Oct 7, 2013, 10:00 PM EST
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.
Dec 11, 2013, 7:00 PM EST
The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test at Barber Motorsports Park is in the books for all of Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000. This test marked the first time all three series ran together while on Cooper Tires, as Indy Lights makes the switch this offseason ahead of 2014, and all…
Dec 11, 2013, 5:43 PM EST
Still searching for ways to improve the on-track product on intermediate ovals, NASCAR staged a second test session today at Charlotte Motor Speedway that featured a series of simulated races for different aero packages in addition to traditional single-car runs. “One of the things that we learned and the reason we’re back here with so…
Dec 11, 2013, 4:11 PM EST
Former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Juan Pablo Montoya is no stranger to Phoenix International Raceway. But for his second round of IndyCar testing with Team Penske on Tuesday, he might as well have been. Because while it’s one thing to navigate “The Desert Jewel” with a heavy stock car, it’s quite another to do…
Dec 11, 2013, 3:07 PM EST
NASCAR has announced details of an executive restructuring, with former General Motors executive Brent Dewar being named as its new chief operating officer. Additionally, NASCAR has promoted three members of its executive management. Steve Phelps (senior vice president and chief marketing officer) and Steve O’Donnell (senior vice president of racing operations) have both been elevated…
Dec 11, 2013, 2:13 PM EST
In 2014, “The King” of the World of Outlaws will be going after the throne, one last time. Tony Stewart Racing has announced that Steve Kinser, a 20-time champion of the WoO STP Sprint Car Series, will make next year his final full season on the circuit. A year-long farewell tour – dubbed the “Salute…
Dec 11, 2013, 1:28 PM EST
As a young boy growing up, I watched a lot of NASCAR on Sunday afternoons and I always pulled for Dale Earnhardt in the famous Richard Childress Racing No. 3 car. I suppose I was drawn to the whole attitude that both he and that number represented – a tough, determined and strong attitude, no…
Dec 11, 2013, 12:44 PM EST
NASCAR’s worst-kept secret is finally official. Austin Dillon will move up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2014 with Richard Childress Racing, and he’s bringing back the No. 3 to Cup for the first time since 2001. No driver – not even Dale Earnhardt Jr. – has raced with the No. 3 in…
Dec 11, 2013, 11:45 AM EST
With a grid of 69 confirmed cars for the Rolex 24 at Daytona, split between 29 prototypes and 40 GT cars, and a further nine cars listed as alternates, no one will suggest the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship is lacking quantity or quality of entrants in its four classes. Still, after compiling an entry list…
Dec 11, 2013, 11:00 AM EST
Now that we’ve completed our IndyCar and NASCAR season reviews, it’s time for us to focus on everything that went down from Albert Park to Interlagos in the 2013 Formula One World Championship. If you’ve been following us this off-season, you know the drill by now. We’ll start with our respective Top 5 stories of…
Dec 11, 2013, 10:15 AM EST
There really doesn’t appear to be much middle ground on Lotus F1′s Twitter account and the rest of its social media strategy. You either love it or hate it; personally, I choose the former but it does have its detractors. Still, after seeing the brilliance the team has come up with in response to F1′s…
Dec 11, 2013, 9:33 AM EST
Sauber has officially passed the 2014 homologation test with its new C33 chassis. Good news for the veteran Swiss team. “The chassis of the C33 has passed all static and dynamic tests of the FIA and is officially homologated. The rear crash test, which is not part of the chassis homologation, will take place separately at…
Dec 11, 2013, 12:11 AM EST
One day after the FIA named McLaren and Force India among the six teams taking part in next week’s Pirelli test session in Bahrain, both squads have pulled out of the three-day session. Among the multiple regulation changes that were released on Monday, the FIA granted Pirelli an opportunity to develop their 2014 tires at…
Dec 10, 2013, 8:17 PM EST
Former Red Bull Racing Formula One driver Mark Webber has closed out Porsche’s testing program for 2013 on its new LMP1 car that will debut next year in the World Endurance Championship. Webber, who announced his move to the WEC this past summer and closed out his F1 career with a runner-up in Brazil last…
Dec 10, 2013, 6:00 PM EST
Preliminary plans from Hulman & Co. to invest state funds into upgrades for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been approved by the Indiana Motorsports Commission. The ambitious plans focus on three areas: track modifications, fan experience and technology. In regards to the track, upgrades identified include the installation of an apron for use in the…
Dec 10, 2013, 5:00 PM EST
IMSA and officials at Sebring International Raceway have confirmed Open Test dates in February for both the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship and Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. Both series will have morning and afternoon test sessions on both Thurs., Feb. 20, 2014 and Fri., Feb. 21, 2014 to prepare for the Mobil 1 12 Hours…
Dec 10, 2013, 4:05 PM EST
Darrell Wallace Jr., who became the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR national series race in almost 50 years this past October at Martinsville Speedway, is set to return to the Camping World Truck Series is 2014. Fox Sports’ Ray Dunlap said via Twitter this morning that Wallace will once again drive for Kyle…
Dec 10, 2013, 2:35 PM EST
In an interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, former Sprint Cup team owner James Finch (pictured, left, from 2009) announced his intentions to field a car for the 2014 Daytona 500. Finch sold Phoenix Racing in August to Harry Scott, Jr., a co-owner of NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series outfit Turner Scott Motorsports. But…
Dec 10, 2013, 2:00 PM EST
We ordinarily don’t touch too much on the automotive sector here on MotorSportsTalk, but two big pieces of news regarding General Motors have just come down in the last 24-plus hours. Via CNBC, on Monday the U.S. Treasury Department sold its final shares, and announced it had recovered $39 billion of the $49.5 billion it…
Dec 10, 2013, 1:30 PM EST
After talking about the big stories and ranking our Top 10 drivers from the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, my colleague Tony DiZinno and I are taking a look back on how each of the 13 Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders fared this past year. Rounding out the 2013 Chasers in 13th place…
Dec 10, 2013, 1:15 PM EST
After a successful 2013 in both IndyCars and sports cars, British driver Mike Conway is looking forward to getting 2014 underway in earnest with a test session next week at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway for Ed Carpenter Racing. Conway, who won Detroit Race 1 for Dale Coyne Racing and also claimed four race wins with…
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