There Are Yellow Flags, Why Not Yellow Lights?

The place: Upstate New York
The date: August 13, 2006
The offense: Running a Red Light.

Sounds like one of the drivers got caught by the local police again. A years ago, Kurt Busch got pulled over near the Phoenix race track for apparent drunk driving. This year younger brother Kyle was stopped in Richmond Virginia for "squawking" his tires at a fast food place. But this latest offense happened during the race at Watkins Glen. And the penalty was that it all but took the fastest car on the track out of contention.

By now everyone knows or has read about what happened to Kurt Busch. But in case you missed it: Busch headed for the pits for a green flag stop. A caution came out. The red lights signaling that Pit Road would be closed came on when Busch was about 5 feet from the entrance to pit road. Anyone entering Pit Road at that point would be penalized.

But at that point, Busch was committed. There was no way to stop and not enter pit road. There was no way to turn around. And according to a Monday announcement by NASCAR officials, once he entered Pit Road, he had violated the rule, so even if he had simply driven through Pit Road and re-entered the track (as the NBC announcers suggested) he still would have been penalized.

For the next few days, I thought, "it's a tough break, but it's a rule. There's not much anyone, including NASCAR, can do about it." After all, the same thing happened to Jeff Gordon at a race last season, and nothing about the rule was changed.

But then I was watching SPEED channel's "Victory Lane" program (delayed on "On Demand") and listened to Jimmy Spencer and Kenny Wallace arguing about the incident. Kenny brought up a good point. Suppose you're driving through some small town that you've never been in, and you approach a green light at an intersection. If it changes at the last instant, you're not going to slam on your brakes. You're going to keep going through it, because you know it's too late to stop. Same thing happened to Kurt Busch and the Pit Road light.

But then I realized the difference. At that hypothetical street corner, the light turns YELLOW first. You have a chance to make a decision. Do you want to stop before it turns red, or take a chance and try to beat the light?

Why doesn't NASCAR adopt the same system? When the caution flag comes out, the Pit Road entrance light should turn yellow first, warning any approaching driver that Pit Road is about to close. Then it's entirely in the driver's hands to either change his mind, and re-enter the track, or try to beat the light, and hope he gets across the line before it changes from yellow to red.

But at least then, it's his decision. He's not a victim of circumstance. He's not a victim of a sudden change in the light after he was too close to turn away. A 10 or 15 second yellow light would give a driver plenty of time to turn back onto the track, and avoid being penalized.

NASCAR has evolved through the years, after getting it's start in small-town America. Maybe it's time to go back to those roots to see how signal lights are supposed to work. Right about now, I'm sure Kurt Busch and his team would agree.

Published on August 19, 2006 in