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.
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.
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.