Pocono, race review and track safety

I remember watching the 2015 Pocono race on the edge of my seat. That race was so fun and exciting, seven wide on the front straight, a fox running across the track and lots of entertaining racing. After Justin was hit by debris and killed my thoughts changed. As stated a million times before Justin was our favorite driver and losing him will always hurt. For that reason I always have mixed feelings when the IndyCars return to Pocono. Then in 2018, Robert Wickens was involved in a horrible crash that a year later he is still fighting to overcome. I prayed for the race and every driver by name before the green flag flew. I love watching racing at Pocono but it scares me.

One lap in and my heart jumps because we have a huge accident and cars are leaving the ground. Thankfully the cars stayed relatively low and didn’t see the disastrous results of hitting the catch fence full on. Takuma Sato on the high side, for reasons unknown, turned into Alexander Rossi, who had Ryan Hunter-Reay beneath him. All three lost control and Sato landed upside down on RHR’s car and one of the cars was on fire. James Hinchcliffe and Felix Rosenqvist were also caught up in the accident. James had some scary moments but was fine. Rosenqvist caught some air and was dangerously close to the catch fence. Thankfully one wheel stayed down and he dragged along the wall without hitting the fence full on. The AMR safety team responded immediately but Felix was the last attended. He also was the only one who required further evaluation. We were told it was for non life threatening injuries but I am very curious to know what exactly happened to him.

The race was red flagged on lap four to fix the fence and clean the track. It was a solid 45 minutes later before we returned to green. During the red both Rossi and Hinch’s team decided to take the penalty and work on fixing their cars under the red. I think that was a wise move, especially for Rossi. A lot of work needed to be done and he would be several laps behind regardless, what was a few more. In hindsight it was the right call. Rossi did rejoin the race and had it not been called by rain he would have moved up a couple more positions than he did. Every point counts when you are trying to win the championship. Honestly, I don’t totally understand why Hinch went back out. He was 10th in the championship and so far out of the running that I didn’t really see the need to for him but that’s why I don’t get paid the big bucks to make decisions like that.

When we returned to green flag racing it was a bit processional for the next stint. Spencer Pigot made contact bringing out the yellow. The skies were darkening and rain looked like it might factor in after the halfway point. That would mean it could be an official race and be finished when the rain appeared. That made everyone a bit more competitive and we saw some fun racing. Power and Pagenaud battled for the lead. Santino Ferrucci made up several positions and is always exciting to watch. Tony Kanaan even had a great day finishing 8th when the race was called on lap 128 when lightning enter the vicinity. When the red flag flew it was Will Power in the lead. The race was eventually called and Power continued his streak of winning every season.

I think most are happy with Power winning. Josef remains the championship points leader and I think has a great chance of winning if he doesn’t dnf in the last three races. So the big question that remains is should IndyCars race at Pocono.

Pocono seems to have a lot of bad luck but that is exactly what it is- bad luck and coincidence. Justin Wilson’s accident in 2015 had nothing to do with the track, he was hit by debris. A couple years ago every race ran at Pocono that particular season was delayed by rain. Last year Robert Wickens has his horrible crash. Again this crash was very early in the race. Was there really such a need to be pushing that hard so early. I’m not saying it was Robbie’s fault, it was an accident, but perhaps showing some restraint early in a 500 mile race might help. Then this year-more bad luck. Rain caused practice to not take place so race control decided to cancel qualifying and run an extra long practice. This is fine except we saw some cars we don’t normally see running faster times up front. Most noticeably was Tony Kanaan. TK was fastest in practice but because the starting grid is based on entrant points TK started in the back of the field. This is not how fans want to see a race begin. The back luck continued when the lap one accident took place. Thankfully everyone was fine but again for fans this is not how we grow our sport, now we have a 45 minute red flag. Add insult to injury and the race ends because of rain. So many things I just described are not in the tracks control. They are just a series of unfortunate events.

Most fans realize the dangers of racing and see no reason to take Pocono off the schedule. Social media has made it so easy for us to interact with the drivers that we come to know them on a more personal level. We know about their families, pets, likes and dislikes, hobbies and the list goes on. That makes us so much more invested and so much less willing to put them in harms way but the truth is every time they strap in at any track they take a chance that it could be their last time. Robert Wickens tweeted yesterday about the need to stop racing at Pocono but do you blame him. He is living every day with the injuries he suffered after his crash. I can’t imagine he will ever feel good about racing there. James Hinchcliffe had a very different reaction returning to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The track wasn’t blamed. Indy has the highest fatality rate and yet no one discusses taking it off the schedule.

I believe racing can continue to grow safer and safer. We saw it yesterday as a piece of debris was blocked by the new deflector piece (can’t recall its exact name) on James Hinchcliffe’s car. What might have caused a serious injury was deflected from the cockpit and did not hit James. IndyCar continues to make great improvements in safety. I think they can still look at some things at Pocono. Perhaps a different aero configuration, maybe single file starts, less horsepower or more? I won’t pretend I k ow what would help make the racing safer but I’m confident IndyCar continues to keep their racing as safe as possible at every track.

Pocono has seem some crazy years, some sad years but that is what the drivers signed up for, what they live for. I respect Max Chilton, and Mike Conway for admitting that oval racing is not something they desire to do. Ask Ed Carpenter, Conor Daly, Tony Kanaan, I think they get a little skip in their step when they are given a chance to race on an oval. It’s their passion. Let’s keep moving to make IndyCar safer but let’s not blame Pocono. I hope it remains on the schedule. I will say a few extra prayers and hold my breath during side by side racing but I know what happened at Pocono could have anywhere.

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Pocono Preview

This weekend the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Pocono Speedway. Last years race was so exciting, cars were eight wide on the front straight, a fox ran on the track and rookies were leading laps. Then the unthinkable happened. Sage Karam crashed and the nose cone from his car hit Justin Wilson. We lost Justin the next day. I’m still grieving this loss. I understand that returning to Pocono is completely different than a return to Las Vegas Speedway, where we lost Dan Wheldon but for me, I’m not sure I’m ready to see them race there again.

 The Tricky Triangle has been on my list of tracks I wanted to visit and yet I was so very thankful I was not in attendance last year.  If you were to ask my family who our favorite drivers are we respond that I like Tony Kanaan, Matthew’s favorite was Justin Wilson and Zach likes James Hinchcliffe. I’ve been a big Tony Kanaan fan but honestly after meeting Justin multiple times and having such neat interactions with him he really was my favorite. If asked I wouldn’t name him because he was Matthew’s favorite and we all had our “own” driver, Justin belonged to Matthew but deep in my heart I knew Justin was my favorite too. I was sad when we lost Dan but was crushed when we lost Justin. To this day the screensaver on my phone is a selfie of Matthew and Justin. Matthew gave me his autographed Justin shirt the night Justin died. I set in on my dresser and it has remained there except for Road America weekend when Matthew wore it one last time. I have a beautiful print of Justin by Doug Garrison on the mantle. I miss him terribly. It is going to be a very emotional weekend. 

So while I am thankful for an end to the three week break in the IndyCar schedule and am eager to see how the championship is affected (if at all) I’m not sure I’m ready for Pocono. I do know I will be wearing my USWAG Justin Wilson socks, have a box of tissues nearby and will be keeping Stefan, Julia and the girls in my prayers. I will also be praying for a safe race for everyone involved. We’ve lost too many good guys and having just lost Bryan Clausen I’m sure it will be a hard weekend for many.