Organizers race to close racing loopholes

José Mário Dias/ESPN Images

Wreckage took out a number of drivers soon after the start of the RallyCross final at X Games Foz do Iguaçu.

At its core, car racing is about innovation. The push to explore technological development not yet envisioned by the rules is one of the ways the sport progresses. As a result, there is a culture in motorsports that encourages many teams to take an approach to the rules that your average elementary school softball coach might call "unsportsmanlike" -- although your tax accountant or lawyer would most definitely approve.

Race officials write regulations by the hundreds of pages that are designed to keep the playing field level. These spell out the rules of play -- how the timing works, what the heat structure is -- and govern how the cars are modified. Given the complexity of vehicle builds, it takes many long and precise pages to define what can and cannot be done to improve performance. Rules are overhauled and released officially each competition season, with periodic amendments throughout the year. Teams read these very carefully, and if there's a loophole, somebody probably will worm through it.

Too Machiavellian to be true? Think again. At X Games Foz do Iguaçu, the Global Rallycross Championship rules indicated a false start would be penalized with a trip to the stop-and-go penalty box. Given the huge advantage of starting way out front, sly team members began asking: How early could you start? If a driver started 30 seconds before anybody else, could he serve the penalty and still have an advantage on the course? Under the rules, it seemed possible. Nobody put it to the test but organizers rapidly moved to close the loophole. For X Games Barcelona, the rules spell out that a really early start is grounds for disqualification from the heat.

Another change following Foz do Iguaçu further limits what teams are allowed to do with their cars if competition is paused because of a red flag. There was some controversy over this in Brazil after the final, in which Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, Tanner Foust and Buddy Rice took damage to their cars in various wrecks before a red flag. The vehicles might have been repaired by team mechanics and taken the restart, but the rules were clear that this wasn't allowed. Organizers in rallycross have taken the stance that a red flag, the most serious of flags, is not to be trifled with.

A red flag indicates to racers that competition must stop and is often shown in relation to a safety issue. A yellow flag might be shown if a car is disabled somewhere on the course, indicating that drivers should be cautious not to hit it during the remaining laps of the race. A red flag will come out if that same car is in a dangerous place or on fire, so competition can stop and officials can be sure everything is safe.

When that happens, the other drivers pull off and wait for the race to restart. In this time of suspended competition, none of the normal fixes that happen between heats -- replacing bent suspension parts, for instance, or welding up a subframe -- are allowed.

Because a restarted race might have more total laps than originally planned, teams are permitted to take this time to refuel their cars. Also, in the interest of safety and fair competition, a flat tire can be replaced, and if some minor bodywork needs to happen to make sure nothing falls off the car on the restart, that's allowed. But that's it.

In fact, new in the rules for Barcelona is that teams will not even be allowed back into their pit boxes during this time (it's too hard for officials to see exactly what the teams are doing in there), so fuel and tires will have to be done out in the open, where everybody can see.

The idea is to discourage abuse of the red flag system. The same savvy teams that started poking holes in the definition of "false start" also could begin to contemplate ways to game the red flag system to find an advantage. In a sport in which pushing the rules is part of the game, rallycross organizers have drawn their line: A red flag is not the place to find a competition advantage.

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