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IndyCar drivers letting emotions take over on track

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Associated Press
August 10, 2011
— Consider it road rage at the major league level.

IndyCar has been hit by a rash of on-track aggression not usually seen in open-wheel racing, with drivers trading paint in their million-dollar rides followed post-race by the typical finger-pointing and hard feelings, snide remarks and casual threats, deprecating comments and public complaining.


It got so bad that series officials took action.


Last week IndyCar put drivers Mike Conway, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alex Tagliani on probation through the end of the year for “multiple instances of initiating avoidable contact during IndyCar Series events this season.”


How bad was it? Listen to Dario Franchitti at Mid-Ohio last weekend, referring to the numerous skirmishes at the Toronto race: “There was so much contact. At one point they were saying there was only one car that didn’t have any contact. They were saying (driver Scott Dixon) didn’t have any contact and then they asked him and he said, ‘I had four.’ Everybody had contact.”


That prompted series officials to step in before IndyCar became demolition derby with state-of-the-art projectiles.


“We are disappointed in these actions, which have exhibited a pattern of driving that endangers on-track safety and adversely affects competition,” said Brian Barnhart, IndyCar’s president of competition and operations.


According to IndyCar, Conway purposely ran into Ryan Briscoe’s car at Toronto and Oriol Servia’s at Edmonton. Hunter-Reay hit Briscoe’s at Barber and Takuma Sato’s at Edmonton. Tagliani did not avoid contact with Will Power at Toronto and Graham Rahal at Edmonton.


Some have seen the lighter side of the incidents, which have mostly occurred on the circuit’s road courses. Hunter-Reay finished third in high heat and humidity at Mid-Ohio. Speaking after the race, he tossed in a reference to his discipline.


“It was a good day apart from the drink bottle not working in the car,” he said, adding, “which I think was part of my probation.”


Part of the problem might be that people accustomed to going fast, who have high RPMs in their DNA, don’t take kindly to others who they don’t believe know what they’re doing at 120 mph. Tempers flare.


“It doesn’t take much in these cars,” said Dixon, who won at Mid-Ohio. “With the competition level so high at the moment, everybody is trying to gain a position here and there. You’ve got to stretch it a little bit to pull that off.”


So when IndyCar egos are bruised, sheet metal gets dinged.


Most of the warring drivers have moved on, or at least talked it out. But they have not forgotten.


“We get along out of the car,” Franchitti said of his relationship with Power, who complained bitterly about the Scot’s driving after the Toronto race. “It makes no difference how I race Will, or anyone out there — whether I’m best friends with them like (I am with) Tony Kanaan, or Scott Dixon. It makes no difference how I race against that person. On the track, we are absolutely ... he’s gunning for me and I’m gunning for him right now.”


Rivalries are important in sports. Ali needed Frazier. Their head-to-head battles made Palmer and Nicklaus bigger, as well as professional golf. Post-race punches have long added color to NASCAR.


Controversy and conflict also appeal to spectators.


The Versus network, owned by NBC, televises IndyCar races. It has used the recent one-on-one battles to promote its telecasts.


It remains to be seen if such ungentlemanly behavior on the track will be rewarded with higher TV ratings.


Right now, after the sanctions handed down by IndyCar officials, there is an uneasy truce.


Franchitti, an outspoken advocate for track and driver safety, doesn’t sound as if he’s convinced the enmity between drivers has been put aside.


“We have this tremendous competition on the track and we’ve managed to keep it on the track,” he said. “We go out there and we race the hell out of each other week in and week out and we manage to be friendly — or somewhat friendly — out of the car. Some of the fans have been saying, ‘Yeah, but we don’t see your true personality.’ Maybe that’s true, but we definitely saw it spilling over in Toronto and we’ve seen that a couple of times this year with different drivers.


“I think the drivers are definitely showing their feelings a bit more out of the car.”



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