Sato blamed for massive crash at start of Pocono IndyCar race

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LONG POND, Pennsylvania – For the second straight year, a massive crash at the start of the ABC Supply 500 NTT IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway brought out the Red Flag to stop the race.

It also left many of the drivers involved in the crash seeing red and blaming Takuma Sato of Japan for causing a crash on the very first lap of the 200-lap contest.

“It all hand-grenaded,” Ryan Hunter-Reay said of the crash.

The multi-car crash has sent rookie driver Felix Rosenqvist to Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania for further observation of “non-life-threatening injuries,” according to INDYCAR Director of Medical Affairs Dr. Geoffrey Billows.

At 5:40 p.m. Eastern Time, Dr. Billows said Rosenqvist had been checked and cleared for release and was expected to leave the hospital shortly.

It also put a severe blow into Alexander Rossi’s chances at the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship after his No. 27 Honda was damaged in the crash. His Andretti Autosport crew, however, repaired the car during a 45-minute, 24-second Red Flag, which is against INDYCAR rules. James Hinchcliffe’s team and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s crew also worked on their car during the stoppage in the race and all three teams incurred a 10-lap penalty once work is completed on their racing machines.

The crash happened entering the Turn 2 “Tunnel Turn” portion of the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped speedway, very close to the area where a first lap of racing incident on Lap 7 last year left Robert Wickens paralyzed from the waist down after his car went into the tire fence, severely injuring the driver. That crash happened when he attempted to drive underneath Ryan Hunter-Reay, but once the turn closed up, Wickens’ Honda drove over the top of Hunter-Reay’s Honda and launched into the fence.

This year, it was Sato that was darting from side-to-side when he made contact with Rossi’s Honda, triggering a multi-car crash that also involved Hunter-Reay for the second year in a row. Rosenqvist’s Honda went airborne and into the fence, but not as severe an impact as Wickens in 2018. The rear of the car rode along the top of the SAFER Barrier with the nose of the car scraping across the asphalt.

Hinchcliffe was also involved in the crash.

“I can’t even begin to understand how after last year, how Takuma thinks any sort of driving like that is acceptable,” Rossi said after he was cleared and released from the Pocono Raceway Infield Care Center. “To turn across two cars at that speed in that corner at the start of a 500-mile race is disgraceful, upsetting and probably cost us a championship.

“It’s upsetting because this team works hard. We’ve got a couple of days to rebound and we’ll just go for wins from this point on.”

Rossi entered the race second in points, just 16 behind championship leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske. Because Saturday’s qualifications were cancelled because of rain, the field was set based on the current NTT IndyCar Series championship. Rossi started second but had a bad start at the drop of the green flag and that dropped him a few positions, ultimately putting him in harm’s way when Sato’s car collided into him.

Getty ImagesINDYCAR officials have assessed a post-race review on Sato for “avoidable contact.”

Hunter-Reay believes the penalty should be a harsh one.

“Five hundred miles,” Hunter-Reay told NBC Sports.com. “Can you believe that?

“My view is this is ridiculous. Thank God everybody is alright. I thought everybody learned their lesson last year at the start of a 500-mile race. I had a nice, clean run on Rossi and was three-quarters past him, then all of a sudden, I was backwards and saw myself hit the inside wall, then I saw the field coming at me in traffic.

“I thought this could be bad.

“It’s so unfortunate. It’s the start of a 500-mile race. I was minding my own business and here I am talking to people outside the Infield Medical Center.”

Hunter-Reay said it is so important to gain positions on starts and restarts because track position is very important at Pocono instead of past packages where drivers could race through the field.

Hinchcliffe called it, “insane.”

“I backed out of Turn 1 and entered Turn 2 and it unfolded in front of us,” Hinchcliffe said. “We were heading into Turn 2 three-wide and I knew that wasn’t a good idea, so I backed out. I thought that was going to save us. It happened in front of me, but the wreck moved down to the inside and slid out to where I was and nowhere, I could go.

“It sucks. It’s a 500-mile race. I don’t know how many times we have to do this before people figure out that you can attack all you want, but you don’t have a chance to win it if you are in the fence.

“It’s just crazy. It’s such a waste of time and energy for people to come out here and do a 500-mile race and half the top 10 end up in the fence in Turn 2.”

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesHunter-Reay was asked by NBC Sports.com if the drivers need to start self-policing the sport.

“It has to be,” he said. “Jesus, it’s the first lap of a 500-mile race. Guys are driving like it’s the last lap of the Indianapolis 500. We need to get it together. When we’ve used the helicopter here to take drivers to the hospital the last four years, you think we would get that.

“It’s really unfortunate. It never should have happened. It absolutely should have never happened. Every pass in a 500-mile race at the start needs to be 100 percent.”

Sato was the subject of blame and tried to answer the charges from the other drivers that he was responsible.

“I’m worried about Felix and hope he is OK,” Sato said. “I feel sorry for all the guys in the championship. But Ryan and I were racing in Turn 1 Alex got a slow start and we both went right-and-left. I thought I was all clear and all of the seams grabbed the car and unfortunately, we made contact.

“I was not really overaggressive overtaking anything. People need to watch the replay before making that decision. I thought I was all clear and kept the steering wheel straight, but we all got to together.

“It was so close, three-wide and everyone together. Alex and I hit together.”

Graham Rahal was running sixth at the time of the crash and was able to describe what he saw involving his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate, Sato.

“The disappointing thing is you have 499 more miles to go and you have to be patient,” Rahal said. “We know the risks of this track. When you see that, it’s tough.

“Takuma went three-wide and gave him the sign he was coming but there was no space to do that. We were fortunate we snuck through there and didn’t get run over from behind. We’re all right and will try to go racing from here.

“You know how far you can push this. At 226 miles an hour, when you are entering Turn 2 here, you are boogying. You have to play it through. It’s a 500-mile race and you have to realize that.”

 

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”