IndyCar had a crisis looming well before James Hinchcliffe was injured in another spectacular accident during preparations for the most esteemed race in motorsports.
Three cars have gone airborne, and one of the series’ most popular drivers was in the intensive care unit Monday night after surgery on an injury to Hinchcliffe’s left thigh suffered when he crashed following a suspension part breaking. IndyCar said he was in stable condition.
As Hinchcliffe’s car shot back down the track toward the apron, it quickly tilted on its side and seemed headed to a rollover before it snapped back down on all four wheels.
Hinchcliffe’s car did not go airborne — oh, it certainly tried to, even after a good bit of speed had been scrubbed from it when it slammed into a wall — but that might have been because half the car was destroyed. He also wasn’t in a Chevrolet, the automaker under scrutiny since three of its cars took flight during wrecks last week.
Although his crash was unrelated to last week’s wrecks, it was still ugly and Hinchcliffe joins a list that includes Helio Castroneves, the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner, flipping his car last Wednesday. Josef Newgarden went airborne the next day, and finally on Sunday, Ed Carpenter, an Indianapolis standout and an heir to the family that controls all things IndyCar, became the third Chevrolet driver in five days to go airborne.
But this crisis had been in the works since the season-opening race two months ago, where a woman suffered a fractured skull when a piece from one of the new aerokits on the cars flew over the St. Petersburg, Florida, grandstands and hit her.
From that very first race, it was clear there are many unknowns about the bodywork kits and IndyCar has been reacting nearly every week to situations that no one predicted.
Why? Because they didn’t do enough testing, and when any bit of contact was creating debris fields all over the race track, someone should have had the sense to say ‘Maybe we should get the speedway kits out and make sure they don’t also have any unforeseen problems.’
Alas, the speedway cars didn’t hit the track until the beginning of May, and until cars started sailing, no one had any idea that could happen.
Cars aren’t meant to leave the racing surface, and when they do, it’s a very big deal. Such a big deal that the three flips have overshadowed Pippa Mann’s tremendous hit last Wednesday into both an inside wall and then into the attenuator in pit lane.
A day before that, Simona de Silvestro watched her car erupt into flames in a standard incident that made for tremendous photographs but was mundane in the world of racing.
All of these incidents create the images that are drawing worldwide attention to the “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” a full week before the renowned event.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing for IndyCar, the besieged series that just can’t seem to get anything right, but stays in business year after year in part because it calls the Indianapolis 500 its own. Some buzz around this crown jewel event can only help.
Not like this, though.
It shouldn’t be accidents followed by the appearance of an amateur hour in crisis management from series leadership creating the narrative leading into Sunday’s race.
This is a mess — a hold-your-breath-and-hope-for-the-best situation — at a time when IndyCar was so excited to show off the new bodywork on the Chevrolets and the Hondas and the increased speeds around the famed Brickyard.
Instead, it’s possible that Chevrolet’s design contributed to its three cars going airborne. And even though Honda had yet to have a serious problem — unless, of course, you count the total domination Chevrolet has had of the speed charts — IndyCar ordered both manufacturers to make changes before Sunday’s qualifying session.
But as a weary Mark Miles and Derrick Walker met the media Sunday, it was clear series management was overwhelmed with the problem at hand.
Racing is dangerous, we’re told that after every wincing wreck, even the ones that end in injury, or, on rare occasion the past decade, death. But it’s the responsibility of the series to create the safest conditions possible, and Miles and Walker have a mess on their hands.
IndyCar was badly wounded following the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season finale. Wheldon was killed racing for a $5 million prize in a gimmick designed to draw more eyeballs to the series.
One of the most charismatic drivers in the under-marketed series was a victim of a rules package that created dangerous pack racing on a high-speed track where very few competitors in the field had any experience.
Many tried to voice their concerns in the days leading up to the accident, but they were shouting in the wind: Leadership was committed to the finale, and when a series is struggling for attention, there aren’t very many people to complain about a possible problem.
Four years after Wheldon’s underdog Indy 500 victory, people are paying attention and noticing that something seems to be amiss in Indy.
IndyCar learned from Wheldon’s death, and everyone understands the series doesn’t want to endure another such heartbreak. But the series has only itself to blame for this mess.
Maybe they’ve hit on something that will keep the cars on the track, and hours after Hinchcliffe’s accident brought Monday’s action to a halt, the drivers were back on track for a flawless final session filled with inter-brand drafting, slingshot passes and the tight racing which fans have come to expect of Wheldon’s namesake DW-12 chassis.
Maybe Sunday will be void of any major incidents, and maybe, just maybe, the 99th running will be the greatest Indy 500 in history.
But it’s just a guess at this point, and IndyCar officials better be crossing their fingers that they’ve gotten this right.
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