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Mad Dogs and Manners -- at 200 mph 

The ethics of safety in the Indy Racing League runs its course at PPIR

click to enlarge Safe at any speed? Eddie Cheever buckles up Saturday at PPIR. - DARRALD BENNETT
  • Darrald Bennett
  • Safe at any speed? Eddie Cheever buckles up Saturday at PPIR.

At the Indy Racing League's Radisson 200 at Pikes Peak International Raceway this past weekend the best safety device being touted was one that comes stock on most every race-car driver -- the brain.

The IRL has been very conscientious in terms of safety innovations; technological advances that make cars and racetracks safer have literally been lifesavers. And the IRL has been fast to respond to problems; emergency workers at tracks are first-rate. But, as IRL driver Robbie Buhl said, "There's only so much you can do at 200 miles per hour."

That drivers should use their heads to curb dangerous, overly aggressive driving was on the minds of many drivers this past weekend. During an IRL closed-doors drivers meeting Saturday, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former Pikes Peak International Hill Climb champion Al Unser Jr. made a "very impassioned plea for using one's brain," according to fellow veteran driver Eddie Cheever.

The allegations of overly aggressive driving stem from incidents that

occurred the previous Saturday at the Texas Motor Speedway. One incident in particular was heavily scrutinized. With five laps to go in Texas, Cheever and Greg Ray crashed while racing for the lead with Scott Sharp, who escaped unscathed and went on to win the race under a yellow caution flag.

After the race, Cheever alleged that Sharp and Ray were driving too aggressively and were continually crowding him and each other out late in the race. The crash also collected Robby McGehee -- driving a lapped car, at the bottom of the track -- who broke his leg in the crash.

In auto racing parlance, overly aggressive driving is often used interchangeably with terms like defensive driving, or blocking. Basically it's driving dangerously -- some might say recklessly -- to keep from being passed. Unlike the accepted practice with their stock car cousins, touching is taboo in Indy racing, where the open wheel cars are much more fragile and don't have the benefit of fenders and quarter-panels. In an open-wheeler the chances are better than even that even moderate contact will instantly wreck both the bumper and bumpee. The threat of making contact or locking wheels is viewed as intimidation and an unethical racing tactic.

Cheever, the 2000 winner at PPIR, was still visibly and audibly perturbed by the incident when he returned to PPIR last weekend. Both Cheever and Unser wanted IRL officials to sanction or fine overly aggressive drivers after review of the Texas race.

Sharp defended his actions in a teleconference interview three days after the race saying, "That was as good racing as you can get, as hard racing as you can get without touching. It got pretty aggressive, but what are you going to do?"

"They walked away from it," Cheever said at PPIR in response to Sharp. "Robby McGehee did not walk away from it."

At the driver's meeting at PPIR before practice sessions Saturday, IRL Vice-President of Operations Brain Barnhart met with the drivers to discuss the issue of overly aggressive driving.

Cheever said of the meeting, "No names, no car numbers, nothing was mentioned, as if we were talking hypothetically about somebody that wasn't even in the room. How are we going to address the issue if you can't be more specific?"

Barnhart did not issue any sanctions or fines at the meeting, but according to Cheever, "We were all told categorically that if that sort of driving goes on again in the future, [IRL officials] will black-flag you," which is the equivalent of disqualification.

One reason why Barnhart wasn't more specific might have been because, although Sharp and Ray have caught the most flack for overly aggressive driving, they were by no means the only guilty parties.

"I feel that 75 percent of the drivers out there that night were being too aggressive. Me included," Unser said. "It wasn't just the leaders doing it. It was everybody doing it. It ran deep into the field. It was like, all of a sudden, we're on a leash and somehow that leash got broken, and now we're mad dogs running around the back yard. It happened that quick."

"It was as if everybody was on drugs," Cheever said of the race in Texas. Apparently aggressive driving's infectious, by virtue, some drivers say, that intimidation is the most effective counter to intimidating driving. Imagine how road rage would spread if everyone on the highways were all racing toward the same destination at the same time. Not a pretty image.

The quick response and strong warnings by IRL officials and drivers seemed to do the trick. Sunday's race at PPIR was a model of manners and safe driving. The racing was entertaining, dramatic and aggressive, but never crossed over the thin line into over-aggression. There wasn't a single crash. The yellow flag came out three times, and then only for loose debris on the one-mile oval.

Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy 500 champion from Vail, passed Sam Hornish Jr. on lap-156 and rode on to win the event. "Winning at home, there's nothing like it," Lazier said after the race. "I don't have to fly home tonight. I get to drive home with this baby [the Michael Garman-designed trophy] in my car and sleep in my own bed, and I get to be the hero of the house. I'm really looking forward to seeing all my family and friends when I get home. There's going to be a heck of a party. There's going to be a lot of Coors Light flowing."

When asked about how aggressively he thought the race was run, he replied, "We're still running as hard as we can possibly run. I felt like today was a very clean race, but nobody gave anybody anything. We were running hard."

When asked how overly aggressive driving could best be avoided in future races, Lazier answered, "I think the key is, in every good [racing] series, you develop a drivers' code of ethics. I've been around a long time. There've never been cars so equally matched. Running that close, they've never had that before. So I think, we're starting to define -- on the big tracks, when we're drafting -- what we need to do to protect ourselves.

"This is something we've never seen before," Lazier added. "We have to develop this drivers' code of ethics as we go. When a guy gets a run on, you can't just cut him off."

The dialogue has begun.

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