On Sunday, August 18, yet another bad crash at Pocono Raceway on the very first lap of the IndyCar race involved five cars, caused a lengthy red flag, and saw one driver taken to the hospital to inspect a non-fatal injury. Let’s break down what happened, and why.
As soon as the green flag flew at Pocono, a near field-wide battle for position commenced at the notoriously wide tri-oval. While Simon Pagenaud quickly took off from the pack at the start, second-place qualifier Alexander Rossi was slow getting on the throttle, slipping back several positions. Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay both moved in to take advantage of Rossi’s misstep.
Hunter-Reay took the inside line while Sato moved outside of Rossi as they moved into Turn 2. They were now running three wide.
Now, this is where things start to get contentious.
Video from the incident shows Sato moving down in an attempt to pinch Rossi off—and to avoid running into the rear of Scott Dixon—but Sato wasn’t yet clear of him. Rossi took evasive action to try to stay clear—but Hunter-Reay was in the way. All three came together, sliding from the inside to the outside wall.
James Hinchcliffe, who was closely following the trio at the time, had nowhere to go. He crashed right into the mess.
Felix Rosenqvist, too, was caught up. While he managed to avoid the kind of head-on collision that knocked Hinchcliffe out of contention, he still clipped the wreckage. That was enough to send his car flying into the catch fence, where he traveled for several yards before it finally slowed down.
The dust cleared. Hunter-Reay’s and Sato’s cars had become tangled together, with Sato upside down. Hinchcliffe and Rossi had tangled together nearby. Rosenqvist’s car had traveled so far down the track that it took several minutes before safety vehicles could reach him.
Rossi, Hinchcliffe, and Hunter-Reay were able to get out of their cars unassisted. Sato required help getting extracted due to the fact that his car was upside down. All four drivers were promptly cleared from the medical center. Rosenqvist also required assistance to climb out of the car. He was later taken by ambulance to a hospital for a round of preliminary check-ups and was medically cleared.
In the aftermath, images appeared to show repairs being made by zip-tying a spare gate over the damaged fence. Over the track intercom, it was reported that photographers near the scene were helping pick carbon fiber out of the fence.
The fan—and driver—response was quick.
Max Chilton, an IndyCar driver who opted out of oval racing for the rest of this season, was one of the first to denounce the track. Then there was Robert Wickens, speaking out against Pocono for the first time since the accident that left him with severe spinal injuries took place there last year. Former IndyCar driver Sage Karam suggested it was time to stop racing at Pocono—what would be his home track if he were still racing.
At the track itself, James Hinchcliffe voiced strong criticisms (well, strong within the context of normally tight-lipped race car drivers) after being released from the medical center:
I’m pissed off at IndyCar. I don’t think they’re running this race well at all.
Racing resumed after a lengthy 50-minute red flag, but many people watching found it difficult to do so comfortably:
In the past five years at Pocono, there have been three serious crashes: one in 2015 that saw Justin Wilson’s death, one in 2018 that saw Wickens’ life-threatening injuries, and this most recent one this past weekend. That is a very, very poor track record.
There’s just one big problem. Plenty of people don’t see why this is an issue.
A pretty hefty contingent of race fans don’t see anything really, deeply wrong with continuing to race at Pocono. These accidents are just coincidences that could happen anywhere, they argue. It’s not a Pocono problem, it’s an everywhere problem—and if we stop racing at Pocono because it’s dangerous, then we’ll just have to go ahead and stop racing altogether. It was, overall, an incident caused by overaggressive driving and cannot be the fault of the track.
I strongly disagree with that contingent.
Yes, overaggressive driving is a feature of motorsport—a dangerous one, at that. Yes, that kind of driving can cause serious injuries and even fatalities. However, both the series and the track involved in those kinds of dangerous accidents need to analyze them with a critical eye in order to understand how they can do better. Accidents of this type—and the aftermath of serious injuries and laughable repairs—need to be a wake-up call that there’s more work to be done. The response should be to work harder, not to get complacent.
I haven’t made it a secret that I think more needs to be done to make oval racing safer—and by that, I very specifically mean Pocono. Texas Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gateway, Fontana, you name it—they’ve all had their dangerous moments, but there’s a reason why you don’t hear people protesting them today. It’s because those tracks have either responded to dangerous incidents by improving track safety, or they simply don’t reappear on the schedule.
And it definitely is a Pocono problem. At IMS, for example, fences are reinforced and maintained—when a driver hits one, it’s less likely that they’ll pierce through. If they do, though, IMS has procedures to fix it. The track is maintained or updated year after year to ensure safe racing. As host of a smaller race, Pocono Raceway is not as financially able to upgrade at such a rapid pace. For example, their last big safety renovation took place in 2011, when SAFER barriers were removed to mill the track. Nothing was done about the decaying fencing that has proved to be so dangerous in these last two years. And, after a repeat of last year’s repairs with wayward gates, it’s obvious that Pocono was grossly unprepared for another bad crash.
Here’s Sage Karam on how Pocono differs from IMS, and why no one is calling for IMS to be removed from the calendar:
I’ve attended the IndyCar race at Pocono every year for the last five years. I saw Wilson die. I saw Wickens’ accident. I saw the accident last night. I also saw IndyCar respond incredibly slowly with some sort of head protection or debris deflection. I saw Pocono repair their track with scraps of old gates it just had laying around. Frankly, I couldn’t believe that fans, the series, and the track were complacent enough that the same kind of post-crash shoddy repairs could be repeated, that we were supposed to just swallow the excess of risk because that’s our duty as race fans.
Next year, IndyCar will be adopting a sleek-looking aeroscreen—its response to Formula One’s halo—in order to protect drivers. Pocono is currently not confirmed on the 2020 schedule, with Richmond Raceway rumored as a replacement. These are two positive moves guaranteed to assure both drivers and fans that IndyCar doesn’t have to be quite so dangerous.
Danger will always be a part of racing by its very nature. But so is innovation. If we want to praise IndyCar’s vast history of safety improvement above and beyond many other racing series, then we need to demand IndyCar continue to do more to maintain that legacy well into the future.
Update Monday August 19, 2019, 11:22 AM: We have updated this blog to include reasoning as to why Pocono, specifically, has been a troublesome track.