The crash and the carnage at the end of Sunday’s Grand Prix of Houston IndyCar race looked eerily familiar.
It happened after two cars came together on track and touched wheels when the leading driver slowed. The car behind launched into the air and careened into the catch fence, spinning wildly as it bounced off the barrier before the shattered wreck came to rest in the middle of the track.
Only this time, the driver, four-time series champion Dario Franchitti, was seen slowly moving his head seconds after the crash, a sign that he was conscious and might not be hurt too badly. In the end, the Target Chip Ganassi driver escaped Sunday’s final lap crash on the streets of Houston with fractured T6 and T8 vertebrae, a broken right ankle, and a concussion. Luckily for Franchitti, the front his car didn’t catch in the fence and it turned in a way that the bottom of his Ganassi racer took the brunt of the contact with the barrier.
Two other drivers were caught up in the incident, but unhurt: A.J. Foyt driver Takuma Sato, who was hit by Franchitti when he lost the back end of this car in the high speed Turn 5 and slowed as he tried to regain control, and Andretti Autosport’s E.J. Viso, who could not avoid Sato’s stricken car when he arrived on the accident scene. A total of 13 spectators were also injured by flying debris, with two requiring a trip to hospital.
Unfortunately, things turned out much differently when a similar scene played out in the 2011 IndyCar season finale almost two years ago. In that race, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 2005 IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon died from a head injury in a multi-car accident at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Wheldon also got air after touching wheels with another competitor and went into the fence.
Although the Houston accident means that one of the series’ biggest stars and nicest guys will be out for the finale in Fontana, Calif., in two weeks time, there’s little doubt that IndyCar dodged a bullet in Texas.
And the relief among drivers about Franchitti’s narrow escape was openly apparent, especially since memories of Wheldon’s crash were strong as they passed the scene of the Houston accident on the cool-down lap.
“You have the remnants of Vegas popping into your head, with you coming around the corner and you can’t drive through it because there’s a field of debris,” said Franchitti’s teammate Scott Dixon, who won the Saturday half of the Houston doubleheader before taking second place on Sunday.
“There was nowhere near the amount of damage that we saw a few years back, but seeing the replay, I think, was the big shock. To see Dario’s car, you know, it definitely brings home what we do each weekend and sort of the difficulties that we can have out there.”
It’s also a reminder that no matter how hard a series works to make a racing safer, circumstances will conspire so things can – and will – go wrong.
There’s no doubt that IndyCar should be commended for the moves it has made to increase the safety features of its car. The new Dallara DW12 chassis– named after Wheldon, who did much of the car’s testing – brought into service last year has a stronger survival cell and better protection for the drivers’ backs in the form of special foam padding – the same stuff used inside crash helmets – under the seats that help to dissipate the forces on the spine when the cars hit bottom. Protecting drivers’ spines is a difficult job, since a 70-kilogram person even falling off a barstool and landing square on their bottom would produce the 20Gs vertically needed to break vertebrae.
One of the DW12’s more interesting features is the bumpers behind the rear tires designed to help lessen the probability of the wheel-to-wheel contact that can send a car airborne.
While the IndyCar report into the Wheldon accident concluded that several factors coincided to produce a “perfect storm” and that there was no sole cause, there’s no doubt that he would be alive had his car not been flung into the fencing.
And that kind of accident should continue to be a huge concern for IndyCar because this is not the first time the new Dallara with the rear tire guards has gotten some serious air.
Early last year on the streets of Long Beach, Calif., Marco Andretti’s car took flight after contact with Graham Rahal’s ride. Although Andretti’s car did a 360-degree turn in the air, he was lucky his path kept him away from the fences while he was airborne. He hit a tire barrier, but his car was back on its wheels when contact was made.
At the time, IndyCar said that the angle of the two cars and their speed allowed the tires to make contact and while it was not able to prevent the crash, the rear guard did mitigate what could have been a more serious accident.
As it did in Long Beach, IndyCar also needs to conduct a full investigation of Sunday’s crash and release its findings publicly to see if anything could have been done to prevent the Franchitti incident. This includes looking at the position of the grandstands, which seemed to be awfully close to the catch fence.
Although finding the exact cause likely won’t help Franchitti feel any better as he nurses his season-ending injuries, Penske’s Will Power rightfully suggested that the accident should serve as another sobering reminder that there’s no room for complacency in any racing series.
“Man, we try to keep these cars on the ground,” said Power, who won Sunday’s race.
“I think they’ve done a great job with the floor, where now we can hit and don’t interlock wheels, and I think that’s prevented a lot of accidents in the last two seasons but obviously we need to have a good look at how he got up there.”
Correction: E.J. Viso drives for Andretti Autosport, not KV Racing. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.
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