Sato, Pocono unfairly vilified for Lap 1 melee

Dario Franchitti — 17 seasons, four IndyCar championships, 31 race wins, three Indianapolis 500 victories.

Sebastien Bourdais — 14 seasons, four Champ Car championships, 36 race wins.

Scott Dixon — 19 seasons, five IndyCar championships, 46 race wins, one Indianapolis 500 victory.

Will Power — 14 seasons, one IndyCar championship, 36 race wins, one Indianapolis 500 victory.

Simon Pagenaud — Nine seasons, one IndyCar championship, 14 race wins, one Indianapolis 500 victory.

For those keeping score at home, those five gentlemen account for 73 seasons of racing at the highest level of American open-wheel racing, 163 race wins, and six Indianapolis 500 victories.

The combined total of three drivers whom I saw tweeting within minutes of Sunday’s first-lap crash that IndyCar racing should no longer happen at Pocono Raceway — 5.5 seasons, zero wins.

The combined total experience of the Twitter keyboard jockeys who immediately laid blame at Takuma Sato’s feet for causing the accident and accusing him of being on a quest to injury pretty much the entire rest of the IndyCar field — zero…. for all of it, zero.

Yet, here we are 48 hours later still debating who is right and who is wrong regarding Sunday’s Turn 2 crash and whether it is indeed the nail in the coffin for Pocono’s removal from the IndyCar schedule.  Let’s start with the crash itself.

The quick-and-dirty facts on the crash are that Alexander Rossi got a poor start and had fallen to about fifth position as the field worked its way down the long straightaway between Turns 1 and 2.  As Scott Dixon moved past Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato had runs on Rossi and split him, RHR going to Rossi’s inside and Sato to his outside.  At this point, opinions diverge, but the fact is that Rossi and Sato made contact, Rossi’s right front wheel to Sato’s left rear.  Sato’s car was turned toward the inside wall, collecting both Rossi and RHR.  The rest is history and need not be recounted again here.

Upon seeing the first replay on NBC Sports Network, analysts Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell immediately blamed Sato for turning into Rossi, as if Sato had intentionally and violently turned sharp left into Rossi.  In fairness, the initial replay, which comes from a distance behind the cars, does appear to show Sato’s car snapping left.  However, further replays do not seem to indicate Sato moved left at all until after contact is made between his tire and Rossi’s.  Even looking at the initial video, it appears there is a puff of tire smoke at the exact moment Sato’s car suddenly lurches left.  The image below, captured from Motorsports on NBC’s YouTube channel, shows both the first instance Sato’s car turns left and an apparent puff of blue tire smoke behind Rossi’s car, immediately in front of Graham Rahal.

Sato
A screen capture from the NBC Sports Network broadcast, showing the exact instant Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi came together.

As Tracy and Bell have a tendency to do, the two former drivers jumped to conclusions from watching a single, poorly-angled replay and ran with those conclusions, even as other angles of the incident suggested the cause wasn’t maybe quite as clear-cut as they initially believed.  (I’ll note the pair did a similar thing in 2017 when they failed to see how Tony Kanaan caused the chain-reaction accident at Texas and didn’t change their opinion until 10-15 minutes later when other drivers started suggesting TK was at fault.)  When NBCSN showed the replay of the crash from Alexander Rossi’s car, there didn’t seem to be any sudden movements of Sato’s car and actually looked as if Rossi was drifting every so slightly up the track toward the outer wall.  Likewise, the in-car camera view from Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car also showed he appeared to drift slightly up the track with Rossi to his outside.

Unfortunately, Takuma Sato did not have an in-car TV camera in his car that made a replay immediately available.  Sato did, however, later Sunday night tweet a video from his in-car telemetry camera that shows the accident playing out.  Link to that video is below.

As I watch the video above, I notice two major points.  First, Sato does not appear, from the in-car camera, to make any sudden movement of the steering wheel to the left.  The wheel appears to be going head straight once he establishes himself alongside Alexander Rossi.  This indicates, to me, that Sato is not making an effort to move in front of Rossi but is instead holding his line as he begins to set up for Turn 2 ahead.

Furthermore, not only is Sato not turning in front of Rossi, you can actually hear Sato backing out of the throttle as he is in the draft of Scott Dixon, who has also moved toward the outside wall, leaving Sato no further room to make a pass.  I won’t attempt to speak conclusively for Takuma, but it certainly appears to me that he feels he is clear of Rossi and setting up to follow in Dixon’s draft through Turn 2.

The second point to note from this video, combined with video from Rossi’s car, is how far both Rossi and RHR moved up the track.  I don’t mean at all to imply that Rossi and RHR moved up the track in a defensive/blocking manner or even in a manner to intentionally thwart Sato’s momentum.  Rossi admitted his goose was essentially cooked and wouldn’t make such a dangerous move on the first lap of the race, especially considering the championship implications.  Given that Dixon had also moved the track a similar distance, I think it’s fair to say that the drift of RHR and Rossi was somewhat of a standard line as the drivers were beginning to set up for Turn 2.

Nonetheless, you can see from Sato’s camera that Rossi’s right-side tires were just to the left of the paving joint that separated the two cars as Sato’s front wing was even with Rossi’s rear wing.  By the time contact was made, Rossi’s car has moved right about 3/4 of a car width to the point where that same paving joint is halfway between the nose of the car and the left front wing end fence.

Likewise, the view from Ryan Hunter-Reay’s car shows that he also drifted up the track while they were three-wide down the backstraight.  RHR might have moved even more than Rossi.  But again, neither Rossi nor RHR moved suddenly or violently.  I think it may have been the natural line the drivers were taking to set up for Turn 2.  I’m not sure RHR ever even know he was three-wide until it was simply too late.

I realize I am thus far sounding like Takuma Sato should be absolved of all fault in this situation, but I don’t believe that’s entirely true either.  I believe there is ultimately blame to be shared among Hunter-Reay, Rossi, and Sato.  I believe that RHR and Rossi probably shoulder a little blame for drifting toward the outside of the track and into Sato’s path, even if that was the natural line.

I do think Sato, however, needs to take a bit of blame for putting his car in such a tight position next to Rossi with so little room to spare.  From the onboard view from Graham Rahal’s car, I’d estimate that Sato probably had at least one full car width between himself and the outside, maybe as much as 10 feet.  The distance between himself and Alexander Rossi appeared to be about 12-18″.  There really is just no need to put cars in such close quarters one mile into a 500-mile race.  Sato seems to have been able to give Rossi a bit more room, especially since Rossi was much slower and likely would have conceded the position and fallen in line through Turn 2.  Additionally, fluid dynamics would suggest that when cars are that close together, the high-speed air moving between them will naturally draw them closer together, which is all the more reason Sato could have, and probably should have, given Rossi a bit more space at such an early point in the race.

The bottom line is I believe this really was a racing accident (as much as I hate that term) and that all three drivers played some part in the chain reaction of events.  However, the people that initially called for major suspensions and fines for Takuma Sato and again blasted him for overly aggressive driving really should know better.  Then again, I ought to know better than assuming I won’t find an abundance of knee-jerk reactions on Twitter immediately after such a crash.

Speaking of knee-jerk reactions, let’s get back to where we started this little chat…

The accident in Turn 2 happened at 2:47 pm ET (according to the timestamp on my video that was posted to Twitter).  At 2:54 pm (I believe before Felix Rosenqvist had even gotten himself out of his car), Carlin driver (who used to race on ovals) Max Chilton tweeted, “So glad to see everyone walk away from that one.  They shouldn’t be there anyway.” 

Eight minutes later, Robert Wickens tweeted, “How many times do we have to go through the same situation before we can all accept that an IndyCar should not race at Pocono. It’s just a toxic relationship and maybe it’s time to consider a divorce. I’m very relieved (to my knowledge) that everyone is okay from that scary crash”

And at 3:11 pm, 24 minutes after the crash occurred and before repairs to the fence had even been completed, Sage Karam tweeted the following message, “Glad to see everyone is ok. Never a good feeling when you see something like that especially when it’s your brothers. Think the answer is clear that we should not be here. In my opinion that question was answered awhile ago.”

Three drivers, with a combined five and a half years of IndyCar experience, 44 ovals starts, and zero oval wins, all taking to Twitter within 25 minutes of the crash to opine that IndyCar racing should no longer be racing at Pocono well before many facts of the accident were even known.

The back straightaway at Pocono Raceway is 3,000 feet long, only slightly shorter than the 5/8-mile straighaways at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Depending on how you measure the width, the track is about 55 feet wide from the SAFER Barrier to the yellow striped line that may indicate the inside of the track or approximately 90 feet wide from the outside to inside SAFER Barrier.  In other words, the back straightaway is long and plenty wide for three cars to go through.

Though said to be modeled after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Turn 2 at Pocono Raceway is not an exact replica of any turns at 16th & Georgetown.  Turn 2 at Pocono has a shorter length (1,050 feet compared to 1,320 feet at IMS), has a tighter radius (Pocono’s turn radius is 752 feet compared to 840 feet at IMS), and covers a shorter angle (82° at Pocono compared to 90° at IMS).

In other words, Turn 2 at Pocono is sharper and quicker than the turns at IMS.  (The word that always comes to my mind is “snappier.”)  They can run two-wide through there if drivers are respectful and courteous of each other, and I’ve seen that happen on several occasions.  However, anyone who was watching could see plenty well the problem was not with Turn 2.  In fact, it wasn’t with any turn.  It happened when three drivers were supposed to be driving in a straight line between Turns 1 and 2.

Many years ago when he was still Race Director and the IndyCar President of Competition, Brian Barnhart famously said, “Most of the big problems we have in IndyCar racing are when the guys are supposed to be going straight.” That’s probably paraphrased a bit but that was his point.  Think of accidents like Kenny Brack at Texas and Dario Franchitti at Michigan; those have all come in the straightaways.  Once again, his observation rang sadly true on Sunday.

Pocono has undoubtedly seen its streak of tragedy with IndyCar racing in the past several years.  However, I’m not exactly sure how or why people point to the three major crashes in the past five years as a result of any safety issues with Pocono.

When Justin Wilson was fatally injured in 2015, a piece of Sage Karam’s nose cone bounced high into the air at an incredibly improbable angle and hit Wilson square on the helmet.  The odds of that cone flying at exactly that trajectory and at exactly that speed to come down at the exact location where Wilson was at that exact moment are almost incalculable.

Debris is always a problem with crashes on ovals.  It has been an issue since oval racing began in the early 1900s.  But it’s a problem on street courses as well.  James Hinchcliffe had his bell rung several years ago on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course by a large piece of debris was sent aloft and into Hinch’s cockpit.

Other drivers have experienced similar issues over the past several years.  In response, IndyCar has taken a methodical approach to developing cockpit protection that should alleviate such intrusions in the future.  (Contrary to what I saw posted on Facebook, the cockpit intrusion device would have done nothing to help Robert Wickens and whether it would have saved Dan Wheldon is honestly debatable.)  Critics may rightly or wrong suggest INDYCAR has taken far too long to get the cockpit protection in place, but they have to be at least credit INDYCAR for not rushing something into place that solved one problem while creating another (as seems would have happened by jumping on board with the halo or using the prototype that was tested by Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden in 2018).

To suggest somehow that Pocono is more dangerous because of a completely freak accident that took the life of Justin Wilson is grossly unfair to the track.  As both Scott Dixon and Will Power said in their post-race press conference, that accident with Justin Wilson could have happened anywhere.

Regarding the 2018 accident of Robert Wickens, that was another crash that could just as easily happened anywhere.  I’ve been around long enough to see Jeff Krosnoff end up in the fence at Toronto, Ryan Briscoe end up in the fence in Chicago, and Dario Franchitti’s career end in the fence at Houston.  Sure it was ugly and had a terrible outcome, but it was the result of a low-percentage passing attempt on the first lap of the race and drivers not giving each other each space, especially early in the race, a combination of factors that, again, could happen at any track.

As I’ve seen a number of drivers say in various ways, the problem at Pocono is not a track problem.  The problem is a driver problem.  Oval racing is inherently dangerous  It always has been and always will be.  But there are times to push the limit and be aggressive and there are times when caution and forgiveness are necessary.  Lap one of any oval race should always fall into the latter category.  No race has ever been won on the first lap, but more races than can be counted have been lost on Lap 1.  Cliche, of course, but so true.

Driver respect has been a talking point for the past several years.  It’s not coming from me as a blogger or fans on TrackForum or keyboard racers on Twitter.  It’s coming from the drivers themselves.  They all know it’s a problem.  They talk about it constantly.  But once the green flag flies, stupid things like this accident often result from aggressive passes, squeezing cars into holes that don’t exit, unchecked blocking, and dive bomb passes that are often late and unsuccessful (and usually end the day of at least two competitors).

Perhaps it’s an issue with the second-year aero kits making passing very difficult on the super speedways.  Ryan Hunter-Reay said as much in his post-accident interview.  Nonetheless, the drivers who put their helmet on and stomp the throttle ultimately have the ability to release the throttle.  They have the responsibility to take care of each other.  They are ultimately in control of their cars and the decisions they make.  Bad things sometimes happen that are outside of their control, but if the drivers start doing a better job of controlling the aspects they can control, most of these silly accidents that cause major injuries can be avoided.

When cars crash on a straightaway, that is not the track’s fault.  That lies squarely on the drivers.  More respectful and judicious driving is a must at all tracks.  I would have expected that out of the three drivers who were initially involved in Sunday’s accident and who have all, to varying degrees, been accused of causing accidents in the past.

Being a lifelong bench racer, I don’t presume or pretend that my personal opinion is authoritative, significant, or even sought out. However, I have an enormous amount of respect for the five racers I mentioned at the start of this post, four of whom were on track Sunday.  If they believe Pocono is not the problem and that IndyCar should return to this unique oval that has gained momentum over the past seven years, I am inclined to give their opinions significant weight.

If there is one driver whom I would have guessed would be glad to see Pocono go away, it was Sebastien Bourdais.  I have the utmost respect and reverence for Sebastien, who is now one of the elder statesmen of the Series, so when he speaks — positively or negatively — I give his words a lot of credence.  Bourdais has never shied away from the fact he isn’t a huge fan of super speedways.  Given his extremely successful and long career,  Bourdais has the credentials back up such a statement and still demand the utmost respect.  However, I was surprised to find him after the race defending Pocono and saying he wishes to return.  I’ll close this out with his thoughts on the matter.

3 thoughts on “Sato, Pocono unfairly vilified for Lap 1 melee

  1. Joe

    Great read. It would be very sad if this was the last Indycar race at Pocono that I went to. Been going there since they came back. If anything can be added I suggest a lot more practice time, turn the race into a 3 day weekend. Get a support series, whether it’s stadium super trucks or a regional Nascar tour so there’s more in track activity. Throw a concert to get more in the infield and have Friday as a pure practice day like they do in Indy. Imagine getting to the track for a 9am practice on a Friday that lasts until 5pm. This is the only other 500 mile race in the calendar. It should be treated with as much respect and given more practice time like Indy. It’s a crown jewel event in my eyes and it’s a tough track to perfect. If you look into the history of this race some of the best drivers in the history has won here: Unser, Foyt, Mears, Sullivan. It’s a shame that there’s so much negativity towards this race. Drivers need to be respectful and mindful of the bigger picture. Maybe Indycar should develop a slightly different aero package for the super speedway races that can help alleviate the risks drivers take to make passes. No matter what the fastest drivers will find their way up front. Hopefully they can make a 1 year deal and see how it goes from there for next season. It would be devastating and alienating all the loyal open wheel fans in the Northeast. I just want to see the 2020 schedule now so I can plan the next race vacation I go to.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Joe. I absolutely could not agree with you more, and I wrote as much on my Saturday Live Blog (I think it was Saturday, maybe it was Sunday). Look at the schedule for this coming weekend at Gatew- errr, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and compare it to what we saw at Pocono. This weekend will have the NTT IndyCar Series, Indy Lights, Indy Pro 2000, and NASCAR K&N Pro Series. That’s four different series packed into two full days of all-day racing compared to one series spread out into about 3 hours of track activity spread over 8 hours on Saturday. You just can’t build a good fan base like that.

      I like your idea of a concert or SOMETHING to give fans something else to do. I really want to see Pocono remain on the schedule. Indications aren’t good but nothing has been finalized (or at least released to the public) yet.

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      1. Joe

        Hey Paul thanks for commenting back!

        I was wondering especially during the 2hr practice session if they would try experimenting with the fastest times to set the field. I know back in the late 50s and 60s Formula 1 use to have an extended practice for several hours and during that time frame the fastest times would set the field. So you would see various times and different race strategies for the teams to test and experiment for a race and qualifying setup. I really enjoyed the extended practice. Was a nice relaxing way to spend my Saturday afternoon.
        Great to hear from you!

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