Tempers flare in Houston heat

HOUSTON -- Street course races in the Verizon IndyCar Series are often rough-and-tumble affairs, but the bumping and banging were taken to a new level during the Shell-Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston weekend.

Several drivers were left seething after being penalized for blocking or avoidable contact fouls, while others found themselves fuming because INDYCAR officials chose not to get involved in other similar situations.

While some observers believe the Houston doubleheader offered exciting, slam-bang action, another group called into question the credibility and consistency of the officiating in the series.

The flashpoint was a $2,500 fine and probation levied against Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti for refusing to heed the waved blue "move over" flags during the first contest Saturday afternoon. Andretti had been spun out in the early laps, but restarted just in front of leader Takuma Sato and Andretti's teammate James Hinchcliffe.

When Sato's four-second lead over Hinchcliffe evaporated while the Japanese driver trailed Andretti on the track, INDYCAR signaled Andretti to move over. He refused, and even pulled away from the lead pair, but INDYCAR levied the penalty because Andretti repeatedly failed to follow the order.

"I wasn't off the pace," Andretti told reporters. "If they caught me by a whole lap, then they have a point. But I was one of the top three fastest cars out there."

Speaking to ESPN.com, INDYCAR competition president Derrick Walker denied published reports that the series had created a new rule on the spot to assess the penalty on Andretti.

"The rules are there in the rulebook," Walker said. "Basically, because it was interfering with the race leaders, we initially asked him to move out of the way. It was different, but it certainly wasn't a new rule. We need to clarify that. What's new is that the last car on the lead lap needs to move out of the way. It's really an oval track rule, to give a guy a chance to stay on the lead lap. We give him every chance and don't ask him to move out of the way because it's easier to overtake on an oval.

"On a road course, it's the first time this has come up that I know of, and we called it that way because we felt that Marco caused Sato to go from a four-second lead to a half-second lead in a matter of a few laps. We showed him the blue flag, and what happened after that is where we felt he was wrong because he ignored the race control direction. The fact that he disregarded it, we couldn't ignore that."

Sunday's race featured many instances of contact between cars, and particularly contentious was the Turn 1-2 chicane. On numerous occasions when drivers raced side by side into the sequence of corners, one driver chose to simply skip the chicane rather than risk hitting the other driver. Any driver who did skip the chicane was expected to cede the position to the following driver.

However, seventh-place finisher Juan Pablo Montoya was furious after the race, claiming that rookie Jack Hawksworth nearly put him into the wall several times.

"Three times he just drove me off the road like I'm not even there," Montoya snapped. "I understand the new rule, that if you're beside somebody you're supposed to share the road with equal responsibility, but equal responsibility was driving me into the wall three times and they don't do anything about it.

"[INDYCAR officials] are too inconsistent, to be honest," he added. "If you can race like that, then I'm OK with that. I'll just give them the chrome horn and put them in the tires, Hawksworth and rookies like that. They're just clueless drivers. They're out to prove a point, but they're clueless and have absolutely no idea how to race."

Hawksworth calmly defended himself as adroitly as he defended his position on the racetrack.

"I put my car on the inside of the track, never reacted to what the guy behind did, just placed my car on the defensive line, and he couldn't get it done," Hawksworth said. "So we ended up on the podium, and yeah, I enjoyed the race."

The racing in the IndyCar Series since the introduction of the current DW12 chassis/turbo V-6 engine formula in 2012 has made the competition closer than ever -- maybe too close in some instances.

"It's pretty crazy sitting in the back there and seeing what is going on and the moves that were pulled off," three-time series champion Scott Dixon observed. "Everybody is going hard to try to get the best position they can for a victory. These street courses are a crapshoot, to be honest -- one with strategy and two if you make it to the end or not."

Although he wasn't a factor in the twin Houston races and wasn't directly affected by any of the disputed calls, Dixon was still disappointed in what he saw out of the series officials.

"I think the rules change week in and week out, so it's unclear what is allowed and the consistency is horrible," he said. "They have sat back, and then this week there is another change to the rule. You can't do that, plain and simple. There was an uproar about it in the drivers' meeting this morning. Marco had a right to stay on the lead lap. All we all ask for is consistency.

"Even under the yellows today, they let one yellow go for two laps and then another yellow they left a car in the fence to get hit just so the leader could pit. I don't get it."

Already on probation, Andretti dodged a potential suspension when INDYCAR chose to take no action after he accidentally nudged Justin Wilson off the track late in Sunday's race. Andretti recovered to finish seventh, while Wilson dropped to 12th place at the flag.

"Marco tried to come down the inside and it wasn't really going to happen," Wilson said. "He tried to get out of it but just tapped me into the wall. He came down and apologized, but it's just racing. You're upset in the car, but what can you say? It happens. This track in particular has always been difficult to overtake on. Everything is a high-risk maneuver.

"I know how I want to race, and I know how I want people to race me," he added. "You just try to do your own thing. There's a lot more bumping going on this year and people trying low-percentage maneuvers, and there are no obvious consequences, other than ruining your own race sometimes. It would be nice if they were a little bit more proactive, but at the same time, it's a difficult call."

INDYCAR's Walker admitted that the amount of contact in the series has increased recently, but denied that the near spec-car nature of the cars used was a major factor.

"As we know, street racing is a contact sport," he said. "When you've got cars this size, with this much power and this much grip, and you put 23 of them on a closed course like this, you're inevitably going to have close calls and a lot of driving that isn't as pretty as it should be. So I don't think this event was much different than a lot of street courses we go to -- very physical. Judging by the excitement on the track, I'd say it was a pretty good Houston event.

"These may be spec cars, but there's a wide variation in performance between teams and drivers," Walker noted. "I think if there is an issue, it's a somewhat positive issue that the series is so close and competitive and there's not a lot between these guys. Dale Coyne and Sam Schmidt and all these smaller teams that traditionally had less of a chance against the big teams have really elevated their game and they're really doing a hell of a job. The series has gotten more competitive all around. Unfortunately, people tend to focus on the negativity and the controversy instead of saying, 'Gee! Wasn't that race fun!' "

Veteran Tony Kanaan sided with series officials, noting that they have a tough job that often requires split-second decisions.

"They're not perfect, we're not perfect, and there are always going to be different opinions," Kanaan said. "But I just drive the car -- I don't make the calls.

"I might have another opinion after I watch what happened."