Houston, We Have a Problem

Filled with excitement and anticipation… that was the way most IndyCar fans entered into this past weekend in Houston. We had waited an entire month to taste the sweetness of another race weekend. We had high hopes for our favorite drivers as we gathered at the track or around our televisions from the comfort of home… surely sitting on the edge of our seats, whether cushy upholstered furniture or burning silver bleachers. We had no idea that we would be falling off the edge of our seats or jumping up from them in shock by the end of the three day event….

It was a weird weekend. From the complications with the track itself leading to temporary chicanes and 12+ hours of leveling out road hazards, to not one but two standing starts with just as many attempts at each of the races over the third and last doubleheader weekend of the season, to strange moments of history seemingly repeating itself and our personal memories flooding our minds & our hearts.

Saturday provided the focus mostly on the points Championship battle between Helio Castroneves & Scott Dixon. Helio was leading Dixon by 49 points, as they lined up on the grid 18 positions apart; Helio from the unfavorable end of that spread, starting P21, his worst qualifying of the season. Unfortunately, he bookended that start with his worst finish of the season to that point, taking P18 at the checkered. The first race in Houston also took away his bragging rights of finishing every lap of the 2013 season, and his points buffer, now down to a separation of only 8 points with Dixon taking home the victory.

One of the more carefree and celebratory moments of Saturday was seeing Simona De Silvestro nabbing her first IndyCar career podium with a P2 finish! It was so great to see her run with the top 5 for the duration of the race and for those of us exhausted and/or frustrated by the weekend’s shenanigans to that point, her smiling face and yellow bowtie definitely brightened up the mood as she proudly held up her well-deserved cowboy-boot-shaped A.J. Foyt Trophy. You can’t get much more Texas than that!

I think we all kind of expected a relatively uneventful Sunday race, given how crazy the weekend had gone to that point… it was hard to imagine what else could happen. Then the black clouds settled over Houston.

No, literally… rain clouds opened up over the track and drowned out any chance of a qualifying run for the DW12’s. It was determined that the grid for Race 2 would be based on points. It seemed that this would provide us with one heck of a competition, given that our points leaders would essentially be tire to tire at the wave of the green flag. But, going along with the consistency of bad luck for Helio in Houston, his gearbox broke shortly into the race and he was forced back to the garages – coming back out later but only completing 53 of the 90 laps on Sunday. These factors in combination with Dixon’s persistent fight for position with Will Power (giving him the P2 finish for Sunday), left Helio second in points and Dixon ahead by 25.

That in and of itself would have made for an interesting day and plenty of unexpected moments, but this is open-wheel racing and you truly never know what’s around the corner. Dario Franchitti knows this fact all too well. The four time series Champion and three time Indianapolis 500 victor was completing the last lap of a rough doubleheader weekend when disaster struck. Just to back up, Dario had his fingers caught in the driver’s side window of the truck driving him around the track on a parade lap earlier in the morning and was one of two cars that stalled and missed their grid lineups during the first standing start attempt on Sunday. The other car? Takuma Sato. The car he would end up colliding with during lap 89.

Now I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t believe in coincidence. Foreshadowing though? Yes. History repeating itself, as I mentioned earlier? Yes. I know that hindsight is 20/20 but just humor me. I also understand that not everyone will agree with where I go from here, and might think I am grasping at straws but I got into a very lengthy conversation with some very astute members of my #indyfamily on Twitter last night and we all connected some very strange dots…

  • Greg Moore broke his hand the day before he left us… I already mentioned how Dario had his hand smashed in the parade lap that morning.
  • James Hinchcliffe (who was riding alongside Dario during the parade lap Sunday morning) took the spot in the GoDaddy green machine with Andretti Autosport in 2012 – the car that Dan Wheldon would have been driving had we not lost him that previous season… the accident later that day was reminiscent of Dan’s and yet thankfully, Dario survived his crash.
  • Hinch also pays homage to Moore every race by wearing red racing gloves.

For me, it’s hard to ignore all these random & eerie incidences that seem to have foreshadowed Dario’s accident on Sunday. I mentioned I don’t believe in coincidence… and in that same breath, I don’t necessarily believe in destiny either. I don’t think things are already written out for us – I believe we have free will and choose our own path… but I also can’t deny that sometimes things happen and it’s hard to make sense of them in the moment. Then we look back and come to these realizations that maybe someone was watching over us, trying to warn us, trying to protect us. Whether that is legitimate or not, it does provide comfort and it does allow us to feel connected to those we have lost and miss so dearly.

After the absolutely horrifying last lap wreck at Sunday’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston, which sent Dario into a catch fence and careening back to the ground, we all held our breath, trying to wipe from our minds the immediate reference most of us had to Dan’s fatal crash in 2011. I cried, as I know many others did… unsure of Dario’s condition and almost too scared to ask. Many of us prayed. Maybe to a God we trust & believe in beyond all doubt, maybe to a loved one we know watches over us, maybe to the past drivers of our racing family that were taken from us much sooner than we were willing to let go of them… maybe just in an innate response of “Oh my God…” upon seeing the replay. But we all had that instantaneous moment (or endless string of moments) when our only thoughts and only concerns were for Dario.

Even though it was a matter of minutes, it felt like hours before we heard that he was “awake and alert” and that moment when Chip Ganassi calmed our worst fears by saying, “Dario is okay.”

As the day went on, well after the broadcast had concluded, and the podium ceremony was completed with the help of Hinch (his first podium since winning at Iowa in June) and his never ending supply of goofy faces and well, just general goofiness, we were able to breathe a cautious sigh of relief as information was relayed to us, the fans. Sources reported that Dario Franchitti did not have any life-threatening injuries, but had sustained two fractured vertebrae in his spine, a fractured right ankle and a concussion. Later that evening, he would undergo a successful surgery for his ankle and be admitted into the hospital for overnight observation.

If you saw the crash live, watched the replay at full speed during the NBC Sports race coverage or YouTubed it later… you know that the fact he is alive, is nothing short of a miracle. Let us not forget that 15 fans were also injured from debris in the stands, as well as one IndyCar Timing & Scoring official. As of the time of this writing, none of them have life-threatening injuries and the majority were evaluated & released by track medical officials shortly after the conclusion of the race. I did not want to get into the safety standards debate with this piece, but all I will say is that while race course safety is continually being developed, the catch fences and the racecar itself all did their jobs today. And I say this confidently based on one fact and one fact only… no one lost their life in this accident.

As I eluded to earlier, this accident was eerily similar to Dan Wheldon’s crash in Vegas, nearly two years ago to the day… and when you start to think about it, it’s kind of crazy how Dan’s extremely dedicated and focused efforts to the development of the DW12 racecar more than likely saved Dario’s life in this potentially tragic wreck. I strongly believe he had an angel with him this past Sunday… a lionhearted angel.