Hot takes are quite the thing, aren’t they? When things happen in life, the stress we feel at the moment tends to lead to an emotional response, which usually leads to said hot take.
I’m guilty of that just as much as anyone else. Matter of fact, I dropped a pretty big hot take myself on Sunday afternoon.
Along with Host Mike Joachim, I was watching the start of the ABC Supply 500 behind Will Power’s pit. The thing about the start of the race is that it doesn’t elicit a lot of excitement down there. When the cars raced by for the first time on Sunday, it was business as usual, almost like everyone was punching the time clock and settling into the rhythm of a 500-mile race.
About 30 seconds later, that all changed. The gasps started coming from the grandstands across the way, and we all flocked to the small video monitor located near their pit box. With the glare from the sun it was hard to see the screen, so we knew that there had been an incident, but we weren’t sure who was involved.
Suddenly I was being pulled out of the way by crew members, and members of Power’s family began expressing concern as to whether or not he was involved.
As the red flag flew and things started to settle down knowing everyone involved in the five-car shunt were OK, I turned to Host Mike and said: “That’s why we shouldn’t be racing here”.
Many people on social media shared that hot take, including drivers like Sage Karam and Robert Wickens, both of whose lives were changed forever as a result of racing at Pocono. During the red flag I hustled over to get some reactions from the medical area, and a couple of the drivers who came out and spoke to the media seemed like they would be pretty happy if IndyCar never returned to Pocono again.
Then I listed to the opinions from a couple of other drivers, including one whose opinion really surprised me, who were in support of returning. Then I had a 10 1/2 hour drive home and 48 hours to think about it, and my objectivity kicked in.
All of the sudden, my hot take was cold, really cold.
One of the things about human nature is that we tend to start a narrative, and then keep it going, because we almost feel like we have to. For the last several years, it seems like Pocono Raceway was considered the “red-headed stepchild” of the series. It was natural to feel that way. The death of Justin Wilson in 2015 and Wickens’ spinal injury last year are still open wounds, as well as a reminder that open wheel oval racing is still a very, very dangerous endeavor.
Fatalities and serious injury have happened at other tracks where the series races, including Indy, Toronto and Laguna Seca. The thing is, those things happened either 1) before safety innovations greatly reduced those things from happening or 2) happened so long ago they are no longer in our conscious mind.
What’s happened at Pocono is still there, and that is difficult for everyone to deal with. And that’s OK. If you want the series to leave Pocono for those reasons, that’s valid. What I like about IndyCar is that a large part of the fanbase really does care about the drivers. That’s cool.
But the cold, hard fact is this: Pocono is no less safe than any other high-speed oval on the schedule. It’s certainly a hard racetrack to drive with its three distinct corners, but how is it unsafe? It has the same safety features of both Indy and Texas, and in fact has more SAFER barrier coverage than Indy does.
In fact, if you go look at a collection of recent crashes at Indy, they are frightening. Cars are upside down, airborne on their sides, or just making huge G impacts. But that’s “just Indy” isn’t it? We don’t talk about making things even safer at Indy, like slowing the cars down or demanding more SAFER barrier around the track, which is something I’d like to see.
No, we actually want MORE speed. We want to set track records, we want cars over 240 mph, some people even want to bring back the apron, which would give the cars a more direct, more dangerous angle into the corners. So what is seemingly “safe” at one track is “unsafe” at another? Explain.
Again, how is Pocono not safe? Put it another way: seven cars went into the wall on Sunday — almost one-third of the field — and all seven drivers climbed from their cars and will be racing at Gateway this weekend.
Five of them were involved in this:
The racetrack had nothing to do with this accident. This was three former Indy 500 champions trying to stuff themselves into a single-groove corner at 220 mph, just 1 1/2 miles into a 500-mile race.
I’m not going to point fingers as to whose fault it was, because frankly I don’t really know. What I do know is that Turn 2 at Pocono is modeled after the turns at Indianapolis, and these guys trying to do this same move into Turn 1 at Indy will lead to the same result.
Case in point, 2014 Indy 500:
They put themselves into a situation that could be seen as unsafe. That’s on them, not on the racetrack.
If just one of those three guys backs off (in both situations), everyone goes through the corner and the race goes on. Drivers have the responsibility to take care of each other, and I don’t know why that happens at some tracks and not others. We see some crazy restarts at Indy, but somehow everyone sorts things out long before they arrive at Turn 1.
What’s unfortunate about all of this is that it is overshadowing what is a very cool success story. When IndyCar returned to Pocono in 2013 and no one showed up, I was one of many people who thought it was a mistake to go there, and also accused track management about no giving a crap about IndyCar since they had two Cup dates, meaning lots of Cup money.
I was wrong then, for sure, because Pocono has been showing a double-digit increase in year-over-year attendance, and I saw firsthand this year the enthusiasm the fans have for the race. With 100 million people living within a day’s drive from the track — and Pocono sitting just over an hour from New York City — I think it’s imperative that this race works, and I think that IndyCar needs to get back to the table and negotiate another deal.
Things aren’t always how they seem, hot takes almost always run cold, and for that reason Pocono needs to be on the schedule in 2020 and beyond.
Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media