First and foremost, the news that Robert Wickens was "awake and alert" before being airlifted to Lehigh Valley Hospital - Cedar Crest for further evaluations was like a reassuring wave of relief that washed over all those who witnessed the destructive accident that occurred this past Sunday at Pocono Raceway. For those who could bear to watch the replay more than once, whether near or far from the event, the amazement that he was still alive must have been paradoxically reassuring.
Unfortunately, the dangers of racing were all too apparent when Wickens and Ryan Hunter-Reay touched at 200+mph and triggered a frightening crash that also collected Wickens' teammate James Hinchcliffe, Takuma Sato, and Pietro Fittipaldi. It could have engulfed even more drivers, as debris and car parts were spread throughout the impact area.
When surreal incidents like this happen, we are universally thankful for the painstakingly precise construction of the cars that these brave drivers strap themselves into. We are also thankful for the equally brave men and women who work on the safety response team, as flag marshals, and track engineers. It is the team effort that determines how quickly a race can be stopped, drivers can be safely extricated from their vehicles, and track conditions can be restored.
When the initial shock wears off, the topic inevitably turns to how we can improve safety in order to prevent such a thing from happening again.
A redesign of the catch fencing, higher safety barriers, and increased cockpit protection have all rationally been proposed by fans and former drivers through social media, over the past 36 hours. Then there are those who say that the IndyCar Series shouldn't be racing at the Pocono Raceway tri-oval in the first place. While all are entitled to their opinion, the logic of saying that the series shouldn't compete at a certain racetrack because of the wrecks that have or could occur is like saying you should always avoid taking the highway to your destinations because of the higher probability of accidents.
Racing is a dangerous and unpredictable sport. Whether you are on a karting track, dirt track, drag strip, or rally stage, the danger is ever present. What we must continue to do is anticipate certain dangers, rather than react to them, and create a logical plan that could help save lives.
Rather than apportion blame to either driver that made the initial contact, there is a current and low cost solution that could help minimize the chances of that situation happening again.
Many of our road vehicles come equipped with proximity sensors for parking and blind spot monitors for the road, in order to increase safety at minimal costs. Even if the system costs $1,000 for each car, that's a small amount to pay if you can prevent a collision that could cost five to ten times more.
There must be a better way to prevent an airborne car from escaping the racetrack without throwing it back into the path of approaching cars. I'm certain that the IndyCar Series has been exploring those concepts well before Sunday's accident. I still remember what racing was like before the SAFER Barrier and pit speed limits. These evolutions in safety will come, but they have to be implemented after a process of thorough experimentation and examination.
Preventing those two cars from touching should also be a priority. Much like the subtle tone that F1 drivers hear when they cross the DRS (Drag Reduction System) activation line, a similar tone would alert a driver to the fact that they have not yet cleared a competitor. Spotters will always be needed in racing, but radar assisted technology can react in microseconds and help avert a potential disaster when two racers are fighting for the same piece of tarmac.
On a more personal note, I wasn't planning to write an opinion piece for this week. Imagine my dismay, when the driver I just wrote my last piece about, and was so confident that he could win his first race in the series, is involved in one of the scariest crashes we've seen in our lifetime. From a rational point of view, I could remind myself that I've made many predictions. Some have come true and many haven't. From an irrational perspective, I could be left feeling as if I've angered the racing gods by daring to declare a result before it's happened. Regardless, I will choose my words more carefully next time.
I would have felt equally terrible had I declared Sebastien Bourdais as the winner of the 2017 Indy 500, when the month of May started. I would have been completely devastated if I predicted a podium finish at Laguna Seca in 1999 for Gonzalo Rodriguez, in only his second race with Team Penske, or a win at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Dan Wheldon in 2011. The list, regrettably, goes on...
As we await more positive news about Robert Wickens and spread our hopeful thoughts amongst the racing community, I'm constantly reminded that the power of the human spirit is as great a source of healing as anything.
Just ask Bourdais, who required surgery after his qualifying accident for the Great American Race last year, and subsequently missed most of the season. He returned, much sooner than many had anticipated.
In March of this year, two rivals were battling for the lead, made contact, and Bourdais took the opportunity to win. Some had questioned whether he would ever be able to race again, when it all went wrong for him at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We are all hoping for a similar outcome for Robert Wickens.
Wouldn't that be a great story to tell?