The Guide To Road Racing, Part 13: You Be The Judge – How To Assess Responsibility In A Crash

Features, Racing I By Tom Martin I December 09, 2020

Metal-to-metal contact seems to happen at every race weekend. Sometimes the consequences are minor (we’ve seen lots of tire rubber on fenders) and sometimes the consequences involve major damage to one or more cars. Less often discussed are similar incidents where there is no contact, but where a dangerous situation is created (e.g. you force me off the track).

To be a good racer, you need good racecraft and to have good racecraft you need to be able to pass effectively. Part of this is passing without generating metal-to-metal contact or related incidents. This much is preached in every driving school we’ve been to.

What isn’t taught very well in many schools is what exactly the expectations are when passing and how responsibility will be assessed if something goes wrong. But rest assured, responsibility will be assessed and sometimes there are penalties. Just as important, most racers want to be respected by their competitors, do the right thing and play by the rules. But how can you do that if you don’t know what the rules are, exactly?

We have an article about the written and unwritten rules of passing etiquette here.

In that article we quote from various rulebooks. Those rules are worth reviewing. We think you will see that the rules for passing are pretty general and leave a lot of latitude to the stewards. Which makes sense when you consider how many kinds of passing situations there really are.


What we want to suggest in this article is that it is less than ideal for you and the stewards to have an ad hoc way of assessing responsibility in a metal-to-metal or other incident. Doctors use structured systems to assess illness. Pilots use pre-flight checklists. Complex situations requiring speedy assessment benefit from organized approaches that help investigators utilize the prior experience of many people. So, we suggest it would be better to have an organized scoring system for assessing contact in road racing.

Besides helping the stewards process lots of information quickly, such an organized approach makes their judgments seem more fair. It also makes these judgments easier to explain (and, as you may have experienced, sometimes drivers are upset after metal-to-metal incidents and need to be reminded how to be rational). With clarity comes learning, which is important because most drivers would like to avoid contact and crashes, and a clear system helps drivers better understand what they should do on track.

We also think that an organized system like the one we propose here can make your reporting of an incident better. If you know the questions the stewards should be asking, you can just answer them, which helps the stewards out (and, as you can imagine, they are pressed for time and pulled in many directions). Similarly, you can use this system to review incidents that never get reported but which may present learning opportunities.

Here is an example of how an organized system of assessing blame might work. We don’t claim that this is perfect, but that each sanctioning body could have something like this, teach from it and update it periodically to make it better and better.


For simplicity of discussion, we’ll assume for this article that contact has happened between two cars. It could be more, of course. In our imagined two-driver passing situation, let’s designate one driver as the initiator of the pass and the other as the recipient.

We score responsibility on a 0% to 100% scale. We show these percentages from the perspective of the initiator. So in our system the initiator might be 40% to blame or 90% to blame at the end of the assessment. If the initiator is 90% to blame, then the recipient is 10% to blame.

Let’s start with some things that shouldn’t be factored in to an assessment of blame or penalties.

Step 0A: Was material damage done?

We mention this because in our experience this is a factor taken into account by many stewards. But we can’t see that it is a good factor to take into account.

Our logic is that most drivers don’t cause contact with the objective of breaking another driver’s car. And even if they did, we don’t realistically think they have the ability to calculate how to bump another car so as to break it but do no damage to their own car or racing line.

So, whether you hit my rear wheel and break my differential or hit me 1” farther forward and put a mark on my fender, we think the incident is essentially the same and should have the same penalties. Re-enact the incident 100 times and sometimes there will be breakage and sometimes not. Sometimes one car will spin, sometimes not. We’re trying to avoid contact so that these bad “sometimes” things can’t happen and to do that we have to police the behavior more than the result.

Step 0B: Was the driver young or old, experienced or inexperienced?

We don’t think this should be taken into account either, though again we’ve seen stewards try to use this to figure out fault. We know that this view is controversial, but we think behavior is the thing, not profiling. Because profiling has limited predictive power and we can know a lot about behavior so there is really no reason to use a weak substitute. Max Verstappen is young as of this writing, but we’re pretty sure he has better car control and decision-making skills than 90% of drivers.


Jack Baldwin is old, and we’re pretty sure he has better car control skills than 90% of amateur drivers. We’ve seen experienced drivers with bad habits. We’ve seen inexperienced drivers who “get it”. And we’ve seen middle-aged, highly experienced pro drivers do stupid things at times.

Step 0C: Is one of the drivers really, really upset?

This is another factor that we think stewards should skip. Sometimes a driver is upset because someone else did something wrong. But sometimes a driver is upset because he did something wrong and doesn’t like that it caused a DNF or damage. Some drivers who are in the right are calm. Some drivers who are in the wrong will accuse another driver of intent to cause a crash.

This one is doubly important to avoid because of something often called "moral hazard". If stewards repond to anger with additional lenience, then it simply encourages drivers to go non-linear, which isn't good for the stewards (who have a tough enough job to begin with).

Now, let’s move on to the real factors to be considered.

Step 1: What happened?

It is important to describe the incident because everyone needs to have a basic idea of the situation. As humans, we are accustomed to processing information in stories, so here is where each driver tells his version of the story. This helps the stewards form a basic picture of what happened. It can also help each driver understand the other driver’s perspective.


The problem is that stories are often conflicting. Sometimes drivers leave important details out. And sometimes driver memory is faulty. We’ve all seen pro drivers on TV say “such and such happened” and then later after looking at video say “actually, such and such didn’t happen exactly as I thought”.

Reviewing video is also good. But very few videos show all the angles needed for a complete assessment.

Step 2: Assume responsibility is 50%/50%

Most rulebooks have a statement something like this one from the SCCA GCR:

“Drivers are responsible to avoid physical contact between cars on the race track.”

The important thing about the quote above is that it implies that both drivers are responsible for avoiding contact. Starting with the blame meter at 50/50 is consistent with this basic idea.

For discussion and teaching purposes, starting at 50/50 is also useful because that isn’t what many drivers are thinking when making a report. They are often thinking “that idiot screwed up completely!” 50/50 re-calibrates the discussion. It also has the basic appearance of impartiality and fairness. The stewards are not, and should not be, pre-judging anyone.

Finally, 50/50 is consistent with what every driver knows is the case: racing involves lots of split second decisions, not all made perfectly. And not all decisions, however brilliant and timely, are executed perfectly either. In other words “stuff happens”. There will be racing incidents, no matter how hard drivers try to avoid them. And it will be rare that one driver is completely and uniquely at fault.


Step 3: The initiator carries more responsibility (+20%)

Remember, the initiator is the driver coming from behind and attempting to get ahead. These roles are maintained, regardless of where the cars are positioned at any time during the action, at least up to the point where the initiator’s car is fully ahead of the recipient’s car.

The initiator is more responsible for making a clean pass than the recipient because the initiator is more in control of the situation. He or she decides when to attempt a pass and how to make it. The initiator also has better visibility at the start of the passing event. As a result, we add +20% responsibility (blame) for a crash to the initiator’s tally. This is a very important point and is a point overlooked by many drivers when discussing contact, but the stewards will generally put put priority on this.

Scoring: At this point, the initiator is normally assumed to be 70% responsible (50% + 20%). But, and this is an important point, there has to be a clear initiator. An example of where this isn’t always clear is on a start. Cars are often running side by side in two lanes. The cars in one lane will often get a better launch or go slower in a corner (e.g. the inside cars), but it is sometimes hard to say that the outside drivers are “initiating” the kind of pre-meditated pass from behind that puts them more in control of the situation. In these double-file start situations, we’d generally leave blame at 50/50 as of this point in the assessment.

To see how difficult starts are, review this video and ask yourself who is the initiator here?



Remember, when you are asking this, you are not asking “who initiated the crash?”, you are asking “who is the singular person attempting a pass with clear control over the situation?” You want to know who is the initiator of the pass, if there is one.

Step 4: Was sufficient room left? (-20% to +20%)

Most rulebooks are very clear that both cars must be given room on the racing surface. Most rulebooks aren’t very clear on what this means. Here are the basics:

a) if it is an inside pass and the initiator’s car is behind the A pillar of the recipient’s car, then the initiator must give way to the recipient

b) if it is an inside pass and the initiator’s car is ahead of the A pillar of the recipient’s car, then the recipient must leave room for the initiator

Watch Johnny O'Connell, Kevin Estre and Olivier Beretta from the 4:45 mark and see what you think about whether enough room was left:


c) if it is an outside pass, then the initiator must leave room for the recipient’s car throughout the pass; similarly, the recipient has to leave room for the initiator’s car (e.g. the recipient can’t just track out as if the initiator weren’t there). Watch the video from Step 3 and see what you think about the room left by each driver.

d) if it is a straight line pass, then the initiator must have enough room (he can't just push the front car aside). The initiator also can't drive the recipient over to a wall or off the track. By the same token a block thrown by the recipient very close to the time when the initiator starts to come alongside (or certainly after he is partially alongside), is not allowed.

Many sanctioning bodies explain passing as if all passes were inside passes. For example, NASA says “The driver in front has the right to choose any line.” But in practice this isn’t literally the case, especially for an outside pass or a straight line pass. That’s because the recipient of an outside pass “can’t simply hit the disappear button” in the words of Greg Creamer. On an outside pass, the recipient, if at the limit, would have to tighten his line — which might require defying the laws of physics if he is at the apex.

The recipient also has responsibilities. On a straight line pass, the initiator sometimes can't hit the disappear button if the recipient moves over. It is also the case that the recipient picks up responsibility the deeper into the passing situation we go. The longer the pass has been going on, the more time the recipient has had to adjust speed and line.

Scoring: We suggest scoring for “enough room” based on how much room is left. If the party responsible — initiator in cases a), c) and d) recipient in b), c) and d) – leaves plenty of room then he is assigned 0%. If he leaves some room, but not enough, then he is assigned +10%. If he leaves essentially no room, then the responsible party is assigned +20%.

We can't stress enought that these two factors are paramount in most steward's assessments. Simply ask a) who is the initiator of the pass? and b) did the initiator leave enough room? Then, if there was contact, generally the initiator is viewed to be at fault unless he left an obviously generous amount of room.

Step 5: Did both drivers attempt to avoid contact? (-5% to +5%)

Note that defining “enough room” may seem ambiguous. But as a rule of thumb assuming “enough” is a little more than one car width works well.

NASA actually defines “enough room” as ¾ of a car width. This seemingly odd number highlights the fact that the recipient has some responsibility for steering onto rumble strips or dirt/grass or backing out of the throttle to avoid contact. This is true regardless whether he is ahead or behind, inside or outside. Probably 90% of possible contact is avoided in this way. Drivers understand that they never really “own” the corner during a pass.


If the recipient doesn’t take such avoidance action we think it lowers the standard for “enough room”. While the recipient can’t hit the disappear button, he still has a steering wheel and a throttle and brakes. He can and should use them, especially if the initiator is ahead at the time of contact (because then the recipient will have had time to realize that he is being passed and dial it back from 10/10ths knowing that he may have to make a move).

Scoring: If a driver (usually the recipient) doesn’t take avoiding action, then the initiator is assigned -5%. If the initiator doesn’t avoid when he should (e.g. when tracking out during an inside pass), then he is assigned +5%. Case d) is somewhat special. Because cars going straight are not at the edge of control, any move to make contact would seem to be intentional. The party responsible for making contact should be assigned +20%.

Step 6: Was the pass initiated in part by unusual driving? (-10% to -20%)

Not all passes are standard planned moves under normal race conditions. Sometimes a driver, for good or poor reasons, does something unusual that creates the opportunity or requirement to pass. When this happens and it results in contact, our scoring should be modified. Here are some “unusual” situations where this logic applies:

. a slower driver is off the racing line toward the outside of a corner and seems to be letting faster cars past then suddenly drives back on-line

. a driver brakes very early for a corner

. a driver accelerates slowly or not at all after a green flag on a start or coming out of a corner

. a driver slows to let faster cars past and then accelerates

. a driver takes a non-standard line on a curving “straight” (alternatively, a driver is not aware of the standard line on a curving straight and attempts a pass in an unwise place)

Can you say who makes a mistake here if you don’t know the standard lines through T4 to set up for T5 at Road America?


Scoring: Now recall that we have already assigned +20% blame for contact to the initiator of the pass, if it is clear who is the initiator. But if unusual conditions prevail, that amount should be reduced. Generally, we think -10% is about the right amount, but in an extreme case that might be -20% (e.g. the car ahead of you blows a motor on the start and spins so you hit him as you pass inside while trying to avoid him).

“Racing Incidents”

We think that if you apply these judgments, you’ll find you better understand why you or others are being penalized. You’ll be better able to inform the stewards of details that matter. And we think you’ll often find that blame is 70/30 or 60/40 or even 50/50. In those cases a lot of experienced drivers will summarize the situation as “just a racing incident”. In club racing, this probably means both drivers walk away to compete another day. In vintage racing, maybe it means that both drivers receive half the normal thirteen-month penalty. Most important, it may help drivers behave in a civilized manner and maintain the sense of camaraderie that helps make racing weekends so much fun.

The Guide to Road Racing: Winding Road Magazine's ultimate guide to getting your start in racing.

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