Random Thoughts On Houston
As Sunday’s race from Reliant Park in Houston was winding down, I started formulating in my mind what I was going to write about. After all, I had seen the driver I am pulling for in the championship battle have a terrible weekend. Suddenly, my bad mood for Helio’s misfortunes seemed very trivial.
By now, I’m assuming that most have seen the horrifying crash that sent Dario Franchitti’s car into the catch fence and its occupant to the hospital. Fortunately, the news is about as good as could be expected. Franchitti suffered a concussion, a fractured ankle which required surgery last night and two broken vertebrae – serious injuries but after our first view of the crash, I feared much worse.
My mind immediately went to two different days that had tragic endings. Like everyone, I thought about that dark day in Las Vegas two years ago when two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon was fatally injured. After another view of the replay, I was reminded of the ending of the 1996 race in Toronto; when driver Jeff Krosnoff was lost in an incident that looked eerily similar to yesterday’s crash. Volunteer corner worker Gary Avrin also lost his life in the aftermath of that Toronto crash.
Yesterday, large chunks of Dario’s car, as well as part of the catch fencing, made it into the spectator area. The last report was that thirteen spectators were injured and treated. Two were taken to a local hospital, along with Kim Tyger, an INDYCAR Timing official. As of this writing, there is no additional information on their condition.
We joke about Scott Dixon’s comments after the Sonoma and Baltimore races. We get wrapped up in the championship battle and who will be driving where next season and with what engine. But the sight of Dario Franchitti’s car careening into the fence and getting hurled back onto the track was a sobering reminder of how violent and cruel this sport can be.
Dallara is to be congratulated on how safe a car they have built. It is ugly, but it races well – but most importantly, it seems to be a very strong and safe car. It did its job under very frightening circumstances.
No matter the strides in safety, this will always be a dangerous sport. It is not for the faint of heart. We are lulled into thinking that danger only lurks on the ovals. Yesterday reminded us that any corner of any track can present devastating consequences. Fortunately, we are all breathing a sigh of relief with the knowledge that Dario Franchitti will fully recover and will race again some day, if he so chooses.
We don’t yet know about the fans that were injured, however. I was present at the Charlotte IndyCar race in 1999, when three spectators were killed in the stands after a tire from Stan Wattle’s car was struck by John Paul, Jr. and sent flying into the stands. From my seats, I saw the crash but not the flying debris. Drivers live with the nagging possibility that something tragic can happen every time they crawl into a cockpit. Fans don’t really think about it. It enters my mind every time I attend a race – especially at Indianapolis, but it doesn’t scare me away. Chances are, the fans injured at the end of yesterday’s race never thought they would be injured in a race crash.
Unfortunately, these things happen. IndyCar and the race promoters will examine what went wrong and what, if anything, could have minimized injuries. Notice I said minimize. Spectator injuries will never be eliminated entirely, unless they run races on television and allow no one to attend in person. Today, there will be someone to call for an end to motor racing. They always do after an incident such as this. So long as IndyCar makes a sincere effort to improve spectator safety, this sport will endure.
TV coverage: There has been a lot of news since the last IndyCar race five weeks ago, but I thought the crew at NBC Sports Network did a decent job interspersing most of the highlights throughout the two days of coverage. However, I was looking for an explanation as to why they didn’t do double-file restarts for either of the two races. My Trackside Online subscription explained it to me, but not everyone subscribes to TSO (although they should). I also would have liked them to explain to viewers why they suddenly decided to go with a standing start on Sunday, when it was always the plan to have it on Saturday only.
The two pre-race shows were filled with relevant interviews and information. Robin Miller’s interview with AJ Foyt was enjoyable, but we were told it would be a two-parter spread over the two days. Did I miss something? I never recall seeing the second part on Sunday.
But all that aside, the in-race coverage provided by NBCSN was excellent.
Re-visit the standing starts: We’ve now witnessed standing starts at Toronto and Houston. I think we’ve seen more aborted starts than actual starts. It seems that either these cars with hand-clutches aren’t suited for them, or perhaps the drivers aren’t since they are so foreign to them.
When they were announced, the traditionalist in me was not in favor of them. However, I was willing to give them a try if they spiced up the show. From what I’ve seen so far, they slow down the show. On Saturday, Charlie Kimball could not get his clutch to disengage. Then the next time around, James Hinchcliffe couldn’t get going and his car was struck by Tristan Vautier and Ed Carpenter – ending the day for all three. Yesterday, Takuma Sato forgot where he was supposed to line up, while Dario Franchitti also stalled his car. The field went around for another try. It was eventually a fairly clean start, but Marco Andretti jumped it slightly, resulting in a penalty.
It gives the impression that the drivers cannot handle these starts. They’ve already announced that they will have a standing start for next May’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Do they really want a larger than normal television audience to witness their inability to pull off what Formula One seems to do with no problem?
My thinking is that that gave them a good try and the results have been comical. I’ve seen enough to consider it a failed experiment. Rolling starts are inherent to American racing. This is a US based series. Adapting standing starts gives fuel to those who claim the IndyCar Series is trying to be Formula One Light. There’s nothing wrong with the established identity of rolling starts for this series.
Wither Helio: You figured with the charmed season Helio had been having, bad luck would catch up to him eventually. Did it ever, this weekend? Helio entered the weekend with a forty-nine point lead. After two races with terminal gear-box issues, Helio is now twenty-five points behind Dixon. Saturday’s race was won by Dixon, while Dixon finished second to Will Power on Sunday.
I’ve criticized the cautious approach that Helio had taken in previous races, but this was not of his doing. I’m sure Helio is wondering how he can suffer two gear-box failures in two days.
Now, Helio has to rely on Dixon having a sub-par evening at Fontana while he finishes up front. Maybe being the hunter will spur Helio on to driving like himself instead of being on the defensive. Scott Dixon has been winning races while Helio has seemed content with lower top-ten finishes. Now that he has suffered mechanical failures, he probably wishes he had been more aggressive in some of those races. I like what Mike Hull of Target Chip Ganassi Racing said – “I think you need to win races in order to win championships”. Touché.
No chase needed here: For every year since 2004, the IndyCar championship will go down to the final race of the season. Simon Pagenaud and Marco Andretti have been mathematically eliminated, so it’s down to Scott Dixon, who now leads Helio Castroneves by twenty-five points. That sets up for a very exciting five-hundred mile race at Fontana in two weeks.
While Dixon certainly has momentum on his side, you would be foolish to write off Helio Castroneves in a five-hundred mile race on an oval. Whoever wins it, I just hope it goes down to the last lap and is not settled by one of the two crashing out early.
All in all: Except for the horrifying scene at the end of yesterday’s race, I thought that both races were entertaining. I wasn’t sure what to expect with all of the delays and last-minute grinding of the track. They had to change a lot on the fly with the delays and then the rain on Sunday morning, but it came off alright. Neither race produced the bottlenecks that so many street races bring. There was some good tight racing and not too many tempers flaring.
There is talk that the Houston race next year will be another double-header, but it will be run in June – possibly at night. That, I would like to see.