The Weekend Rewind – How Safe Is Safe Edition

Was it a normal weekend at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, or a dry run for Toronto and Houston? Yes. For a while it seemed like the drivers would be able to control themselves. Sure, we saw Rahal, Power, Dixon and Aleshin all unceremoniously dump their competitors, but the damage was minimal and could be attributed to simple street track racing. The utter mess and destruction that Mike Conway had to drive through on lap 56 en route to his third career win was something totally different.

There aren’t five reactions this week, but I think was follows needs to be said and made first priority for the series. I don’t make that statement very often because I don’t have any idea how to run a professional open-wheel series, but I do know when I feel like things are starting to get just too sketchy.

So we know Ryan Hunter-Reay has taken mostly full responsibility for driving without a brain. Not that it makes his ridiculous action OK; even to the point where the other drivers involved wanted to hear no such excuse. Plain and simple, that was old school IRL IR07 driving. I’ve stated before that I don’t think RHR lives up to the hype, and his championship was more of a fluke than an implication of skill, but my real worry lies with the secondary contact from drivers screaming into an accident site.

Before we move into the real discussion, I have to ask: why did Ryan Hunter-Reay roll so far after his impact? I would like to assume that the braking system was ripped open and a massive loss of brake fluid ensued. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the case as his car did not look like it rolled to a stop once Helio Castroneves hit him.

I feel like he was hoping to grab a gear and limp back to the pits before Helio Castroneves smashed into him. I’m torn on whether to string up RHR for not standing on the brakes after initial contact, but I don’t like the idea of adding extra chassis to the junk pile because someone hoped they could get back home for repairs.

That’s all fine and dandy, but there could be bigger issues at hand with the marshalling of the incident. Where were the flags before the corner, and how quickly did the corner workers react? I sensed that maybe the Turn 4 marshal station may not have been able to see the incident because it was so far into the exit of Turn 4. I also wonder what kind of training do the corner marshals receive before the action kicks off on Friday morning. Are the tracks and promoters doing enough to make sure the corner workers are qualified and properly trained for the high speed machines seen during an IndyCar weekend?

After the first impact, cars continued to pile into the three disabled drivers for 12 seconds. A single car adding to an accident that was following the drivers in question is not ideal, but understandable. 12 full seconds of additional impacts is totally unacceptable. In that 12 seconds, the waving yellow flag should have been passed through the various marshalling station all the way back into Turn 1, but on Sunday that was clearly not the case.

One final concern was the length of time it took the safety truck, which was stationed at Turn 4, to address the accident. It was almost exactly one minute from initial contact before the truck was on-site. Granted, given the fact that there were secondary and tertiary impacts from inattentive drivers, a slight delay was expected. However, it was still 40 seconds from when the field was under control through the corner in question and the safety truck arrived. In the high stakes game of IndyCar racing, 40 seconds is just not good enough. The delay was especially disappointing given the fact that the safety truck was stationed so close and in line-of-site with the incident.

The Holmatro Safety Team is undoubtedly the best in the business, but I wonder if the delay, something that has not been too uncommon in recent years, is because the safety truck drivers are worried about the race being neutralized in a timely manner. After all, it’s far worse for a driver to careen into a safety truck attending to an accident than for them to hit another disable racecar.

Jack Hawksworth, a late comer to the accident, rear-ended the disabled car of Josef Newgarden and submarined under the gearbox. Thankfully, Hawksworth didn’t disappear too far under Newgarden’s car and climbed out unscathed. But the results could have been much worse, and that 40 extra seconds of response time could be the difference between life and death.

The decline of every day safety in IndyCar has been on a slow but steady decline for years. From slower and slower response times, to jewelry being worn under fire suits, to crew members not wearing helmets during testing while on a hot pit lane, the slippage has been noticeable.

In an era where the chassis, fire suits and helmets are safer than they have ever been, it has been scary and disappointing to watch every day safety slowly slip off of the radar. The series may not be able to force promoters and facilities to upgrade their safety hardware, but they surely have a mountain of small nagging issues that if left unchecked, could really add up one day.

With all of that said, it was still an exciting race. There was passing up and down the field all day long. Every camera shot at every corner had at least one guy taking an inside look and there was more two by two passing than I can remember at any similar super confined street circuit. And honestly, the guys did a great job considering the type of facility they were asked to compete at. However, the drivers were still hot after the checkers fell, and for good reason. Racing in those confines is extremely stressful; luckily for them, but unlucky for us, they have two weeks to figure it out and reset for Barber.

Eric Hall

P.S. I’ve been busy for Pit Lane Reporter again. Want a straight-up newsy view of Long Beach? Head here. How about getting your hands on Issue 2 of Pit Lane Reporter Magazine? Here’s the goods. The IndyCar business starts on page 9 and continues on page 33.

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One Response to The Weekend Rewind – How Safe Is Safe Edition

  1. charlie mercer says:

    I have noticed longer delays myself, even on ovals where the sightlines are much better and the danger of not seeing a safety truck is diminished. I can remember, oh say 4 or 5 years ago…the safety crew would sometimes arrive on the scene almost before the crashed car comes to a stop (exaggeration)…but close. Any way, great race, no doubt!!!

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