OPINION: Why IndyCar should not return to Pocono Raceway

10 Mins read
Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

An early incident in yesterday’s 2019 NTT IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway has once again ushered in discussions regarding the future of IndyCar’s race at “the tricky triangle.” Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Felix Rosenqvist luckily escaped serious injury after a pile-up on the opening lap of the two-hundred lap race which bore a striking resemblance to the crash at the same corner that left Robert Wickens paralysed twelve months ago.

Pocono Raceway has seemingly gotten the unfortunate reputation of being the most dangerous stop on the NTT IndyCar Series calendar. This comes after a series of scary incidents that have taken place at the unique, three-turn superspeedway in Pennsylvania.

Pocono Raceway made its return to the IndyCar calendar in 2013 after being absent from the series since 1989. In the twenty-two years that IndyCar didn’t race at Pocono, the series has gone through many massive changes, chief among which, in the performance and design of the competing cars.

The sheer speed increase for IndyCar at Pocono can be shown just by looking at the average speed of the race winners at the speedway. The 1989 race winner, Danny Sullivan, took the win for Team Penske with an average speed of 170.72-mph across the 200-lap race distance. Prior to that, the average speed had never peaked above 160-mph in the eighteen races held previously.

By contrast, since Pocono Raceway returned in 2012, the fastest average speed for a race winner has jumped up to 202.402-mph, completed by Juan Pablo Montoya at the 2014 running of the race.

What’s more, due to the regulations changing to make IndyCar essentially a spec-series, compared to the previous era of IndyCar where teams had much greater freedom in the design of their cars, the entire field of cars now run a lot closer together than they did when IndyCar used to race at Pocono in days gone by. This means that the entire field can, quite often, by separated by seconds instead of laps.

This evolution in the way that the IndyCar Series races out on the track has, potentially, seen the series outgrow Pocono Raceway. With three serious incidents having taken place in the last five races held at the venue, is it time for IndyCar to say goodbye to Pocono Raceway once and for all?

To see if this is the case, we must first, regrettably, take a brief look back at the three major incidents that have brought Pocono Raceway’s IndyCar future under threat.

Credit: Brett Kelley / Courtesy of IndyCar

The first unfortunate incident took place in the 2015 running of the ABC Supply 500. With twenty-laps remaining in the race, Sage Karam lost control of his car and hit the outside wall at turn one. Debris from the accident was sent flying into the air, with one large piece of debris from Karam’s nosecone, unfortunately, coming back down and striking the head of Justin Wilson.

The impact suffered by Wilson from the debris gave the British driver severe head injuries and knocked him unconscious immediately. His car eventually came to rest after making contact with the inside wall, with Wilson being extricated and then airlifted to hospital soon after. Justin would ultimately succumb to his injuries the following day and would sadly become the first driver to lose their life in an IndyCar race since Dan Wheldon died at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011.

The next major incident at Pocono Raceway would take place in last year’s running of the event. On lap six of the race, Robert Wickens was running side-by-side with Ryan Hunter-Reay when the pair made contract on the approach to the fastest corner, turn two. The contact would see Robert’s car sent flying through the air and into the catchfence on the outside of the corner. Robert’s car would be pitched into a series of violent spins through the air and back across the race-track, with the car eventually coming to rest on the exit of the corner. A number of other cars would also be collected in the ensuing pile-up, including Robert’s team-mate James Hinchcliffe as well as Pietro Fittipaldi and Takuma Sato.

Robert would be extracted from his #6 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Honda and would be transferred to hospital. Shortly afterwards, it would be announced that Robert had suffered a multitude of injuries, including what would later be revealed as paralysis from his waist down. Robert is still recovering from his injuries sustained in the accident to this day, but hopes to make a return to racing in the future. The Canadian has, rightly, earned the respect of fans across the world for his incredible determination and openness during his long and hard rehabilitation.

The third and final serious incident that has taken place at Pocono Raceway in recent years occurred yesterday. With the speedway already having garnered a negative reputation from many after the events of 2018, a wreck on the opening lap of Sunday’s race left many frustrated that the series had returned to race at Pocono once again.

Sunday’s incident saw Takuma Sato make contact with both Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, once again on the run down into the infamous second corner. All three would be sent out of control into the second corner, with Sato clipping Ganassi’s Felix Rosenqvist and sending the Swedish driver up into the catch fence in a similar manner to that seen by Wickens twelve months previously.

Thankfully, Rosenqvist’s wild ride was a lot less violent than that seen by Wickens. Only the very front of his #10 Honda would make contact with the fencing and speed of Felix’s car was dissipated across a longer period of time. Rosenqvist was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluations, but was thankfully cleared and released a few hours later.

Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

In the wake of Sunday’s race, many have been using these three incidents as justification for Pocono’s potential axing from the IndyCar calendar. On the other hand, others have been stating that these incidents could have taken place at a number of the race tracks on the calendar, noting the other superspeedway on the calendar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as a similarly dangerous location. In the case of Wilson’s incident, this is true, as the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the British driver’s death in 2015 could take place at any track.

For example, James Hinchcliffe suffered a similar blow to the head from debris at the Indianapolis Grand Prix circuit in 2014. Other prominent head injuries caused from debris in motorsports have included the likes of Felipe Massa‘s qualifying incident in 2009 at the Hungarian Grand Prix when he was struck on the head by a suspension spring that had fallen off of the back of Rubens Barrichello‘s car. Another notable incident took place just a matter of weeks prior to Massa’s accident, when Henry Surtees was killed after being hit on the head by a tyre at Brands Hatch in a Formula 2 race.

These incidents have led to widespread action across the globe in single-seater racing championships. The introduction of the controversial HALO device in Formula 1 and the incoming Red Bull designed canopy in IndyCar were the direct result of research to prevent head injuries in racing following these accidents.

Due to the freak nature of debris striking drivers in open cockpit racing, it would be unfair to use Wilson’s death as an example as why Pocono Raceway should be struck off of the NTT IndyCar Series calendar. The remaining two recent incidents, on the other hand, are very clear examples of why IndyCar racing is no longer suited to the speedway.

Both the 2018 and 2019 accidents at Pocono Raceway were, in some way, caused by the changes to the way that IndyCar’s race on an oval. With much greater top speeds and, more importantly, much higher cornering speeds, superspeedway racing is inherently more dangerous.

This increase of speed and, therefore, danger could, theoretically, be applied to the Indianapolis 500 as well. However, the track designs at each speedway are fundamentally different and provide a different style of racing that makes all the difference. The differences between Pocono and Indianapolis were discussed by Sage Karam on Twitter:

“You can’t run two/three-wide at Indy [as the] outside guy will end up in wall nine times out of ten at Indy unless it’s on a restart,” Karam tweeted in a discussion with fans, “Here [at Pocono] you can run two wide successfully which increases the chance for disaster. Same length in tracks but the racing styles are more different than I can even explain.”

Karam also went on to mention how the close nature of IndyCar racing in this generation compounds the problem at Pocono, saying: “Indycar In this era is closer than any other era. Anybody in the field can win now. Which makes for extremely tight racing. Back in the day it was so much more spread out [at Pocono], that’s the difference.”

Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

Max Chilton, who announced earlier this year that he would no longer be competing in the IndyCar oval races due to his concerns regarding safety, also weighed in on the differences between Pocono and Indianapolis on Twitter last night. He echoed what Karam had said about how the difference in corners impacts the style of racing, but also added that the lack of practice at Pocono compared to Indianapolis could also play a factor:

“Indy has four corners and Pocono has three corners,” Max tweeted, “So Pocono has longer straights and tighter corners. Also Indy has a weeks practice and Pocono is just two practice sessions.”

All of these factors make Pocono Raceway a much different prospect to that of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Furthermore, Pocono Raceway has also been the subject of allegations made by drivers, pundits and fans that the speedway’s safety standards are simply not good enough. Concerns were raised yesterday after repairs made to the catch fence at turn two seemed to be somewhat of a botched job. Many were concerned during Sunday’s race when it appeared that the fence was being repaired by having what appeared to be a fence gate cable-tied over the damage left by Rosenqvist’s car.

Similar criticisms of the fence repairs at Pocono were made following the 2018 accident for Wickens, with Sebastien Bourdais having threatened to not continue the race due to the “pretty lousy” repair-job done by track workers.

I’m old but I’m not wiser,” Bourdais said last year in an interview with NBC Sports, “Everybody’s in the seat and you gotta go. I wasn’t happy with it [the repairs] at all. The constructions guys said thumbs-up; I’m glad nobody tried it because I’m not sure that would have been satisfactory. It’s just tough moments.

“When we saw the extent of the damage I had a pretty good idea that it wasn’t gonna get fixed properly, and it wasn’t. The cables were loose, and it was just like… it was pretty lousy. So I wasn’t happy with it at all.”

Criticisms of Pocono Raceway’s safety standards are not just confined to recent times, either. In fact, the reason that Pocono Raceway was dropped from the IndyCar calendar after the 1989 season was due to the safety standards at the track.

The speedway was known for having a rough racing surface that would often be littered with debris that could cause a large number of punctures. Furthermore, at the time, the circuit lacked appropriate run-off areas, catch fencing and other safety measures. The shortfalls were not just on the actual race track, however, but also in the medical facilities and the staffing. The track doctor during the 1980s, for example, was actually a dentist.

Of course, compared to the 1980s and beforehand, the facilities at Pocono Raceway have come on leaps and bounds and the circuit is no where near as poor in terms of standards as it used to be. But an argument can be made that the speedway does not keep up with modern safety standards as other locations do in the United States. Indianapolis, for example, is updated and refurbished every few years to make sure that the facility is as safe as possible. Pocono, on the other hand, has not had a major safety update since 2011.

Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

The final nail in the coffin for Pocono Raceway could come in the form of the circuit’s expiring contract with the NTT IndyCar Series. This could provide a convenient way for the speedway to be removed from the calendar without straining any relationships between the speedway and IndyCar that could come by blaming the circuit’s standards for the championship’s departure.

A counter argument could be made in favour of Pocono Raceway, however. Some have suggested that the blame for the danger at Pocono can be put on the drivers as much as the circuit itself. Takuma Sato, for example, has had a lot of criticism sent his way for his actions in the early wreck last Sunday. Some have suggested that if driving standards improved, races could continue at Pocono Raceway without any issues.

However, due to the unpredictable nature of motorsport, especially oval racing, the circuits have to be as well-suited to the championship that is out on the race track to minimise risk as much as possible. Motorsport will always be inherently dangerous, but where changes can be made to increase safety, they must be made. If that includes removing a location from a series calendar, that change must be made.

It is certainly a tricky situation for “the tricky triangle” of Pocono Raceway and the issue is not as cut and dry as either side of the argument may make it out to be. Whilst it certainly is true that these kinds of accidents can take place anywhere, the factors listed above seem to make these accidents much more frequent at Pocono Raceway in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Perhaps the most informed insight regarding the dangers of racing IndyCar at Pocono came from Robert Wickens. The Canadian, obviously frustrated following a near-identical accident to the one he experienced in 2018, tweeted yesterday that IndyCar and Pocono had “a toxic relationship” and that it was time for “a divorce.”

“How many times do we have to go through the same situation before we can all accept that an IndyCar should not race at Pocono,” Wickens tweeted yesterday, “It’s just a toxic relationship and maybe it’s time to consider a divorce. I’m very relieved (to my knowledge) that everyone is okay from that scary crash.”

There are a number of options for what location could take Pocono’s spot on the calendar should the speedway leave the schedule. The most likely replacement seems to be the short-oval of Richmond Raceway in Virginia. Without Pocono, IndyCar would be somewhat lacking in representation on the East coast of the United States, particularly in the areas surrounding the major cities of Washington DC and New York City. For IndyCar to continue its growth in popularity, it would be vital for the series to keep racing in this area.

Other opportunities in the north-east of the United States could come in the shape of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, another oval that has previously played host to IndyCar. Moving away from ovals, the series could also look into returning to the popular Watkins Glen road course in New York State.

Either way, there are a number of venues across the United States and even some international circuits that would gladly welcome an IndyCar race date. Pocono’s woes could very easily see the speedway vacate the calendar in favour of one of these new opportunities. What’s more, with all the factors listed above, it might well be the right decision for IndyCar to say goodbye to “the tricky triangle” once and for all.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park on Saturday, August 24.

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