27 July 2010

Making the Rules Transparent

The past 36 hours have seen an outpouring of thoughts on the finish to the Honda Indy Edmonton. Some view the blocking rule as arcane and ridiculous, but probably applied correctly, under the letter of the law. Others see the finish as a black eye for the IZOD IndyCar Series, despite the constant air time it received.

Now that Helio Castroneves' outburst has been the subject of the day, I turn my thoughts towards improving the series, as it comes to communicating with the fans.  While the ruling itself was controversial, maybe the most upsetting part of it came in knowing that there were specific rules/lines for the race that no fan had an inkling of prior to and during the competition
.  With that in mind, here are five ideas to help reduce controversy the next time a blocking call (or any other rules violation) comes from Race Control: 
  1. Make the rules transparent.  Yes, Indy Downforce members can now purchase a rules book with enough membership points, but the issue is larger than knowledge of the rules.  But who memorizes that?  I do some part-time work in Indianapolis as an official scorer for the Triple-A team, and I'll admit that I don't have the baseball rulebook memorized.  I keep a copy next to me during the game for reference, but to expect the average fan to understand the rule book is asking far too much.

    Each road/street circuit has the own personality, passing zones, etc..  Prior to the race, viewers need to know what line(s) are allowed and which are considered "blocking" lines.  
  2. This means opening up the drivers' meeting in some way, shape or form.  At the very least, it needs to be captured on film, as it (thankfully) was in Edmonton.  The Indianapolis 500 features a public drivers' meeting on Saturday, allowing fans to watch and get close to the field of 33.  Would this not appeal to fans at other circuits?  I think it would.

    For those not at the race, stream it live on
    Indycar.com or make it part of the Versus pre-race coverage.  The latter would be simple enough - on the road/street circuits, show us the dividing line when going over the course layout.
  3. Put a rules official in or near the TV and radio booths.  For other sporting events, a rules official is often on-hand to answer questions that the viewer and/or TV crew has.  Having a supervisor from the NFL explain a ruling helps the viewer further understand the events on the field.  It does no one any good to have Bob Jenkins or Mike King scrambling to try and understand why blocking was called.  Mike King was so confused/dumbfounded about the call that he suggested Castroneves drove off course diving down towards the checkered flags.

    Additionally, a liaison from Race Control near or in both booths can answer any questions that might pop up.  This person can easily pass along a note telling the talent who has been previously warned for blocking prior to an actual penalty being levied.  They can also answer questions about penalties levied in the pits, the reasoning behind a long yellow flag, etc..

    More explanation and details creates a more informed fan.  A more-informed fan is more likely to become a "hardcore" fan, as they feel a greater connection to the sport.  To finish the thought, the hardcore fan then becomes the consumer of IndyCar sponsors, creating the circular pattern that keeps sponsors coming back to the series and teams.  They are also more likely to talk about the sport at the water cooler (Monday Morning Quarterback syndrome), hopefully causing more people to watch IndyCar racing, or at least figure out what the guy is talking about, as a result.  The IZOD IndyCar Series is a winner with more informed fans.
  4. Consistently enforce the rules.  Blocking, especially in open-wheel racing, is always going to be a contentious issue.  But when questionable blocks are called in some races and obvious blocks are not called in others, it raises serious credibility issues for the competition administrators of the IZOD IndyCar Series.

    Again, if viewers knew the rules ahead of time, and knew who had been warned for blocking, they might not react with such vitriol when the black flag is waved. 
  5. Make a rules official available following the race as well.  Whether they explain every ruling immediately following the race, or in an Indycar.com article or in a video that runs during the week, make the rulings transparent.  Show the viewers replays and tell them why something was either called or not called.  Explain why Mario Moraes was served a drive-through penalty in Toronto instead of being parked.  If Brian Barnhart or someone else confirmed Rahal's "chrome horn" explanation from Toronto, does it not lend more credence to both Rahal and the series?   
These changes are not major. As a fan of the IZOD IndyCar Series, it would be nice for further transparency from Race Control.  The series has already begun the process of renovating its entire process, from its TV coverage to its sales and marketing to the actual look of its cars.  New chassis and engines are on tap for 2012.  Doing more to engage fans during the TV broadcast of a race with regard to the rules is just one easy step for the series to build its base.

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