PRUETT: Pocono talking points

Image by Phillip Abbott/LAT

PRUETT: Pocono talking points

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Pocono talking points

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Alexander Rossi’s win at the ABC Supply 500 was another example of the American’s championship-grade talent. Unfortunately, the extent to which he authored a complete mastery of the Pocono oval hasn’t been the main talking point in the days since.

It’s the circumstances leading up to the crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato, and Dale Coyne Racing’s Pietro Fittipaldi, and the comments, actions, and inaction that followed the violent impacts was where the topics built.

Power leads at the start as chaos ensues farther back. (Image by Michael Levitt/LAT)

STARTING SPEED

For the second race in a row, the polesitter’s starting speed was called into question. Some drivers were quick to blame Team Penske’s Will Power for running too slow, and later retracted those claims. The issues, as multiple replays showed, involved drivers in the middle of the pack charging early, which caused an accordion effect that led to Graham Rahal hitting and spinning Spencer Pigot before the field could take the green.

Rossi, who led the field to green at Mid-Ohio, was judged to have behaved correctly by IndyCar, and Power was also cleared of any wrongdoing by Kyle Novak, the series’ race director. Although it’s a minor topic to consider in the aftermath of the crash, I’m confident Novak will make his start procedure expectations crystal clear heading into Sunday’s oval race at Gateway.

WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?

Will Power and Josef Newgarden blitzed the field in qualifying with their Team Penske Chevys. It looked as if the top-end power advantage enjoyed by the Bowtie runners would dispatch the front row to an easy win… until Honda’s Rossi, Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais and Zach Veach got involved.

I fully expected Chevy to run away at Pocono, which made a box score showing Hondas finishing 1-3-4-6 a genuine surprise. The win also has Honda on the cusp of its first IndyCar manufacturer’s title since the 2.2-liter turbo V6 formula started in 2012. In a season where making predictions is a surefire way to be proven wrong, Honda’s rise to go up 9-5 in the win column was never a thought that crossed my mind.

Hinchcliffe and Sato caught up in the Wickens crash. (Image courtesy of NBC Sports)

REASONABLE RESPONSE TIME?

Working through the rather innocuous subject below was more complex than expected.

If we start the clock on when Robert Wickens was initially met by the AMR Safety Team, it took approximately 57 minutes for IndyCar to provide the first piece of information regarding his status.

From the footage shown in the moments after the crashed cars came to a stop, Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, and Fittipaldi were seen sitting, standing, or moving around freely. Viewers could readily discern that three of the five drivers, while possibly suffering from injuries, were not in life-threatening conditions.

Sato and Wickens were the exceptions. Approximately 18 minutes after the crash, Sato spoke to NBCSN, leaving Wickens as the only question mark. Somewhere in the 39 minutes that followed Sato, where TV, radio, and the teams were left in the dark on Wickens, a backlash began to build.

If I’ve pieced together anything that serves as an answer as to why 57 minutes were needed, it draws back to the severity of the accident, plus the procedures IndyCar has established for disseminating information on drivers involved in an accident.

It’s believed extricating Wickens from his battered car required at least 15 minutes. With the need to go through the standard practices of immobilization, loading him onto a stretcher, and placement in an ambulance, 20 total minutes – if not longer – would have elapsed.

There’s a bit of an assumption here, but as the last driver to arrive in the infield medical center, the formal evaluations by IndyCar medical director Dr. Geoffrey Billows with other drivers would have taken precedent. Unless, of course, Wickens was in a state of emergency that required all personnel to act. This could explain the reasoning at the 57-minute mark behind the first comment from IndyCar communications VP Curt Cavin, who opened with “part of the issue is there are five drivers in the medical center in the aftermath of the crash” before offering the news people were waiting for: Wickens was alive.

Although most of the first four drivers had emerged from the medical center beforehand, spoken to the media, and departed, Cavin would appear to be referring to the process of Dr. Billows taking each driver as they arrived, conducting an exam, and generating documented update on their status that could be used by the series’ communications team.

Cars line up in the pit lane during the red flag period. (Image by LAT)

With the time consumed by the trackside emergency response efforts, and any remaining work to complete with the first four drivers, it’s believed Dr. Billows’ first official examination of Wickens was finished somewhere around 40 to 45 minutes after the first responders got to his car. Said the other way, once the doctor was done, another 12-17 minutes went by until IndyCar made the first Wickens announcement.

Factor in the other procedural standards of alerting IndyCar management, Wickens’ family, and the team as to his condition, along with the process of writing and getting group approval on the words to deliver in an update, and the sum total of 57 minutes to remove the fog of worry comes into view.

As I understand it, IndyCar accurately followed its internal processes. Most would likely agree that improvising on the spot isn’t acceptable in race control, nor would it be with internal policies on crisis management. Simply put, according to the current practices that are written, until Dr. Billows completes his work and a statement is crafted, no information is allowed to flow outward.

It’s worth drawing a quick distinction between the series reporting official news on the full extent of driver injuries, which would be the second stage of the process, and a first, more basic status update on the mortality of its drivers. I believe it’s in the absence of latter where the roots of frustration were planted.

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