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Despite tough weekend, IndyCar dodges major bullet in Houston crash

Oct 7, 2013, 10:00 PM EDT

Dario Franchnitti AP

The words “Las Vegas” and “IndyCar” used together in a sentence still tend to send chills down the body after the horrific, 15-car pileup in the 2011 season finale that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon.

Still, the words “catch fencing” and “pack racing” – two of the biggest factors in the “perfect storm” that contributed to that accident – aren’t as widely discussed until either IndyCar or NASCAR comes to a circuit where those elements really enter into the race. And really, going into this weekend’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader, the odds of us talking about any of those things were remote at best.

From a mainstream perspective, IndyCar has struggled to gain traction since the Las Vegas accident even as it introduced a car, the Dallara DW12, which for two seasons has actually contributed to some of the best on-track racing in years.

Three of the four terms – pack racing aside – came to light again the wake of Sunday’s last-lap accident where Dario Franchitti’s car went airborne over the back of Takuma Sato, slammed into the catch fencing and came back down on course.

It’s no secret Franchitti sustained injuries. The four-time series champion sustained two fractured vertebrae, a fractured ankle and a concussion in the accident and was held overnight in hospital for observation. Still, a quote issued via his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team, and a tweet of his own on Monday, were very positive signs that things could have been much worse.

Perhaps Wheldon’s legacy, as much as his on-track achievements, is that his development of the fourth-generation IndyCar chassis has prevented further severe or fatal injuries.

The DW12, introduced with Wheldon’s direct input as the car’s test driver, has several driver safety improvements over the previous car. Energy-absorbent materials were mandated for the driver leg protection, wider cockpits were made for better driver extraction in the event of an accident, and a wider underwing, wheel fairings and rear crash structure reduce the risk of cars riding over competitors’ wheels, protecting the drivers and allowing safer competition.

Now you’ll say here that even with the rear wheel guards, Franchitti still launched over Sato and got airborne, which is true. But that’s purely down to the immutable laws of physics. Sato’s car washed out on the marbles – the dirty line – and was going through the highest speed corner on the track at a reduced rate. If Franchitti was going to hit him, he’d do so at his normal speed, which was faster.

“It’s so difficult to work out a way to stop the car from climbing up over the back wheels,” Power told USA Today’s Jeff Olson. “It’s hard to make something strong enough, but they’re always looking at things like that. The series is very safety conscious, but we can never get complacent or stop searching.”

A similar high-speed incident of a car actually going over the rear wheel guard occurred at Long Beach in 2012. Marco Andretti launched over the right rear wheel guard of Graham Rahal under braking for a 90-degree right-hander, Turn 8, and spun around into the tire barrier. But in that instance, both drivers were unhurt. The absence of the rear wheel guards, in theory, could have seen Andretti take off at an even higher altitude and potentially suffer serious injury. A video of that impact is below.

Perhaps the closest similar accident to the one that occurred on Sunday was one suffered by Conor Daly at Monaco in a GP3 race last year; Daly was a rookie in this year’s Indianapolis 500 and finished third in Saturday’s Indy Lights race at Houston. Daly, who was getting ridiculously blocked by another driver, tried a passing move but rode over that car’s wheels and got air.

Where injuries have tended to occur on the DW12 has been to drivers’ wrists, but that’s largely down to the steering column and a lack of power steering on these cars. That’s not related to catch fencing or the rear wheel guards.

The catch fencing, too, is now in the crosshairs as a result of the accident. Ovals tend to have a different degree of layering for the catch fencing; for example, Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage explained his track’s fence design in a January 2012 RACER magazine article this way: “from the racetrack to the grandstand it goes SAFER barrier, wall, cables, upright posts, mesh fencing.” He dismissed suggestions that a Plexiglas or reinforced Perspex-type material could work better as an alternative.

In this case, on a street course, you don’t have the SAFER barrier but you do have tire barriers. Power, who won Race 2, told Olson the fence actually did a good job in this instance. Although small pieces of debris did enter into the grandstand, the fence helped send Franchitti’s car back onto the course. Any stronger material for the fencing could have injured Franchitti worse; had it been a mesh fencing as exists on some ovals, it might not have been strong enough to prevent more debris leaving the track.

Power, and new series points leader Scott Dixon, were less impressed with the grandstand actually being in that part of the track and having to drive through the wreckage. Dixon said the words “remnants of Vegas” in the post-race press conference, describing the similarity to the one lap conducted under yellow at Las Vegas before the race was red flagged, and ultimately canceled.

The catch-fence topic is still a discussion point across all forms of motorsport, though. A case in point is the opening race of this year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series championship at Daytona International Speedway. Kyle Larson was sent airborne in a last-lap incident on the frontstretch. Upon impacting the fence, debris and car parts were sent through the fence and into the grandstands. Larson survived the incident, but at least 28 fans sustained injuries.

And in a couple weeks, NASCAR heads to Daytona’s restrictor-plate cousin, Talladega Superspeedway, where the specter of multiple car accidents that often occur from pack racing have the potential to rear their ugly head. Assuming they do happen, the wish then is that they occur at a spot on the track away from the catch fencing where fans are directly behind.

If I’m honest, a lot went wrong for IndyCar this weekend at Houston. The lack of ample time to prepare the circuit, the inevitable issues that did occur once cars did get on track, the resulting schedule adjustments, the temporary chicane, several miscommunications, and stifling heat and humidity, then bipolar swing to rain Sunday morning could all be viewed as weekend negatives.

But given all that, despite the severity of the accident, all we had was a driver who was injured and will be able to recover, and fans who were sitting in that section and affected with only two taken to hospital for further evaluation.

No one was killed or seriously injured. It could have been much worse.

  1. anneotheropinion - Oct 7, 2013 at 10:27 PM

    Amen, Tony!

  2. snoopyo - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:14 AM

    Awesome article Tony as usual keep up the good work my man. It could have been worse I was at the US. 500 in Michigan in 1998 when 3 people got killed luckily here everyone made it out alive drivers corner workers, cameramen and most of all the fans. Its a dangerous sport and it will never be 100 percent safe but these cars are way more safer then the cars we drive on the road. Tony I like what you said” Perhaps Wheldon’s legacy, as much as his on-track achievements, is that his development of the fourth-generation IndyCar chassis has prevented further severe or fatal injuries”. I think thats a great thing to say about Dan.

  3. Jeff - Oct 8, 2013 at 5:56 AM

    If IndyCar doesn’t dodge a major bullet, then what? Fold shop? Take our cars, helmets and fire suits we’re going home.
    IndyCar already limits ovals for a variety of reasons, but two are a supposed lack of safety and the involved in fixing a car after an oval-course wreck cost prohibitive.
    After this horrible wreck, will drivers now say street courses aren’t safe too? So does IndyCar become an all road-course series? The way it’s heading, it’s already becoming an American F1.
    Motor sports is a dangerous proposition. Fans and drivers know that going into it, and frankly it’s part of the appeal for all involved whether they admit it or not. It’s how much risk of that danger that they’re willing to accept. And if it’s too high for some people, they should walk away from it.

    • indycarseries500 - Oct 8, 2013 at 9:05 AM

      You realize low ROI for promoters is the only reason why ovals are “limited,” right?

    • midtec2005 - Oct 8, 2013 at 10:21 AM

      Yeah the premise of your post is totally wrong, Jeff. Ovals need to turn out more fans, that’s the only reason there isn’t more of them. Trust me, most of us diehards want some more. I went to Kentucky every year too.

      • apexassassin - Oct 8, 2013 at 5:52 PM

        They should build an oval in the UK… it would be a sellout every time as ovals are considered an “exotic” form of racing to them.

  4. snoopyo - Oct 8, 2013 at 11:02 AM

    midtec your right its the lack of attendance why there are no ovals but you can’t tell oval fans that.I was at the last Kentucky and Michigan races and the attendance was poor so the plug got pulled. People scream for more ovals but they don’t show up if the amount of people who scream for more ovals would show up to the races there would probably be close to a sellout.The drivers say they want more ovals as well Dario has been vocal about going back to Phoenix so to say the drivers and the series don’t want ovals is absurb. I would like more ovals but the attendance is poor and if there not making money then there not going to be there. I am an oval fan but its getting harder to stay one because of the way most oval fans act. I am an oval fan but I also enjoy the road/street courses as well but most oval fans fail to realize is there are a lot of road/street course fans as well.

  5. apexassassin - Oct 8, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    Just going to say saftey standards need to be greatly improved. Other open wheel series have much better modern safety records. Indycar should spend a buck and make the necessary improvements.

    • snoopyo - Oct 8, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the one’s who spent the money and developed the soft wall, the DW12’s big focus was on safety so they have spent money to make things safer and they always will. Racing will always be dangerous and never 100 percent safe.

      • apexassassin - Oct 8, 2013 at 4:33 PM

        “Racing will always be dangerous and never 100% safe.”

        Of course I totally agree with that. Who wouldn’t?

        “Other open wheel series have much better modern safety records.”

        I see you ignored that. Let’s use F1 as an example, since that is the highest echelon of motorsport.
        Last F1 driver fatality was in 1994. How many Indy drivers have dies in the 21st century?
        There have been only TWO driver inuries this century in F1 requiring hospitalization/missed races. How many in Indycar? Nascar?
        And what about fan safety? I can’t even recall the last time a fan was injured in F1…

        Let’s face it, all of the top motorsports invent great saftey technical innovations, and the smart series adopt them asap… like the hans device, or cavity walls (soft wall).

      • midtec2005 - Oct 8, 2013 at 7:39 PM

        apexassassin, you make good points, but for comparisons sake I think it would be more fair to compare indycars road/street course safety record to F1. Ovals are a different animal and F1 doesn’t race them.

        Of accidents during actual road/street races Franchitti is the only serious injury I can think of off the top of my head, but I guess you could count some wrist injuries. There were some practice/testing injuries (Power, Wilson) but there were practice/testing injuries in F1 too. So I think Indycars safety record is pretty good if you look at it with that one consideration.

        There still is another issue too, Indycar doesn’t have the money and popularity to dictate track standards as well as F1. That’s something that can’t be fixed easily.

      • apexassassin - Oct 8, 2013 at 10:33 PM

        If F1 still ran on ovals I’d find another way to spend my life. I honestly don’t see the attraction, but then again I don’t troll you all for enjoying it. I’ve probably been to move roundy-round races than 75% of poster-posers here. A lack of resources is no excuse for a compromise for driver safety and perhaps your series should look to past, current, and future management to place blame and for solutions…

        I don’t compare F1 to Indycar or any other series because it simply is beyond compare to any single sport… more viewers watch FP1 than the Superbowl. Only the Olympics can compare for viewers but they occur every other year (winter/summer) while F1 occers 18-22 times a year. The revenue is vastly different, but if you know the sport then you know the onus of saftey is on the venue, not the teams. Make a product the people want and it’s problem solved.

    • indycarseries500 - Oct 8, 2013 at 1:45 PM

      They are, working on a better catchfencing system, the Dallara IR12 is the safest formula car on the planet, they spent a bunch on the SAFER Barrier, ear accelerometers, they were leaders in the use of Zylon. Saying they don’t spend money on safety is ignorant. That accident could’ve just as easily happened at Monaco or Singapore or Montreal and I damn sure would rather be in an IR12 than any other formula car if it was me driving.

      • apexassassin - Oct 8, 2013 at 4:44 PM

        Good for you.

        I personally think the danger of no [paved] runoff areas and close walls is what makes F1 better than the other series’s. Montreal, Monaco, Singapore (well those last two are boring, imo), Melbourne, NJ – if it happens, Barcelona, Suzuka, etc all make the drivers pay with damage or risking being trapped in gravel/sand… and I’m not a Tilke (major circuit designer for F1) fan…. hiss designs are too bland and lack the risk that F1 was built on.

        “…I damn sure would rather be in an IR12 than any other formula car if it was me driving.”

        Lol, well pretty much says it all and proves my suspicions about your level of F1 knowledge. Guess you didn’t see Webber do a full 360 in the air or Grosjean being a wrecking ball at Spa last year, or Kubica’s massive shunt in Montreal… all huge wrecks everyone walked away from! In fact the last time a F1 driver had to be extricated from a car was Ralf Schumacher in INDY in 2004. And that was a circuit flaw more than anything! A punctured tire threw Schumacher’s car into a spin at about 186 mph and it crashed backward into the concrete wall — it missed the energy-absorbing SAFER barrier by about 25 feet — in the final turn of the speedway’s road course configuration, the oval’s Turn 1. It also took the rescue personnel an ungodly amount of time to reach the injured driver, setting new standards for track marshalling at all FIA sanctioned events!

        I’ll take a wreck in an F1 car anyday over any other open wheel, open cockpit racer on the planet. Top Fuel NHRA would be second on my list. 😉

      • midtec2005 - Oct 8, 2013 at 8:18 PM

        F1 cars and Indycars both have the one advancement thats really important. It was demonstrated in Franchittis accident and in Kubicas as well. It’s a simple thing… the monocoque stays in one piece. In older cars both of those drivers could look a lot more like Alex Zanardi.

      • indycarseries500 - Oct 8, 2013 at 9:05 PM

        Did you see James Hinchcliffe at Pocono? EJ Viso or Tagliani at Pocono? Conor Daly at Indianapolis? 220+ impacts with a wall.

        If I don’t know much about F1 you know absolutely nothing about F1, Webber didn’t hit anything hard, Grosjean bouncing around was at a low speed and nothing was hit very hard. Actually Kubica was the last driver that had to be extricated, I didn’t say an F1 car wasn’t safe I said an IndyCar is a safer vehicle as it has to be for what it demands.

      • apexassassin - Oct 8, 2013 at 10:25 PM

        I’d rather watch paint dry than track Indycar or Nascar…

        in fact I can hardly wait wait for GP2 and DTM Americas to happen, then maybe I’ll give a rat’s ass about American racing (aside from the Rolex series, of course)…

        go troll someone else, you aren’t worth my time, Indycarseries500… oh right, you already do, lol.

  6. Jeff - Oct 8, 2013 at 5:31 PM

    Yes. I’ve heard IndyCar people say there’s a lack of ROI and attendance is poor at ovals. Got it. I agree, but there are other things at play too – like lack of promotion and exorbitant track fees that street courses don’t have to deal with.
    In any case, I’ve also heard and read about drivers, owners and others who backed up the two reasons I mentioned.

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