Murto: Leave racing to drivers

Race drivers should be allowed to drive their cars without interference from officials watching on TV monitors or sitting in a comfortable control tower.

Rules are one thing. Racing needs rules to determine what type of cars will be raced. Race officials do need to have a tight grip on physical rules to ensure fairness of competition. If a rule says a car should have a 110-inch wheelbase, then 111 inches should be disqualified.

And race procedure needs to be legislated. Rules that dictate the way a race is started or restarted (standing start, double file, single file, etc.) or how caution periods are handled are perfectly fine. Every sport needs rules that determine how that sport is played, and that includes racing. But when officiating interferes with the play of the game, officiating has gone too far.

In last weekend’s NFL playoff games there was at least one touchdown that would have been stolen from a team if it were not for review of all scoring plays. And how many penalty calls were made over the course of the weekend that had TV commentators in disagreement with officials? And on the flipside, how many times do you hear TV commentators note that officials were “allowing” the players to the play the game rather than play the game for them through penalties?

Racing’s no different. It’s one thing to have penalties for rough driving, etc., handed down at local short tracks or in club road racing, where participants are mostly amateurs and many are not at a high skill level. A guiding hand from officials may be welcome — or even necessary — as long as the rules apply the same to all participants. But should professional drivers in professional series be subject to officials driving their cars for them from the scoring tower?

It’s irksome when a professional F1 driver, for example, is give a penalty for “unnecessary contact” during a race, even though F1 uses former drivers as guest stewards. Who is to know whether contact is unnecessary except the drivers behind the wheel of the cars? Sometimes officials make F1 nearly unwatchable as they interfere with nearly every race, penalizing every incident of tire rub that occurs on the track. All Pastor Maldonado has to do is look at an official sideways and he’s handed a five-spot grid penalty.

IndyCar and the former sports car organizations Grand-Am and ALMS are no different. What’s worse is when those organizations are inconsistent. And now there’s NASCAR. The one organization you thought had a shot at getting it right with their “have at it boys” attitude is now going backwards, quickly.

It’s bad enough they have the rule on restrictor-plate tracks that don’t allow cars to pass below the double white line. Supposedly it’s OK if you’re pushed down there, but we discovered early on that even if pushed down there you’ll get disqualified from a win. So we have crashes at the end of every race because drivers block and the blocked driver refuses to budge so as not to be disqualified. Officials caused this dangerous situation by their enforcement of the rules.

Now NASCAR’s decided to involve officials even more. If Camping World Truck or Nationwide competitors engage in a tandem draft at Daytona or Talladega — where one car physically pushes another around the track — both cars involved will be disqualified. Really? Your body rules caused this tandem draft situation, but now you’ll penalize the drivers for doing it?

Bump drafting is allowed, though. So who decides when a bump draft goes on too long and becomes a tandem draft? An official in the tower, somebody not behind the wheel of a racecar. And just think of the opportunity for teams to manipulate a race. Drivers A and B are teammates, and driver C is driver A’s biggest competition. No need to spin a car out to manipulate the race, driver B can simply get behind driver C and push him for a while until both drivers are black flagged, clearing the way for driver A.

If NASCAR doesn’t want tandem drafting they need to change the bodies of their race vehicles, just as they did for the Cup series. Racing is not football; we need less ball-and-stick type officiating in racing, not more. Let the drivers drive their cars.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.