IndyCar’s carryover avoidable contact penalty draws mix of reactions from drivers, teams
LONG BEACH, California – The night before the NTT IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway last month, Graham Rahal gave a prescient answer when asked, “Is there anyone you’re worried about (racing)?”
“And I said, ‘Devlin,’ ” Rahal told reporters before practice Friday at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. “I said one name. Because he’s crazy. You can just tell some people just have blinders, and they’re just super aggressive. Aggressive is fine in places, but aggressive is not OK at Texas.”
Aggression was the story of the Texas debut for Devlin DeFrancesco, who was involved in three separate incidents that sidelined five cars (including his own No. 29 Dallara-Honda.
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The Andretti Autosport rookie drew the wrath of IndyCar officials for the final crash on Lap 148 of 250 that also collected the Hondas of Graham Rahal and Helio Castroneves after earlier incidents eliminated Kyle Kirkwood and Takuma Sato.
DeFrancesco, 22, was slapped with a six-position grid penalty, meaning he will start six spots lower in Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET, NBC) than where he qualifies (guaranteed to be last if he’s within the last three rows).
The “avoidable contact” penalty was an unusual move by IndyCar, which normally reserves such punishment for unauthorized engine changes and rarely punishes drivers for in-race actions after the checkered flag.
But with the crash damage incurring an estimated price tag in the seven figures, and without a means for retroactively penalizing DeFrancesco, IndyCar took action in a way that it had hinted was possible to the IndyCar paddock.
DeFrancesco, who already had apologized for his Texas mistake while vowing to use it for motivation, told the Associated Press on Friday that he had expected the penalty “and we’ll do our best to overcome it.”
The penalty drew a wide spectrum of emotions and reaction in IndyCar, angering Michael Andretti (DeFrancesco’s team owner told the Associated Press it was unwarranted and that he wanted DeFrancesco “to keep doing what he’s doing”), and pleasing Castroneves.
Rahal was ambivalent about the penalty and whether it’s a deterrent, but he stressed what he had told DeFrancesco after they climbed into the safety truck together at Texas – that his lack of experience on ovals must be respected.
“This isn’t Xfinity to Cup (in NASCAR) where it’s pretty much the same on an oval,” Rahal said. “An Indy Lights car to an Indy car at Texas is like a Cessna prop plane to a fighter jet. They’re so different. And that’s what I was trying to explain to him. You have to use your head because this can be used as a weapon if you don’t use it properly.
“A six-place grid penalty, fine, but it only cost us about a half-million dollars in damage. Let alone Helio or whatever. Let alone our safety. At the end of the day to me, what happens here doesn’t reflect on Texas. I just hope he genuinely pays attention because he punted Takuma, and all that was about was not lifting (off the accelerator).”
In an interview with NBC Sports, Castroneves, 46, said he had faced similar scrutiny but for different reasons.
“I had my fair share when I was young the same way, hitting people unnecessarily,” Castroneves told NBC Sports. “(DeFrancesco) didn’t do that on purpose. I did (in) Indy Lights, and I learned. So I feel maybe it’s the responsibility of the series to help and teach everyone. Not only the young ones but everyone. You’ve got to be responsible for the consequences of your actions.
“And I feel he understood. When I spoke to him, he knew he made a mistake. I said, ‘Look, if it would have been 10 laps to go, maybe that was the move that he was going for (the win) because you’re fighting for position. However when it’s 120 laps to go, maybe you should just be thinking about that.
“He will learn. It’s a good message from the series. When we put the helmets on, and I’m in the same boat, we forget about what (IndyCar officials) say.”
IndyCar began talking with drivers and teams about issuing postrace penalties after a similar incident in the Aug. 21, 2021 race at Gateway, where Rinus VeeKay crashed and took out the championship-contending Chip Ganassi Racing cars of Alex Palou and Scott Dixon.
The conversations continued during an offseason meeting in December at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and drivers were briefed that carryover grid penalties now were a possibility.
But Ed Carpenter Racing’s Conor Daly still was “blown away” by the penalty to DeFrancesco but said it was fair because “you’ve got to hold people responsible.
“I’ve know Devlin for a long time, and obviously he’s a good kid,” Daly said. “If you make mistakes like that, there has to be a penalty. Obviously it’s a very different system than NASCAR. In NASCAR, it’s encouraged. You can’t do it here. I hope it makes everyone think a little bit more. I certainly don’t want a grid penalty anywhere now because it’s hard to pass.
“I’m very curious to see if that would happen to a non-rookie. But if I do something stupid, I would expect to probably be penalized for that. That’s how it was in the junior categories and when I was racing in Europe. If you did dumb stuff, you probably are going to feel it.”
Both Kirkwood and Sato, whose crashes weren’t involved in the penalty decision, both said there were no hard feelings toward DeFrancesco
“Hopefully he learned from the lesson,” Sato said. “I know he’s a competitive driver, just a little calm down and respect each other, particularly on an oval.”
Rahal recalled being licensed to race the Indy 500 under the watchful eye of Indy 500 winners Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser Jr., and he suggested such scrutiny was missing for today’s youth in IndyCar.
“It was pretty intense then, and nowadays, everyone is too friendly,” Rahal said. “Culturally it’s different. I think these guys come into the sport and don’t realize how fast it really is. If you don’t, then you’re never going to understand how bad it can be.”
Rahal said he was texted an apology by DeFrancesco, whose father, Andy, is also a friend and an entrepreneur who has helped fund his son’s career and is well-connected in the paddock.
“He’s a good kid, and I know his dad, Andy, and have known him a long time,” Rahal said. “He’s a good dude. I’m sure they’re paying attention, but these things are dangerous. If you’re not aware of that, it can be really bad. Unfortunately, the position I’m in life, too, with family and having lost friends in the sport, I don’t really have any tolerance for that anymore, for young guys who come in like that.
“We’ll see what (the penalty) does. I think there’s a lot of leniency right now for causing accidents. Or reckless driving. I don’t think (IndyCar stewards are) as aggressive as they once were. So it’s good to at least see that they did something. It’s tough now. It’s very late to the game. And super expensive.
“He has a leg up because his dad Andy has been fairly involved with a lot of people around here for a long time with sponsorship and advice. I have a good relationship with Andy, so I’m not going to go beat up his son. At the same time, doesn’t mean I’m more lenient on him. He can be here a long time. But he needs to learn. Because we’re going to Indy next, and that’s almost even worse.”