Wickens Accident at Pocono Raises Questions of Safety Across the Sport

Wickens Accident at Pocono Raises Questions of Safety Across the Sport

Don’t get me wrong; I love old racetracks. Slogging through the mud at places like Mid-Ohio and Maple Grove is something with which I can deal. Even elderly media centers where power, much less internet access, can be spotty don’t make my blood boil overmuch.

But one thing I can’t take about old racetracks is their inability, in this day and age, to properly prepare for the series that are racing on the track. Slinging a 3500-lb “stock car” into old catch fences is not a climatic experience; catapulting the missile that’s a 1590-pound Indy car traveling faster, most likely, than those Cup cars will ever go – well, that requires the best walls and fences.

Pocono International Raceway has prepared well for NASCAR. Although it was built to contain Indy cars, climate irregularities and the cost of maintenance have caught up with it. I love seeing Indy cars at their breathtaking best on ovals. It’s a true test of cojones.

But when the wonderful SAFER barriers, whose initial deployment came through the efforts of Tony George, are combined with antiquated catch fencing, disaster is just a blink away.

Thankfully, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Robert Wickens will recover from the massive injuries he suffered at Pocono International Raceway. The catch fencing installed by the track could barely contain his pirouetting Dallara tub – which stayed intact as all ancillary parts careened down the track from the second to third turns on this Tricky Triangle – before it finally fell back onto the track.

Wickens Accident at Pocono Raises Questions of Safety Across the Sport

There were two caution periods in Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono. The first one came on the first lap, when Graham Rahal and Spencer Pigot tangled on the front straight. For some reason, INDYCAR needed until the fifth lap to clear that up and get everyone shuffled in line. The second occurred at the restart with multiple cars involved in the second turn.

The instigators were Wickens and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Wickens ended up in that catch fencing while RHR’s car stayed on the ground. Pietro Fittipaldi, Takuma Sao and Wickens’ teammate James Hinchcliffe were also involved in the melee; all were cleared by INDYCAR’s physicians.

No doubt people in Indianapolis are now yipping about canopies, halos and other devices that might have stopped this accident. Nothing would have stopped it other than, perhaps, a little bit of sensibility from the drivers, who had 194 laps in which to make their moves. Races aren’t won in the first few laps, but they sure can be lost.

Will it take another Dan Wheldon to make tracks update their catch fencing? How many debilitating injuries or deaths will it take? Much has been done to improve the cars and for that, Dallara should be proud. Their safety cell saved Robert Wickens’ life – but his spine, lungs, lower extremities and right arm were injured, and an MRI was performed today to discern fully the ramifications of this accident. He was scheduled for a spinal surgery at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest Monday evening.

Wickens Accident at Pocono Raises Questions of Safety Across the Sport

INDYCAR’s second practice was rained out on Saturday afternoon; it declined to hold a warmup Sunday morning that would have given teams and drivers sufficient track time to know what their new UAK18 aero kit would do with the lowered levels of downforce.

Following the accident, some were hesitant to get back on track after seeing the nearly two-hour repairs performed to the catch fencing. The show went on, without a single further caution, and Alexander Rossi claimed his second 500-mile victory and his third of this season.

Rossi earned the victory, but it was hollow for him, as a driver with whom he’d competed over the course of many years in Europe is now in a hospital bed. “At the end of the day,” Rossi said, “all of us are a family. We try our best to look after each other out there. You don’t want to see that happen to anyone.“

If INDYCAR intends to return to Pocono – or any other super speedway – it must be sure the track is prepared for eventualities like yesterday’s. There must be ways to make catch fencing safer and still afford visibility for the paying customer. It’s time for that type of prevention to be utmost on every racer’s mind.

Further updates on Wickens’ condition will be provided when available.

About Anne Proffit 199 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

3 Comments on Wickens Accident at Pocono Raises Questions of Safety Across the Sport

  1. The ONLY reason for the Robert Wickens crash after the two cars touched was the AERO KITS being removed this year!! Especially on a Super Speedway, in which Will Power had set the pole lap average of 219+mph. WHY did they not fit the car with a proper AERO KIT for down force to be able to control these cars at such high speeds. That UAK18 aero kit was a joke as it only added 100 pounds of down force to the cars!! They actually attached the kit with self tapping sheet metal screws. Not exactly the value of a man’s life??

  2. Any kind of motor sports racing is very dangerous. It can never be made to be fully safe and injury free. Every time I strapped myself into my car, I knew that there was potential danger ahead…but for the love of what I was doing, I was willing to take the risk. Every driver knows this. All drivers have a choice as to whether or not to go onto a particular track. Don’t blame venues. If you think the track or venue is unsafe, don’t run. No one can “guarantee” your safety.

  3. As a former driver, I concur. I was wearing a HANS device for years before Dale Earnhardt was killed (and I raced in the 24 hours with him just two weeks before he passed) and it became mandatory. I was chastised for wearing one. Had to be a “starter” because it took too long to strap me in. Jacky Stewart was a big proponet of saftey and was critized for it. I love the sport, but why do people have to die or get critically injured before we improve safety? We have the means….do it.

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