without consideration for any other qualified people. I want to say ‘applicants’, but I doubt there were any application process involved in replacing Beaux Barfield when he left for IMSA last year.
At this stage, the only thing we can hope for is that the three-person steward panel is able to keep the boneheaded calls to an absolute minimum, effectively muzzling Brian Barnhart and his silliness. Assuming that this year’s officiating is reasonable, then perhaps fans’ worst fears are unfounded and all those internet commenters that have sworn off IndyCar will return.
We can only hope.