By Craig Murto
Race officials, stewards, directors -- those who make the calls to penalize drivers for rough driving -- need to find a balance.
In everything from local dirt track racing to Formula One, we see calls that penalize drivers for being too aggressive on the track. But are these calls the right calls to make?
A few weeks ago in the "Battle at the Beach" at Daytona, the NASCAR Late Models saw a controversial finish when rising star Kyle Larson knocked his own front bumper off trying to "move" C.E. Falk. On the final corner he drove right through him, blatantly wrecking him for the win.
NASCAR -- consistent with rulings it makes at the top levels concerning last-lap incidents for the win -- did nothing. There was no penalty against Larson. As a result, both the Modified and K&N Series races the following evening also ended with the leader at the white flag wrecked before the race was finished.
I didn't really like the Larson incident, as he races at the top level now (Nationwide) and had no business stealing the thunder from the Weekly Racing Series guys to begin with. Plus he was in a well-financed ride, knocking the bumper off a car that scrapes money together to run locally in Virginia and the Carolinas.
The message NASCAR sent was the same message it has sent for years in its top divisions -- anything goes on the last lap.
But that's the wrong message to send racers who run on a limited budget. Many local tracks have rules that send you to the back if the leader wrecks or spins off your front bumper. Some tracks have no rule, and like NASCAR, do nothing. The tracks that arbitrarily make judgment calls and have no rule in place are open for the criticism that they play favorites.
Racers at the grassroots level need guidance. Not everybody racing locally has an unlimited budget, and they all certainly don't have unlimited skills. There should be hard and fast rules regarding rough driving: If this circumstance happens, this is the penalty, no exceptions.
NASCAR officiated the Battle at the Beach as if they were officiating the Cup Series. That was a mistake. But last week's ALMS 12-hour endurance race at Sebring was also full of mistakes. It's a professional sports car event, yet it was officiated like a regional SCCA race with "avoidable contact" penalties handed out like candy. Frankly, it made the race unwatchable; the only saving grace was when Winchester native Tommy Milner drove the wheels off his Corvette at the end to grab the GT victory.
The race was barely 20 minutes in when a Corvette -- a GT car -- bumped the back of a prototype and knocked the prototype off course. The in-car camera made it look like the prototype simply stopped in front of the GT car, leaving no chance to react. It seemed obvious the prototype car had some sort of problem.
But race stewards called the Corvette in to serve a one-minute penalty on pit road. It was just racing contact. The prototype should have been driving away from the GT car at that point; it was obvious the prototype had a problem of some sort. But officials who were not behind the wheel of either car made the call to penalize the Corvette.
At least they were consistent; many such calls were made at Sebring. And too many of those calls are made in F1 during the course of a season.
Drivers at the grassroots level should expect such calls. Many are just learning their craft, and those who race at that level for enjoyment don't need their expensive racecars torn up by other racers' recklessness. Rough-driving penalties at the local level are a good thing, as long as they are applied equally to everybody.
But treating professional racers as if they're first-year rookies at Summit Point is ridiculous. NASCAR has the right idea with their "have at it, boys" attitude -- but even they will intervene if drivers get out of hand. Professional racers should have the ability to race hard, and hard racing is going to result in some contact whether we're talking about Sprint Cup, ALMS or F1. Professional drivers should be allowed to race.
You can see good racing at Winchester Speedway on Saturday, which is opening night. Be aware that racing will start at 5 p.m. in March and April due to the cool temperatures. Sunday you can head to Hagerstown Speedway for the rescheduled Brawl in the Fall, with racing starting at 2 p.m.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.