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.