Dario Franchnitti

Despite tough weekend, IndyCar dodges major bullet in Houston crash

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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.

Soft tire preference revealed in Japanese GP picks

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 27, 2015 in Suzuka, Japan.
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Formula 1’s two-week Asian swing is ahead with the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend and the Japanese Grand Prix next week.

The Japanese Grand Prix tire picks were revealed on Tuesday, per usual, and most drivers and teams have selected more of Pirelli’s sets of soft tires, the softest on offer. As in Malaysia, teams can select between the soft, medium and hard compounds.

All drivers have between six and nine sets of softs selected.

Both Red Bull drivers are opting for four sets of hards, with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel three sets of hards and Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen two sets of hards.

The full breakdown is below:

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BMW announces FIA WEC entry from 2018, Formula E partnership with Andretti

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BMW has announced that it will return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2018 after seven years away.

BMW last raced at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2011, but will now make its comeback as part of a realignment of its motorsport program.

This also includes a technical partnership with the MS Amlin Andretti team in Formula E from season three with a view to a works entry in the series from its fifth season.

“The strong pillars of the programme for the coming years will be the DTM, the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC), the cooperation with Andretti Formula E in the FIA Formula E Championship, the customer racing programme in the GT3 and GT4 categories, the promotion of talented young drivers, and the extremely challenging Dakar Rally,” a statement from BMW reads.

“The plan is for BMW to enter the FIA World Endurance Championship in the 2018 season. The highlight of this championship is the 24-hour race in Le Mans.

“BMW claimed overall victory there in 1999 with the open prototype BMW V12 LMR. The last time a BMW took its place on the grid at the endurance classic near the river Sarthe was in 2011: back then, the BMW M3 GT finished third in the LM GTE class.

“Since it was launched in 2012, the championship has enjoyed a positive development, forged new paths in many regards, and won a lot of fans.

“Further details, such as the model of car to be used and the team responsible for the car, will be confirmed and announced over the coming months.”

BMW motorsport director Jens Marquardt added: “Starting with the 2018 season, we want to further expand our activities in GT racing and compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship, as well as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“This obviously also includes our return to Le Mans, which we are particularly looking forward to. The way the WEC has developed so well makes us confident that there is a big future for GT racing.”

Of its involvement in Formula E with Andretti, BMW confirmed a long-rumored technical partnership that has already begun ahead of the all-electric series’ third season.

“The cooperation with Andretti Formula E is initially set to run for two seasons. It incorporates, for example, cooperation at engineer level and the mutual use of resources.

“Depending on the general development of the racing series, a works involvement is envisaged as of the series’ season five, 2018/2019, provided the conditions and circumstances are right.

“As part of this commitment, BMW Motorsport will provide its works driver António Félix da Costa as a driver for Andretti Formula E. The Portuguese, who has featured on the top step of the DTM podium with BMW and has already tasted victory in Formula E, will contest the entire 2016/17 FIA Formula E Championship.

“As well as the new partnership, BMW i will remain the “Official Vehicle Partner” of Formula E. This partnership allows BMW i to present the plug-in hybrid BMW i8, as the Safety Car, and the fully-electric BMW i3, as the Medical Car, in some of the largest cities in the world.”

You can read the entire statement from BMW by clicking here.

NHRA: After first 2 rounds, most Countdown battles tighten

With five wins and having led the points for much of this season, Ron Capps is on target for his first career Funny Car championship in 2016.
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With two rounds of the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs now in the books, the point standings have tightened up for the most part.

The closest battles are in Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle. But that doesn’t mean the Funny Car or Pro Stock standings are any less competitive.

Let’s break things down in each respective class following what happened in this past weekend’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals near St. Louis:

In Top Fuel, two-time and defending champion Antron Brown has his hands full with a stout challenge from Doug Kalitta.

Brown, who dominated last year’s Countdown en route to the championship, holds just a 13-point edge over Kalitta heading into this weekend’s midpoint of the Countdown, the Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove (Pa.) Raceway.

After three runner-up finishes over the years, Kalitta is potentially in the best position he ever has been to earn his first championship in 20 years on the NHRA national tour. Trust me, Brown hears Kalitta’s footsteps, and they just got a lot louder after Sunday’s race near St. Louis.

Several other drivers are further back, but they’re far from out of the running. Eight-time champion Tony Schumacher is third, 54 points back. Sunday’s winner, Shawn Langdon, jumped up to fourth in the points, just 77 points behind.

Brittany Force and Steve Torrence are 91 and 97 points behind Brown, respectively, followed by seventh and eighth place holders J.R. Todd (-106) and Richie Crampton (-131), who qualified No. 1 this past weekend.

Unfortunately, two drivers have each struggled in the first two Countdown races: Leah Pritchett (-151) and Clay Millican (-174). Unless they get their game back on track, their Countdown hopes could essentially be over far before the season-ending race in Pomona, California.

Here’s how the points stack up heading into Maple Grove:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,258; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 2,245; 3.  Tony Schumacher, 2,204; 4.  Shawn Langdon, 2,181; 5.  Brittany Force, 2,167; 6.  Steve Torrence, 2,161; 7.  J.R. Todd, 2,152; 8.  Richie Crampton, 2,127; 9.  Leah Pritchett, 2,107; 10.  Clay Millican, 2,084.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Funny Car, Ron Capps reached Sunday’s semifinals, protecting the lead he’s had for much of this season.

With a class-high five wins thus far this season, Capps holds a 48-point edge over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. and leads another teammate, Jack Beckman, by 70 points.

Beckman significantly closed the gap on Capps by winning Sunday at St. Louis – jumping from eighth place to third.

Just 22 points separate fourth-ranked John Force (-74), defending champion Del Worsham (-84) and Matt Hagan (-96). Dipping in the standings are the other two John Force Racing Funny Car drivers, Robert Hight (-114) and Courtney Force (-124), with Tim Wilkerson sitting ninth (-129).

Alexis DeJoria rounds out the 1o-driver Funny Car Countdown and has struggled in the first two races, leaving her 205 points behind Capps – the third-biggest points spread between a driver and a leader in any of the four pro classes.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 2,273; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,225; 3.  Jack Beckman, 2,203; 4.  John Force, 2,199; 5.  Del Worsham, 2,189; 6.  Matt Hagan, 2,177; 7.  Robert Hight, 2,159; 8.  Courtney Force, 2,149; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,144; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,068.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Pro Stock, Alex Laughlin pulled off a stunning win Sunday at St. Louis. Not only did Laughlin fail to qualify for the Countdown, Sunday’s triumph was the first of his Pro Stock career.

And Laughlin’s win somewhat shook up the Pro Stock standings – opening them up rather than closing the gap – leaving the largest spread between first and tenth in any of the four pro classes.

KB Racing holds a stranglehold on the top three spots with points leader Jason Line, Greg Anderson (-63) and Bo Butner (-87).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the bottom half of the Pro Stock Countdown field has struggled in the first two races: Sixth-ranked Chris McGaha (-175), Allen Johnson (-183), and Drew Skillman (-184), but especially five-time champion Jeg Coughlin (-226) and two-time defending champion Erica Enders (-258).

After two outstanding seasons, Enders has had a very rough campaign in 2016, with several first round exits in the first 20 races that put her – and have kept her – behind the eight-ball. She failed to qualify for the first Countdown race at Charlotte and suffered yet another first-round exit at St. Louis.

Unless Enders can somehow bounce back and win her first race of the season – and then some more – in the next couple of races, she mathematically could be eliminated from the Countdown as early as this weekend at Maple Grove or Round 4 of the playoffs on Oct. 16 at Texas.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line, 2,310; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,247; 3.  Bo Butner, 2,223; 4.  Vincent Nobile, 2,185; 5.  Shane Gray, 2,167; 6.  Chris McGaha, 2,135; 7.  Allen Johnson, 2,127; 8.  Drew Skillman, 2,126; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,084; 10.  Erica Enders, 2,052.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, we see the tightest championship battle of all four pro classes thus far.

Just 17 points separate the top three riders: defending champion and five-time champ Andrew Hines, Angelle Sampey (-2) and Charlotte winner Chip Ellis (-17). And St. Louis winner Jerry Savoie – an alligator farmer from Louisiana – took a big chomp out of Hines’ lead, jumping up to fourth place, just 42 points behind.

Former champion Eddie Krawiec isn’t far behind in fifth place (-76).

The remaining five riders are all within striking distance, from sixth-ranked LE Tonglet IV (-122) to Hector Arana Jr. (-145), Hector Arana (-153), Cory Reed (-155) and Matt Smith (-164).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Andrew Hines, 2,260; 2.  Angelle Sampey, 2,258; 3.  Chip Ellis, 2,243; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 2,218; 5.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,184; 6.  LE Tonglet, 2,138; 7.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,115; 8.  Hector Arana, 2,107; 9.  Cory Reed, 2,105; 10.  Matt Smith, 2,096.

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NHRA: Ron Capps, Doug Kalitta one step closer to first championships

Can Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta, left, and Funny Car pilot Ron Capps both earn their first championships this season?
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As the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship moves into its third round, Doug Kalitta and Ron Capps have one word on their mind.

Well, two words, actually, but one will equal the second.

The first word is “sixteen” – as in the number of rounds of competition that remain this season.

And, if they successfully get through most of those 16 rounds beating the guy or girl in the other lane, that second word is “one” – as in finishing the season No. 1 as champions in their respective NHRA drag racing classes: Top Fuel for Kalitta and Funny Car for Capps.

“One” has even more significance for both drivers as the have each toiled on the straight-line for 20 and 22 years apiece, yet both have never ended a season with a championship.

What’s more, Capps and Kalitta rank first and second for drivers with the most wins without a championship.

Now, with four races to go, they both feel strongly that it’s their time. They both have chances to move four steps closer to that goal in this weekend’s Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove (Pa.) Raceway.

“Each race in this Countdown is important,” Kalitta said. “There are only 24 rounds of racing (in the six rounds), so you try to excel at every track.

“We would like to end this three-race string with a race win and carry that momentum into the final three events on the schedule.”

Added Capps, “(Maple Grove has) been very good to me, but I’ve never won there. I know it will be a lot cooler and (crew chief Rahn) Tobler has shown what this hot rod can do in conditions like that.”

Capps leads the Funny Car ranks – as he has done for much of this season – and has qualified no lower than third nor finished any lower than the semifinals in each of the first two Countdown events.

He leads Don Schumacher Racing teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. by 48 points and Jack Beckman, who beat Capps in the semifinals and went on to win the Funny Car class Sunday at Gateway Motorsports Park, by 70 points.

“We have such a great, competitive field of drivers and you can’t take anything for granted,” Capps said. “This is one of the most funs I’ve had, but it’s hard to enjoy it because you’re so engulfed in this Countdown. Fans are having a blast.”

Capps has 50 career Funny Car wins, including five this season. He also has finished runner-up in the standings four different seasons.

“It’s just one race at a time, and that’s all we’re focused on,” Capps said. “It is fun to be able to do that and have a racecar that I can trust will be as quick as anybody on raceday. It’s going to be a lot of fun the rest of the way.”

And then there’s Kalitta, who like Capps, would also like nothing better than to finally win his first championship.

Kalitta moved closer to that goal this weekend at St. Louis. He’s now just 13 points behind Top Fuel standings leader and defending champion Antron Brown, who is also seeking his third championship in the last five seasons.

But Kalitta, who has three wins in 2016 (Houston, Atlanta and Topeka) and 41 in his career (fifth among Top Fuel’s winningest drivers), would like nothing more than to overtake Brown and hold on for the championship.

“At this point we can control our own destiny, so we are just taking each race as its own and doing our best,” Kalitta said. “Every race we have left is a little different, and you just have to be prepared.

“I have the best team and group of people surrounding me, and I am excited to see what we can do.”

Like Capps, Kalitta knows all too well what it’s like to finish runner-up to someone else in a season, having finished second three times in his career.

“My team is incredibly focused,” Kalitta said. “This Mac Tools/DeWalt FlexVolt Toyota is running strong and we are limiting mistakes. We are right there and know we have what it takes to compete with all of the other teams out here that are chasing that title.

“You just have to stay focused on your job. I have a great crew and their job doesn’t change, and neither does mine. You have to be ready to go regardless of conditions.”

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DODGE NHRA NATIONALS FACT SHEET

WHAT: 32nd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals, the 21st of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the third of six races in the NHRAMello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Drivers in four categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships.

WHERE: Maple Grove Raceway, Mohnton, Pa. Track is located off the Pennsylvania Turnpike (Exit 298), 10 miles south of Reading, Pa.

COURSE:   Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 548 feet above sea level; Track direction is north to south.

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 29-Oct. 2

SCHEDULE:

THURSDAY, Sept. 29 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

FRIDAY, Sept. 30 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:15 and 4:15 p.m.

SATURDAY, Oct. 1 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 11:15 a.m. and 2:45 p.m.

SUNDAY, Oct. 2 – Pre-race ceremonies, 11 a.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at noon.

TELEVISION: Friday, Sept. 30, FS1 will televise one hour of live qualifying coverage at 6 p.m. (ET).

Sunday, Oct. 2, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 2 a.m. (ET).

Sunday, Oct. 2, FS1 will televise three hours of live finals coverage starting at2 p.m. (ET).

2015 EVENT WINNERS: Antron Brown, Top Fuel; Jack Beckman, Funny Car; Chris McGaha, Pro Stock; Andrew Hines, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST VICTORIES: John Force, FC, 7; Angelle Sampey, PSM, 6; Tony Schumacher, TF, 5; Jeg Coughlin, PS, 4; Warren Johnson, PS, 4.

TRACK RECORDS:

Top Fuel – 3.701 sec. by Antron Brown, Oct. ’12; 334.15 mph by Shawn Langdon, Oct. ’12

Funny Car – 3.897 sec. by Jack Beckman, Oct. ’15; 329.34 mph by Robert Hight, Oct. ’15

Pro Stock – 6.465 sec. by Erica Enders, Oct. ’14; 214.59 mph by Greg Anderson, Oct. ’15

Pro Stock Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. and 198.73 mph by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12

NATIONAL RECORDS:

Top Fuel – 3.671 sec. by Steve Torrence, July ’16, Sonoma, Calif.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car – 3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.; 335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.

Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.;  215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J.

PS Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.

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POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,258; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 2,245; 3.  Tony Schumacher, 2,204; 4.  Shawn Langdon, 2,181; 5.  Brittany Force, 2,167; 6.  Steve Torrence, 2,161; 7.  J.R. Todd, 2,152; 8.  Richie Crampton, 2,127; 9.  Leah Pritchett, 2,107; 10.  Clay Millican, 2,084.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 2,273; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,225; 3.  Jack Beckman, 2,203; 4.  John Force, 2,199; 5.  Del Worsham, 2,189; 6.  Matt Hagan, 2,177; 7.  Robert Hight, 2,159; 8.  Courtney Force, 2,149; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,144; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,068.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line, 2,310; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,247; 3.  Bo Butner, 2,223; 4.  Vincent Nobile, 2,185; 5.  Shane Gray, 2,167; 6.  Chris McGaha, 2,135; 7.  Allen Johnson,

2,127; 8.  Drew Skillman, 2,126; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,084; 10.  Erica Enders, 2,052.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,260; 2.  Angelle Sampey, 2,258; 3.  Chip Ellis, 2,243; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 2,218; 5.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,184; 6.  LE Tonglet, 2,138; 7.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,115; 8.  Hector Arana, 2,107; 9.  Cory Reed, 2,105; 10.  Matt Smith, 2,096.

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