It's taken a few days for the depression and anger to subside. Dario Franchitti's ridiculous, unnecessary trip into and partially through the barriers last weekend during the second race of IndyCar's Grand Prix of Houston continues to be a topic of conversation.
13 people were injured—14 if you include Franchitti, who broke his ankle, fractured two vertebrae, and suffered a serious concussion. Of those who were hit by flying debris and fencing, 11 were treated and released on-site. Two spent time in the hospital and have also been released.
The crash even spilled .
Some outraged fans have called for street racing to be abandoned. Others have flooded article comments with complaints about the Dallara DW12 chassis itself, suggesting the spec IndyCar Series vehicle was to blame for what took place.
It was a black eye for a series that finds itself in a constant rebuilding phase—the latest loss of yardage to NASCAR. Just as Charlie Murphy described the boundary-pushing Rick James as a 'habitual line-stepper' during the famous Chappelle Show skit, I'm confident Eddie's older brother would accuse IndyCar of being a 'habitual dick-stepper' for finding repeated opportunities to become an obstacle to its own success.
The greatest issues at hand regarding the debacle at Houston—the failure of the trackside barriers to keep Franchitti's car within the confines of the circuit, and the barriers themselves becoming fan-endangering shrapnel—should be center stage.
Instead, bickering about the car and whether races should be held on streets has become the red meat to fight over.
The questionable vehicle-retaining properties of the FIA-spec fencing used at Houston is where I've turned my attention. The same grate-style fencing is used at other IndyCar street courses, with Toronto and Baltimore featuring these rigid sections affixed to poles mounted in the cement barriers lining the track.
The 8000-pound cement sections, as used for the street courses, are most commonly found with three vertical holes in them—one on each end and one in the middle. With the poles installed, a sheet of fencing is attached to the outer face. Those pre-fab sections are then joined together by additional poles and an interlocking hook-and-groove system.
Coming from Baltimore in early September to Houston a little over a month later, the barriers and fencing looked like they'd been trucked from Maryland to Texas. There was nothing terribly unfamiliar about the barriers in Houston, except for one item: they were missing the center poles.
Center poles were in place at Toronto, and again at Baltimore. For whatever reason, and I genuinely don't know why—the series is conducting an investigation and, as one would expect, they will not comment—the track builders at Houston didn't install the center poles (see the image at the top of this article).
It seemed odd when I was shooting trackside throughout the weekend.
Then on Sunday, by chance, Franchitti's launch into the barriers sent him into the middle section of a fence. What ensued was scary:
Would a center pole have reduced the likelihood of the barrier fencing becoming part of the debris shower? That three poles rather than two are used at other street races suggests that a 'stronger is better' approach is the norm, and by straying from the norm, it's a question that needs answering by the promoters.
Were a center pole in place, it's reasonable to assume Franchitti's car would not have been able to punch so far through the fence. It's also reasonable to assume that with a pole to keep the center of the fence from being pushed back, the fencing would have stood a better chance of staying connected to its outermost mounting poles.
A lack of mooring for the fencing and poles is a concern that isn't specific to Houston, but has become topical again after seeing images of the crash's aftermath. Did the fencing slide off the poles after Franchitti hit and bent them? Again, would a center pole have made it harder for such a thing to happen?
If there's more to the story than the lack of center poles throughout the Houston circuit, let's hear it.
Amid the questions, one thing is for sure: safety improvements tend to come after major accidents. With the Houston incident, IndyCar has a chance to take a step…in a different direction by making its downtown events safer than ever before.