0912 Sullivan Path

SULLIVAN: The Black Flag

Most people know the old Hollywood adage that any publicity is good publicity.

If this is true, the United States Auto Club, at least via social media channels, is as hot as it gets. By the time the national midget series loaded up after 100 laps of carnage at South Dakota’s Huset’s Speedway even Kyle Larson had weighed in.

Much of the consternation expressed about the style of contemporary midget racing is directed at young drivers and their supposedly rich parents. I’m sorry to spoil that narrative but a closer inspection reveals offenders from all age brackets and socioeconomic status.

Given all the drama, everyone associated with USAC seemed worn out by the time the Midwest swing ended. Thankfully, the Silver Crown date at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway, which followed was marked by good behavior. With a chance to catch a breath, it was time for one of the biggest stretches on the USAC calendar, the highly popular Indiana Sprint Week.

If anything definitive can be drawn from the opener at Gas City I-69 Speedway , it would be that egregious behavior is not confined to midget racing. Far from it.

By now you have all seen the footage and commentary. I’m also sure that you have drawn your own conclusions. You knew it was a long night when USAC announcer Chet Christner used the phrase “my goodness, gracious” about five times.

We all saw Brady Bacon stride across the infield and confront Robert Ballou firmly but without overt theatrics. Then came C. J. Leary’s dropkick of Ballou, which became fodder for a variety of memes and homemade music videos. Yes, there was plenty of publicity to be found.

To me, it was here that things got even more interesting. In a blink of an eye, somehow the attention turned away from the offending drivers and centered on USAC.

Years ago, a street stock driver lost his mind at Kokomo Speedway, drove into the infield and waited for the subject of his ire to come back around.

Charging from his parked position like a mad bull, he broadsided his nemesis and pinned him against the inside wall. I’m 100 percent sure who was at fault in that deal. However, in most cases I’m rarely so certain who is to blame in on-track tangles.

As an announcer, trust me, I stay out of it. So go back and read the comments following Gas City. There are those who are dead sure Robert Ballou was at fault in both incidents, others who feel he is completely blameless and those who score each round differently. That’s the reality.

Nonetheless, one of the prevailing sentiments expressed was “where was the black flag?” Thus, I pose the question. Who should have received it? If you took a poll the results would have been mixed at best. You can still argue that USAC should have done something; but when you boil all of this down to the basics, what you are asking is for these officials to assess blame. It really is as simple as that. If that’s what you want, you had better be prepared to live with it.

Christner made an important point when he asked his audience how often you see the black flag used in top-level professional racing. The answer is rarely. What Christner also added was that these are professional racers.

That brings me to another point. Throughout all the recent hubbub about midget racing, bubbling back to the surface is the notion that in the good old day’s drivers policed themselves. According to some, all these naughty racers need to shape up is a right cross to the jaw administered by someone like Jack Hewitt or Bob Kinser. This sounds good in theory.

The problem as I see it is that the minute something like this happens, moral outrage is soon to follow. Hence the questions arise anew, what are the officials going to do about that? To me this is the great conundrum.

Less than desired behavior occurs on the race track and the proffered solution seems to be that it is the sanctioning body’s responsibility to fix it. In essence, we want the race officials to become the surrogate parent of wayward children.

The problems we witnessed at Huset’s Speedway and Gas City, have one key source. It’s not the behavior of officials. The issues that occurred on these nights rest with the decisions made by the people holding a steering wheel. It is really that simple.

If you talk to some veteran racers, they’ll tell you that some drivers today fail to understand that you can get hurt driving a race car. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but it is a plausible theory. Is it true that the boundaries of what is acceptable have changed over time? My eyes tell me the answer is yes.

As near as I can tell, the prevailing sentiment in some corners is that black flags, fines and suspensions are important deterrents and if used over-exuberant racers will change their ways. Do you believe that? I’m mixed. One of the best curbs on excess crashing is to get fired, but as some of you know, today, that may require releasing your own offspring or someone who paid a healthy sum to race your car. Sometimes this all ends when people run out of money. It is also true that some younger drivers are under tremendous pressure to win. They know that substantial sums have been invested in them and to get to the so-called next level it seems they must make their mark by the time they are 21 years old.

Frankly, I think the problem runs much deeper.

As a college professor, it is unrealistic to expect me to undo all the bad habits or correct the educational deficiencies of students in their 20s or 30s. It’s not going to happen.

What we have at hand in some racing circles is a culture problem. Some of the habits we see were born in karts and quarter midgets and somewhere along the way the term slide or die became an operating principle.

Once the snowball ran downhill everyone got caught in the wake. If we want all this to change the correction must start long before a driver reaches the professional ranks. If drivers want it all to stop, they should quit looking at officials, and instead take a long look in the mirror.End Bug

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