FORT WORTH – Justin Wilson sat on the pit road at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when a flash on a video board caught his eye.
Wilson looked up to see the image of James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Honda barreling into the outside wall in Turn 3 at around 125 G’s. Fire erupted from the right side of the car upon impact and as it slid away from the wall, the car flipped over without going airborne before coming to a stop.
“That was a big one,” Wilson thought to himself.
It was also the fourth crash in four days during Indianapolis 500 practice that saw a car hit the wall and become airborne or flip over, all under different circumstances.
“You knew it was a big impact because, usually things break at the highest load and in this case, it was right in the middle of Turn 3,” Wilson said during a media event at Texas Motor Speedway.
“The car straightened out and we knew it was a bad angle and a big impact. You’re waiting for him to get out and he doesn’t. That’s when you realize….we take the safety a little bit for granted these days, but that’s when you realize, ‘this could be bad.'”
The Monday morning incident sent a piece of the right-front suspension through Hinchcliffe’s upper-right thigh and put the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver in the hospital. Hinchcliffe is in stable condition, but will miss the Indianapolis 500 and is out indefinitely.
Unlike those involving Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter, Hinchcliffe was the only injured driver.
“It’s the unfortunate part of our sport,” said Scott Dixon, the polesitter for Sunday’s ‘500. “We’ve seen accidents similar to what we’ve seen in the past. There’s nothing really new there, obviously each accident is different in its own right and how it occurs and what’s caused them.”
Wilson, who is racing for Andretti Autosport in the month of May, didn’t sense any change in the atmosphere of the IMS paddock over the course of the four days.
“Helio’s crash got our attention, but that sort of thing’s happened in racing for years,” Wilson said. “Whether it’s sports cars at Le Mans or open-wheel cars on an oval track. Sometimes, you get at a certain angle and what holds you down going forwards is now lifting you up going backward. It’s just physics, unfortunately.”
Carpenter’s wreck on the morning of pole qualifying led to IndyCar mandating that all teams, whether powered by Honda or Chevrolet, would qualify in race trim.
“The attitude was pretty good,” Wilson said. “Hopefully, the changes we made right before qualifying was going to help that, but when when James’ crash happened, that was was when people realized, ‘we could get hurt doing this.'”
An IndyCar driver hasn’t been killed on the 2.5-mile track since Tony Renna in a tire test with Chip Ganassi Racing in October 2003. The last driver killed during the month of May was Scott Brayton in 1996 a week after earning the pole for the ‘500.
“Crashing at Indianapolis is not a new thing. Regarding safety, you kind of take it for granted,” said Dixon, who has been with Chip Ganassi since 2002.
“You do realize it’s part of the sport and the last thing you want to see is what happened to James. You can’t do anything when the car fails and you’ve got no chance to rectify it.”
Both drivers share the belief that a driver’s mindset – no matter what happens the previous week – changes after they enter the cockpit.
“Once you put that helmet on and put the visor down and start the engine, you don’t think about anything other than winning,” Wilson said. “It’s tough right now, but we know that IndyCar is about as safe as any motorsport in the world and we have a fantastic safety team … You never like to think the worst. We appreciate that it can happen. It’s racing, anything can happen.”