Little Caution About Rule Change

Times Staff Writer

A year ago, a long but highly competitive race was coming down to a two-car shootout at California Speedway when a late-race accident brought out the yellow caution flag.

With darkness fast approaching, fans who had been hoping to see if Max Papis could catch Cristiano da Matta never got a chance to find out. A race that had provided a record 73 lead changes fell one short -- or at least one attempt short -- and ended anticlimactically, Da Matta taking the checkered flag as the yellow flew beside it.

Sunday at the same California Speedway, a long, only slightly less competitive race was coming down to a two-car shootout when a late race mishap brought out the yellow flag.

Deja vu? Instant replay a year later? Would a race that had produced 42 lead changes fall one attempt short? Would the yellow flag prevent Jimmy Vasser, who had led 146 of what was going to be a 250-lap race, from taking a final shot at new leader Michael Andretti?


No, to the ultimate delight of Vasser, the chagrin of Andretti.

No, thanks to a rule change in CART this season -- inspired in part by what happened here last year -- that allows for an interruption in the action if there’s a legitimate chance for a racing finish.

So on Lap 246, when Dario Franchitti’s car blew an engine and pulled onto the apron of the track in Turn 4, spewing smoke and flame, naturally the yellow flag flew. Then minutes later, the red flag flew, the one that stops a race.

A year ago, that wasn’t a possibility here. The start of the race had been delayed by rain and the distance reduced from 500 to 440 miles, just to get it in before darkness fell. There would have been no time to clean the track and restart the race. As it was, evening had set in when the race ended.

Sunday was a beautiful day, there was no threat of early darkness, so the red-flag rule was invoked.

And about 10 minutes later, after the fire had been put out, Franchitti’s car moved out of the way and the track cleaned, they went racing again, a 500-mile race reduced to a four-mile trophy dash.

Andretti, thanks to a slingshot pass of Vasser coming off a yellow flag only a few laps earlier, was out in front on the restart, just where he didn’t want to be.

“I knew I was a sitting duck at the end,” he said. “Had the red flag not come out, I think I would have won because Jimmy couldn’t catch me.”


But a restart? On the big, high-speed tracks where aerodynamics play such an important role, catching is what restarts are all about.

And after two warmup laps, when the green fell, Vasser put the same kind of move on Andretti that Andretti had put on Vasser, running in Andretti’s slipstream, then breaking out of it at the start-finish line, shooting past Andretti and holding him off for the last two laps.

“I tried to catch him, but I couldn’t,” Andretti said. “I told the guys [on the two-way radio] that I wasn’t going to get him.”

It was the second time this season that CART had invoked the red-flag rule, having used it at Vancouver, Canada, in July. There, it didn’t affect the outcome, because Da Matta held off Paul Tracy for six laps after the restart.


Here, though, Vasser was grateful for the late opportunity.

“We’ve seen NASCAR [use the red flag] this year and I think it’s better for the fans to have a green-flag finish,” he said. “I was a little upset about the late yellow [only a few laps earlier] because we were in the lead. But then the red flag helped us later.... If the thing with Dario hadn’t happened, it was going to be very difficult for me to get around Mike. I’m glad I was behind Mike this time.”

Andretti is leaving CART after this season to run a team in the rival Indy Racing League. Last week, he’d suggested that CART had played politics and manipulated the finish of a rainy-day race in Australia so that it wouldn’t end while he was leading.

Sunday, he had no complaints.


“I sure didn’t want to see the red flag because I knew I was a sitting duck, but it’s the new rule this season. So, yeah, it was the proper thing. A rule is a rule.”

Bobby Rahal, the former driver who owns Vasser’s car, was a bit more emphatic than Vasser or Andretti.

“I’m glad they stopped it,” he said. “I thought it was pretty bush league for Dario to be riding around with an engine that was obviously going to blow.”