Thursday , July 7 2022

Romain Grosjean, Ross Chastain and the code

We have brought you here today, during this week when NASCAR and IndyCar are off and only Formula One is on the racing calendar (Canadian GP, Sunday, 2 p.m. ET; stream live on ABC) to discuss what has always been a hot topic among hot shoes but has become a particularly scalding subject in the past several weeks across all forms of motorsports: self-policing on the racetrack.

Drivers enforcing driving codes via bumpers and retaining walls. Chrome horn justice. It has been around forever, but exactly when it is OK for racers to take discipline into their own gloves? And is it OK at all?

“I don’t think it’s any different in motor racing than it is in any other sport where you see veterans teaching young guys lessons or champions reminding rookies about what is acceptable and what is not,” explains Mario Andretti when asked about the administration of discipline on the racetrack. “What is different is that in our sport, someone can get hurt or die. The person who needs to be taught the lesson needs to be reminded of that first and foremost, but so does the racer who has decided he is going to be an enforcer. You can’t fix something by making it worse.”

Then the man who won in all three series adds: “But you can fix it. And sometimes it really does needs fixing. Not it really, but who.”

There have been a couple of very high-profile “who”s this season, beginning in the IndyCar paddock.

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When Romain Grosjean arrived in the IndyCar Series in 2021, he brought with him a bit of a prepackaged image. A reputation. Not the one you might be thinking of, the awe-inspiring, death-defying “Phoenix” who emerged from a crash in the 2020 F1 Bahrain GP, stepping out of a frightening inferno and looking like Hugh Jackman in that Wolverine movie everyone hates.

No, we mean the rep he had earned long before that day for being, shall we say, difficult to overtake without some sort of issue. Specifically speaking, a bit of an unpredictable driving pattern and resulting unavoidable contact for those trying to maneuver around the Swiss-born driver on the racetrack. He was once described by F1 competitor Mark Webber as a “first-lap nutcase.”

It was that notoriety that gave his new stateside open-wheel rivals pause when he moved from F1 to IndyCar. It’s a scouting report that clearly influenced Graham Rahal‘s words six weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park. After a run-in with Grosjean, the son of three-time Indy champion Bobby seethed.

“I knew Romain was going to dive-bomb me because I had already been warned that’s what he’s doing,” Rahal said, referencing calls of caution that came his way from the F1 driver corps and fellow competitors after Grosjean’s other incidents this season, particularly at Barber and St. Petersburg. Then he turned his comments toward promises of sending a future message via his racing machine. “If race control doesn’t want to [penalize Grosjean], then they’re not going to do anything. But when we go and punt him, they’d better not do anything to me. … I think the drivers need to get together, all of us, because I’m not the only one who’s got a problem.”

A month later, when the NASCAR Cup Series held its inaugural event in St. Louis, Ross Chastain was so in the way on the tight, 1.25-mile egg-shaped oval that he drew the ire of not one but two surefire future NASCAR Hall of Famers. Denny Hamlin, livid over getting punted into the wall by Chastain, swerved to block him nearly into the backstretch infield. Then Chase Elliott, having also been turned by Chastain, tried to wreck him more than once during the same lap, all while Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson was screaming over the radio to put the No. 1 car in the fence.

After the race, Chastain downright groveled for forgiveness while Hamlin said, “It seemed like there’s no sense of consciousness there that says, ‘Maybe I’m going a bit aggressive.’ That’s his decision to make. He can make any decision he wants to. He’s his own guy. … He’s been very successful doing what he’s doing, but ultimately the sport is self-policing. When you least expect it and when it means the most is when it comes around.”

It didn’t come around for Chastain this past Sunday at the Sonoma Raceway road course. Nor has it for Grosjean. Yet.

Rahal and Grosjean talked privately after their Barber incident. During Indy 500 week, Grosjean seemed to believe that his issue with Rahal was resolved, but Rahal said their conversation was little more than him being told by Grosjean that one doesn’t drive in F1 for 10 years “unless you’re top-notch level” and reminded that he was far from the only driver to have been knocked out of a race this season because of contact with the former Haas F1 driver.

Meanwhile, Chastain said that he has “talked to all parties involved” and that it was “a good conversation” but cryptically added: “Whatever happens, happens.” That sure feels like a whole lot of “yet.” It’s a just a matter of when, where and how it goes down.

Will it be with a bumper or nose cone somewhere down the road when, as Hamlin said, it matters most? See: Phoenix 2012, the NASCAR Cup season’s penultimate race, when Jeff Gordon turned into Clint Bowyer in the closing laps to prevent him from moving on to the championship finale. Why? To avenge a run-in with Bowyer at Martinsville eight months earlier.

Or will it be in a behind-closed-doors drivers meeting, the room ganging up on the one problem child? See: Talladega 1991, when Ernie Irvan was so out of control that he was cornered and chewed out by so many drivers and team owners that he stood up in the prerace drivers meeting and apologized. Most of the room applauded the speech of “Swervin’ Irvan.” Others refused to show praise until he had actually earned it — ahem, Rusty Wallace.

Also see: The countless number of too-honest F1 drivers meetings when pilots angrily talk about questionable moves from their colleagues as if the offending party isn’t right there in the room.

“The nature of our cars doesn’t lend itself to a lot of physical on-track lessons, certainly not like NASCAR or V8 Supercars back home in Australia,” McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo explained during the Miami GP weekend. He grew up a huge fan of the ultimate stock-car on-track disciplinarian, Dale Earnhardt, who always credited tongue-lashings from Richard Petty for putting him in his place as a reckless rookie. “That leaves our driver meetings in F1 as the place to air grievances. You’re just praying you aren’t the guy they’re coming after, because when they do, they will cross that line from polite to awkwardly uncomfortable very quick.”

“That’s what you have to decide: Where is your line that has to be crossed to make you decide, ‘OK, this has to be done now,’ and then what line you are willing to cross to make your point?” Kevin Harvick explained earlier this season. Last fall, he ran down Elliott on the Charlotte roval to make one of those points, after Elliott held him up and kept him from advancing in the playoffs.

“Sometimes, life teaches you good lessons,” Harvick said that day. Now he adds context to that teaching of lessons. “You don’t go out there to hurt a guy. You go out to hurt his day. Again, know where the lines are that can and can’t be crossed.”

That day in Charlotte, NASCAR determined that Harvick and Elliott had indeed crossed one of the bad lines and called the two former champions on the carpet to tell them as much.

“What NASCAR does is they take the stance that they try to allow the competitors to compete,” Gustafson later recalled of the incident. “They want the competitors to be able to determine the outcome of the races, let the competitors take care of it on their own. I think that’s the way it should be, but the message that NASCAR delivered was, ‘We tried to do the best job we could to let you guys sort this out on the track, but that was too far.’ Basically, they told us they were over it.”

The policing of self-policing.

“We all know where that line is, at least we should,” said Josef Newgarden, a two-time IndyCar champ. He has, at times, been one of Grosjean’s most pointed critics. “But this can’t be Mad Max. It’s a group of racers who all depend on each other to race hard but also race smart. Race safe. That’s really the point of all this.

“And there’s not a single racer at these levels who hasn’t gotten a talking-to from a veteran because they did something dumb. The result has to be that you don’t do that dumb thing again. That’s when you will get the wagons circled on you.”




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