The videos shot on their cell phones show how little time the fans had to react to last Sunday’s scary crash at IndyCar’s Grand Prix of Houston and just how lucky everyone was sitting in those bleachers outside Turn 5. Lucky that catch fence did its primary job.
When Dario Franchitti’s car struck Takuma Sato’s at 140mph, it launched and slammed into the fence, did a violent pirouette for a few hundred feet while showering those spectators with debris before being spat back onto the track thankfully right-side up.
A large piece of the fence wound up on top of some spectators in the top row but, miraculously, an errant tire with suspension attached from Franchitti’s Dallara that was punted by E.J. Viso as he drove into the carnage bounced off the crossover bridge and landed over the fence in an open area with no people.
It’s terrible that a dozen fans were injured, sustaining cuts and bruises, and the three-time Indy 500 winner suffered broken vertebra, a fractured ankle and concussion.
Yet it could have been so much worse. If Franchitti’s car goes through that fence, we’re talking about a Le Mans 1955-type death count (88 people perished when a car catapulted into the crowd with a broken fuel tank and ignited) and repercussions we don’t want to think about.
But the fence that bordered the fast, blind, right-handed turn around the Reliant Park circuit allowed the 1,800-pound missile to dissipate its energy as it came apart before bouncing it back down to the track.
“To be able to retain a vehicle at that speed is bloody hard, I don’t care what kind of a fence you have,” said Tony Cotman, the former Indy car team manager and Champ Car chief steward who now makes his living designing and building racetracks while also assisting with the new Indy Lights program.
“The chassis did a fantastic job of protecting Dario. Did the fence do a good job? Without question. But while the car stayed within the confines of the racetrack, it’s not perfect.”
Despite holding up under impact, Houston’s flying section of fence is cause for concern and IndyCar has launched a full investigation of the accident and its aftermath.
IndyCar’s tracks have two kinds of fences the mesh and cable like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the panel-type like at Toronto and Houston. Both are FIA approved.
Obviously, neither is perfect because, short of some kind of plexiglas wall, it’s impossible to prevent shards of carbon fiber and pieces off the car from spraying the paying customers like it did those outside Turn 5.
“Before people jump to conclusions on either side, all the data from the crash needs to be reviewed and evaluated,” said Cotman, who also serves on the FIA’s circuit committee. “There’s always been continuous evaluation, testing and upgrades to fencing. Each track continues to do so.”
“But we’ve come a long way since Jeff Krosnoff’s accident.”
Krosnoff lost his life at Toronto in 1996 in a crash reminiscent of Dario’s. His car climbed another’s wheel and flipped into a light post bordering the fence. The car rotated and hit cockpit first just like in Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident at Las Vegas in 2011. In both cases, there were no spectators in the area (although a marshal, Gary Avrin, did perish in Krosnoff’s crash), and only Mike Conway’s jarring flip at Indianapolis in 2010 came in front of grandstands as it spewed parts (RIGHT).
The bottom line is that Indy car racing has been blessed that something like the Sato-Franchitti tangle has never happened on the front straightaway at IMS. A flipping car clearing the pit wall is unimaginable in terms of destruction.
The Speedway has always been proactive when it comes to safety, whether it’s extending the height of fences, moving seats back or paying for the invention of the SAFER barrier. And IndyCar has continued to improve the integrity of its cars with safety cells and intrusion panels while trying to reduce cars getting airborne with wheel guards.
Fans have been quick to point out that those wheelguards failed to prevent Dario’s ascension at Houston but sometimes the laws of physics take over. Sports cars not prototypes with large underbody surface area, but GT cars were flying last weekend at VIR (click here for video) and Mario Andretti damn near flipped out of the ballpark at Indy in 2003 after running one of his son’s IndyCars over a little piece of the SAFER barrier.
“There’s never going to be a 100 percent guarantee you can stop cars from leaving the ground,” said Cotman, who also led the ICONIC panel for IndyCar and helped map out the Dallara DW12. “Those wheel guards don’t work on every occasion but they’ve prevented some crashes and reduced cut tires, particularly on some of the oval incidents.
“You try and make the tracks and cars as safe as possible for the fans and drivers but the reality is that it’s still a dangerous sport.”
For a split second last Sunday, it was just that in Turn 5 for both Franchitti and a few rows of fans. Thankfully, everyone escaped relatively unscathed given the velocities involved, but the findings of the investigation will hopefully point out ways to make things safer for the fans as well as the competitors. While drivers go into this sport fully aware of its perils, the risk of spectator injuries cannot be easily accepted, whatever it warns on the back of their tickets regarding motorsport being dangerous.