Auto racing – all auto racing – dodged another bullet Sunday when a car very nearly went into the crowd during the IndyCar Series race at Houston, Tex.
Although one driver was badly hurt, more than a dozen spectators were also injured when hit by debris that flew into a grandstand, included a large portion of catch fencing.
As absolutely soon as possible, an investigation into what happened involving not only IndyCar officials and the Houston promoters but also people who promote racing at temporary tracks elsewhere must be conducted to find out what went wrong and what can be done to avoid it happening anywhere again.
And consultation with NASCAR, as well as the University of Nebraska researchers who developed the SAFER barrier might not hurt either.
Yes, the catch-fencing did its work Sunday but this sort of thing is happening all too frequently and efforts to put a stop to it have to be stepped up.
While Will Power was in the process of winning the Houston race Sunday, with Scott Dixon second and Canadian James Hinchcliffe third, three drivers were involved in a vicious last-lap crash and one of them, four-time series champion Dario Franchitti, was pretty badly hurt.
Although team owner Chip Ganassi announced on live television that Franchitti was okay and just a little sore, the hospital report later said he’d suffered a broken ankle, broken back (that would not require surgery – and how lucky is that?) and a concussion.
Thirteen spectators were struck by debris, according to wire service reports, and two were taken to hospital for treatment.
This was the second accident this year in which spectators were hurt. At the Daytona Speedway in February, a last-lap pileup in a Nationwide Series race resulted in parts of Kyle Larson’s car flying into the grandstands. Twenty-eight people were hurt that time, although Larson wasn’t injured.
At Houston Sunday (click here for video), Takuma Sato started to lose the rear end of his car and slowed slightly in an attempt to regain control. Franchitti was full-speed behind him and rode up and over Sato’s car and into the catch-fencing before crashing to the ground. E.J. Viso managed to miss Franchitti’s stricken car but couldn’t avoid hitting Sato, although he wasn’t hurt and neither was Sato.
As the crash was happening on-track, a large piece from the top of the catch fencing was propelled toward a nearby grandstand and landed near the very top rows. (Click here for video.) That somebody wasn’t badly hurt, or worse, is nothing short of a miracle.
Franchitti, who’s won the Indianapolis 500 three times, appeared to be moving in the cockpit immediately after the crash. The safety crew that travels with the series was quickly on the scene and immediately went to the aid of the driver. Spectators in the grandstand were seen motioning to the safety workers to either help, or summon help for the injured people.
Actress Ashley Judd, who separated from Franchitti earlier this year, Tweeted that she "only had the clothes on her back" and the couple’s dogs but that they were on their way.
It was around this time that Ganassi, who had ridden a scooter to the accident scene to check up on his driver, told a television interviewer: "He’s talking. His ankle is a little sore, His back is a little sore. He’s gonna take a trip to the hospital, but he’s okay."
Ganassi, himself, knows what that’s like. He touched wheels with Al Unser Jr. at the 1984 CART Michigan 500 and crashed spectacularly. (Click here for that video.)
The Houston accident on Sunday was scarily reminiscent of one in 2001 when now-IndyCar Series team co-owner Davey Hamilton (in partnership with Sam Schmidt to field Simon Pagenaud’s entry) flew into a wall at Texas Motor Speedway and smashed his feet and lower legs literally to smithereens. (Click here for video.)
Only the intervention of a close friend prevented doctors from amputating and Hamilton underwent more than 20 operations to restore his ability to walk.
And, as has been pointed out by others, this accident is just two weeks shy of the two-year anniversary of one at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in which Dan Wheldon was killed when his car flew into catch-fencing.
Now, I don’t want to sound callous, and I continue to feel very sorry for Wheldon and his family, but motor racing – as Justin Wilson pointed out during an interview Sunday following the Franchitti crash – is a dangerous sport.
But while it is dangerous for the participants, it should not be dangerous for the spectators.
Hockey was forced to install protective netting behind the goals after a young girl was killed by a puck several years ago. When a convert or field goal is going to happen in pro football, they put up nets to protect people in the stands who might not be paying attention when the ball is kicked. And Major League Baseball has had some protection against foul balls for years.
And although auto racing goes into defence mode after accidents in which spectators are killed (three at Charlotte and three at Michigan died when they were hit by flying tires), there just doesn’t seem to be the sense of urgency I suggest is required to find a solution to what seems to be an escalating problem.
If auto racing sanctioning bodies, speedways and other racing organizations aren't working full-speed ahead to improve safety features to better protect the paying public, they do so at their peril.
NOTEBOOK JOTTINGS: With a driver and spectators injured, it puts a damper on all the other racings news of the weekend. But it all happened anyway, so here goes:
- Sebastian Vettel won his fourth straight and seventh Grand Prix of the 2013 season for Infiniti Red Bull on Sunday by finishing first in the Korean Grand Prix. Kimi Raikkonen was second and Romain Grosjean third, both in Lotus-Renaults. Fourth through tenth: Nico Hulkenberg (Sauber-Ferrari), Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Jenson Button (McLaren-Mercedes), Felipe Massa (Ferrari) and Sergio Perez (McLaren). There were two safety car periods and one featured a fire truck to put out a fire that destroyed Mark Webber’s Red Bull. For details, click here. The Japanese GP is next weekend.
- Sponsor GoDaddy’s decision to paint their NASCAR and IndyCar cars pink in support of breast cancer awareness pretty much backfired on them. Saturday, at Houston, James Hinchcliffe stalled the GoDaddy car on the standing start grid and didn’t run a lap. Sunday, at Kansas, Danica Patrick lost control of her Sprint Cup car and was out of that race without completing a lap. Hinchcliffe made it onto the podium in the second Houston race Sunday but by then it was really too late.
- Kevin Harvick won that Kansas Sprint Cup race to move into third place in the Chase for the Championship – Matt Kenseth still leads with Jimmie Johson second – but the race itself was a mess. Fifteen caution flags flew and Patrick wasn’t the only driver to have problems. Many drivers complained about the tires that Goodyear brought to the race, saying there was next to no grip. Click here for all the details.
- There were two IndyCar Series races in Houston at the weekend. Saturday, Scott Dixon won with Simona De Silvestro second – her first podium in her Indy car racing career – and Justin Wilson was third. Helio Castroneves went into the Houston races with a healthy lead in the points standings but mechanical problems forced him out of the race Saturday and again Sunday and Dixon now leads going into the final race of the season in California in two weeks.
Saturday, there was an incident eerily reminiscent of the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix accident that killed young Italian Riccardo Paletti. Paletti, who started at the back, drove right into the rear of Didier Pironi’s Ferrari, which had stalled at the front of the grid. Saturday, Hinchcliffe stalled and was a sitting duck as one driver after another swerved to miss him. All got past except Ed Carpenter, who managed to almost miss Hinchcliffe’s car but the clip collision knocked them both out of the race. People can talk all they want about how much safer standing starts are as compared to rolling starts but nothing is more dangerous than a stationary race car when all others are going full tilt.
Speaking of Hinchcliffe, there has been no announcement of any deal for 2014. And one of the rides he was rumoured to be getting, at Chip Ganassi Racing, went on Friday to Tony Kanaan. More rumours have Hinchcliffe now going to KV Racing, which Kanaan is leaving to go with Ganassi. I'm confused, though. Kanaan, who has a very good sponsor (a very good sponsor, who happens to be from Toronto), says he decided to leave KV because a sponsor or sponsors had pulled out. And yet Hinchcliffe said he'd received an offer, presumably from KV, and it was so good that he doesn't have to bring money. Time will tell, of course, and all of this will be straightened out eventually, but it's a puzzle maze at the moment.
- Antoine L’Estage and co-driver Craig Parry won the Pacific Forest Rally this weekend in Merritt, B.C. It was L’Estage’s sixth win in 10 years of contesting the event, and his third consecutive victory this year.
- B.C. driver Scott Hargrove won the U.S. F2000 championship at the weekend. More about him in Toronto Star Wheels and on wheels.ca in the weeks to come.
- NORRIS McDONALD