Random Thoughts On Houston

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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.

George Phillips

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29 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Houston”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I realize there was a serious crunch for time on this track set up, but regardless, series officials/race control really need to spend more time on the condition of the racing surface. I think that the early retirement of Both Helio and Ryan Hunter Reay (perhaps others) can be directly attributed to the harsh condition of this track. No one expects a hockey rink surface, but these are not rally cars or off-road vehicles. Standing starts with these cars is a nightmare, IC please stop the madness. Some great racing when not under yellow, as always, great jobs from the teams and drivers, it is a shame that the series itself frequently appears as though it could not find its own ass with both hands. Thoughts are certainly with Dario and all fans and any series persons hurt in yesterday’s crash..

  2. My thoughts echo what BW has already said here. One would think that the rough condition of the track would have been addressed in the months leading up to the race. Seeing Dario’s car disintegrate in the catch fence was terrifying. Sato escaped without serious injury after being T-boned. That could easily have been worse. Standing starts have to go. These cars are not designed to be used in standing starts.

    It certainly was fun to see a very happy Simona standing on the podium. For as physically demanding as this race was she looked like she had just taken a stroll in the park. A good weekend for Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne also.

  3. I just watched a spectator’s video at Norm McDonalds site (Toronto Star) taken at the time of the accident that shows the size of the fence that went into the stands. It is very large! It is indeed a miracle that no one was killed by that. Hopefully none of the fans taken to the hospital were seriously injured.

  4. Steve Jarzombek Says:

    Too many apologists for the series now take Indycar’s claim that fan safety is their primary concern to mean that the series mandates the state-of-the-art in fencing for temporary circuits…and it’s simply not so. The fence did the most important part of its job in preventing the entire car from flying into the stands, but when posts sever at the base and go flying with lethal force, that’s simply unacceptable. It’s proof that the design isn’t sufficient for the speed of the cars in that section of track.

    • I wonder if this accident will put a damper on the trend towards street races. Temporary fencing, close spectators, insurance and lawsuits?

      • My thoughts exactly. I’m a fan of twisty racing, but with so many good road courses out there, why mess around with these temporary circuits. It seems like 50% of the time the condition of the street circuit is the storyline, not the racing.

        • Steve Jarzombek Says:

          We are all in agreement here. If a similar incident happens with that style of fence at another temp circuit, what will any party injured by flying debris…car parts or, God forbid, another entire section of fencing…be showing a jury? Every video of how that fence snapped off on impact and flew not only into the stands but all the way to the top row, right? Seems to me that the liability insurer is going to be demanding changes even if some study conducted by (or by an external group and paid by) Indycar produces another “freak accident” or “perfect storm” conclusion.

  5. It might be good to spend more than four days setting up a racetrack.

    I’m biased, but they really need to get Austin’s COTA on the schedule–have you seen that place?

    Hope Dario and all in Houston are okay.

  6. I don’t want to hear anymore that ovals are somehow more dangerous than road/street courses and need to be reduced/eliminated.

    The standing starts were comical if I felt like laughing.

    Street events, except in very rare instances such as Long Beach, have to go.

  7. George, why would you say this: “I just hope it goes down to the last lap and is not settled by one of the two crashing out early.”? Crashing out early? Huh? Why wouldn’t you think about it and say “I just hope it goes down to the last lap and is not settled by one of the two having problems early.”? I see where you’ve been following this sport for decades (my first Indy experience was in 1967) but going right to people crashing out (especially the two front-runners who do have a day or two of oval track experience between them) is sorta strange. I just discovered your blog and this is only the third time I have visited so I was surprised at that sentence and its implications. Sorry to be critical in my first comment to you, but it’s something to think about I think….

  8. billytheskink Says:

    From what I have heard here in Houston, all of the fans injured will be alright. 10 were treated on site and 3 taken to the hospital and announced to be in “good” condition (for comparison’s sake, Dario, with his known injuries was considered to be in “fair” condition). We got close to the best possible outcome of a very frightening incident. Regardless of the type of car, a faster one running into a slower one is the easiest recipe for flight. I am sure there will be plenty of changes to both the fencing and seating for next year’s race.

    The decision to use a standing start on both days was not sudden. I was told of it close to two months ago by some of the folks working for the event. Why Indycar never officially announced it, I do not know, but that’s par for the course… Problems and Formula 1 confusion aside, I simply do not find standing starts to be nearly as interesting as rolling ones and would be fine seeing them discontinued.

    The racing itself was not bad at all, there was much more passing than I expected. Attendance (especially on Sunday) was better than my friends working with the race expected, and sponsorship and corporate support appeared to be considerable. I wanted a tight championship going into Fontana, but I’m not sure I wanted a 70 point swing.

    I have heard conflicting reports on whether or not next year’s event will be a double-header, but the June date is all but confirmed. A night race is very possible, but Lanigan is said to be less than happy about the half-million dollar (or more) cost to light the track. Considering that he would be spending that money just to get the same crowd he got this year, I don’t blame him. Mark Miles was apparently too busy to go outside and sweat on Friday and Saturday…

  9. George, I’m with you. The standing starts make IndyCar look ridiculous. I didn’t mind seeing them try the standing starts, but we now have enough evidence to scrap them forever.

    Unlike many, I am a fan of street courses. They introduce elements not found in natural racing circuits, such as bumps, narrow tracks, etc, and it’s neat to see how the drivers act and react.

    I do think that Houston should be moved to earlier in the year. I go to St Pete each year, which is in March, and sometimes it is damn hot. I can’t imagine going in the summer. If it’s over 85 degrees, it’s way to hot for both participants and spectators.

    Kudos to ESPN for replacing Marty Reid. Let’s just hope they find a suitable replacement.

    • There is not a start (or restart) in Indycar that doesn’t make it look ridiculous. They should just pick one style and stick to it for all twisties.

  10. I’ve been to any number of tracks that use that type of fencing. The posts come with welded steel loops on them through which heavy steel cable is run to prevent a) cars and large parts getting through and b) the fence getting sent flying.
    I’ve looked and looked at the replays from every angle I can find and I just don’t see any sign of the steel cables that should have been there. Help me out here. Does anyone see them?

    BTW, Dixon was the only driver to voice any concern for the fans. Good on ya Scott. Go win that championship.

  11. Only bad thing about the Franchitti crash was that he wasnt killed, was hoping to hear the good news he was dead.

    • I don’t censor or delete comments, but this is out of line. Whether you really think this or this is some skewed attempt at humor – this comment is over the top and inappropriate. It makes me wonder why you would even come to a site like this. – GP

    • Good Lord Frank!……..If this is really the way you think or if this is your sick idea of a joke, crawl back under your rock.

    • I know you should never engage the crazies, but…after stewing all afternoon over this comment, I’ve decided that this guy needs to be outed. It probably breaks some “Blogger Code of Conduct”, but I don’t care. “Frank’s” IP address shows this was submitted on a computer at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto. If any of our Canadian friends know of a race fan there, he (or she) is no fan. – GP

  12. Donald McElvain, Polson, Montana Says:

    I want standing starts for only one reason and that’s because IndyCar can’t do rolling starts! They will not and can not line up for a green flag rolling start because of the course layout. When you have a tight turn too close to the starting line . . . it isn’t going to happen! Standing starts and rolling starts are BOTH crumby for “the world’s fastest race cars” (or whatever the tagline is today). I don’t know what the answer is but it looks awful either way on TV.

    Fencing. The fence was scary with no cables and the mesh looked like spot welded rods that could easily break.

  13. If Hinch’s incident was in F1, there would have been 14 yellow flags being waved (2 on each side) when he crapped out. This sort of situation can be solved with overhead yellow lights, a massive yellow light on the dashboard or marshals waving flags. Standing starts are cool, the problems can be solved but WTF is with Indycars that mechanically they can’t do it?

  14. @Frank-Wow. I hope you can find a way to fix whatever is wrong with your head and the hatred in it for making a comment like that. To wish that on a racer involved with a series you must follow or any racing series, is ignorant and completely out of line. On another note-I don’t generally watch NBC Nightly News, but the GF had it on and I was appalled at the story this did about this race. Focusing of course on the crash of an Indianapolis 500 Mile Race Champion is expected. What I didn’t care for was the way it was made out. I may have missed it but not one mention of the winners or the points battle and the story talked more about Dario’s divorce and Dan Wheldon’s death. Is this the kind of activation IndyCar is looking for in a partner like NBC? If so, I’ll take ABC and ESPN any day. And unlike Frank above-I hope all parties come out ok.

    • There was another bit that CNN did in much of the same fashion. Look it up on You Tube if you want watch something that will put you in a bad mood.

    • BTW what Frank said: there is a special place waiting for you. To make a comment like that is so far beyond out of line that it does not even warrant a response but here goes anyway-There is this thing called karma and it will find you Frank and hopefully you won’t be as lucky as Dario Franchitti was yesterday. You can hide behind your little computer at your med -school in Toronto but everyone here witnessed it and if you think that comment was funny, or you said that to get attention you got it but what you don’t understand is it’s now following you. Bad idea Frank.

  15. I have been in the stands when debris..etc.. come into the stands..ie Michigan when the tire came over the fencing, watched it the whole time, and thankfully watched it as it hit a 3rd time and waggled off line from me and my family. Seemed like slow motion, and there was no place to go. The stands were packed. The tire ended up on our row, some 15 – 20 feet to the left of us. These people had no warning at all. Hope all is well. I saw a picture on the evening local news with TK and Dixon visiting a fan in the hospital today. We all get lulled to a false security by the safety, until things happen like yesterday.

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