<
>

Mixed results at Sonoma, Baltimore

Editor's note: This is the seventh installment by three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who'll be writing periodically for ESPN.com throughout the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series season (as told to ESPN.com motorsports writer John Oreovicz).

Let's start this week's column by talking about the positive things that have happened since my last entry here at ESPN.com. Team Penske had a fantastic weekend at the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma. I had my best overall event of the season, finishing second in the Guidepoint Systems car for Team Penske's first 1-2-3 finish since 1994, and my teammate Will Power (who drove a great race and beat me to the victory) continues to cut into Dario Franchitti's Izod IndyCar Series championship points lead.

I didn't have such a great weekend at the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix -- more on that later -- but it was a fantastic debut there for the IndyCar Series. I couldn't believe the incredible number of fans who came out all three days. Street courses are always a good way to draw a good crowd, and the way the circuit was laid out in the middle of the Inner Harbor reminded me of the huge events we've had at places like Surfers Paradise, Long Beach and Toronto. I'm sure everyone enjoyed the experience of watching us race. I know we as drivers loved racing in Baltimore.

With that said, there have been a few issues come up lately with the officiating in the series, and I'd like to focus on that a little bit and let you know how I feel about it. I have certainly had some unhappy experiences in the past with the officials, but it seems like there's an issue almost every week with one driver or another this season. Let's talk about a couple of them.

I think everyone knows by now that what happened at the end of the race in New Hampshire was bad. Indy cars simply cannot race on ovals when it's raining, and the track was definitely too wet for officials to wave the green flag with 10 laps to go in that race. INDYCAR race director Brian Barnhart admitted that it was a mistake to restart the race under those conditions, and I think we all feel fortunate that the accident that happened when they waved the green flag wasn't worse and no one was injured.

The situation at Baltimore was completely different. There's probably no such thing as a perfect street course, and while Baltimore was pretty good, there were some concerns that the drivers had with the track, and there certainly can be some improvement. The pit lane needs some modifications, but more importantly, I'd like to take away the chicane that was placed at the start of the long straightaway. That made the straight shorter and took away the best passing zone. But the reason it was put there was because the circuit crossed a set of railroad tracks, and that just isn't something race cars can handle over the course of a 75-lap race. As I said earlier, there were so many good things about the Baltimore event. Hopefully, they can make some adjustments to the circuit next year so we have a smoother track that can make for even better racing for the fans.

Our race day at Baltimore didn't get off to a very good start. During the morning warm-up practice, I had an accident. Actually, I didn't have an accident -- Tony Kanaan hit and damaged my Shell V-Power Pennzoil Ultra car when his own car lost its brakes. It was a pretty scary deal for Tony, and I'm glad my friend is OK.

Even though the accident was not my fault, I had to start the race from the back of the field because we decided to prepare our spare car instead of fixing the original one -- which we could have done. There was a lot of confusion about whether we would be able to start from our original grid position (seventh) or from the back, and by the time the officials told us the final ruling, it was too late to fix the primary car. So, to be honest, my race was over before it even started.

I have to say, I don't like that rule. I think if you break your car or you crash, then you go to the spare car and start from the back of the field. If you have no fault in a situation like that, you should not be penalized. I believe they should change that rule to make it more fair for everyone involved.

Even though we started from the back we still were making up some ground before we got caught up in the biggest incident of the race. Turn 3 at Baltimore is a tight hairpin, and during the race, there was a small crash that blocked the track. I tried to sneak around the outside, but the plates of my clutch stuck together like glue and my car stalled. It was like a parking lot on the track with 12 cars involved at one point. My car was the last one that the safety team pushed and restarted and, as a result, we were the only ones who went a lap down. We finished the race, but it was definitely a disappointing finish to a frustrating day. The only bright spot was that Will won for Team Penske and he's now just five points behind Dario in the championship as we head to Japan.

As you can probably tell, I'm a little upset with how things have gone for us this season. We've had our share of bad luck, but I know we are capable of a lot better results. I also think that the series and the officials can do a better job. The incidents I talked about here and things like the dangerous situation that happened with the safety truck at Baltimore at the beginning of the race when it was trying to get off course and nearly collided with the field reflect badly on everyone in IndyCar.

Next season we will have a new car and new manufacturers, and I think we should take the opportunity to look at all the rules and the officiating and start fresh to make things better. If we need to give the officials more tools, like more cameras on the track, more observers posted in the corners or more eyes in race control, then that's what we should do.

There are so many good things happening in this series, and I think we are all excited for next year. But we've all got to do our job to make sure we are putting the best product out there. The teams, the drivers, the sponsors -- and especially the fans -- all deserve it.

Follow Helio Castroneves on Twitter at @h3lio.