Anatomy of an Accident: The Tenth and Final Caution of the ‘500’

After the jaw-dropping carnage of the first caution… a plethora of engine retirements, some debris and two single-car incidents yielded another eight yellow flags. The final caution of the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was a spectacular wreck involving five cars, all running in the front half of the pack. Upon watching the television broadcast back at home, I wanted to take the time to dissect the accident. And if I’m being honest, the frame-by-frames and on-board views made it much more intense than my initial observation.

James Davison (No. 18, Dale Coyne Racing), driving for the injured Sebastien Bourdais, was a contender at the front and even for the lead as the day wore on. He started in P33 and at one point was leading the event, marking his first laps led in IndyCar. You can throw that happening at pit strategy or falling of yellows, but those were cases for everyone’s day and Davison’s really was impressive. Even more so, when you respect the fact that he had less than a week to prepare for the ‘500’ and it was his first time in an Indy car in 2 years.

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When the field returned to green at lap 183, Davison and Oriol Servia (No. 16, RLL Racing) made initial contact (back left of Davison, right front of Servia) and both headed to the outside wall on the exit of Turn 1. Davison’s hit was head on while Servia very impressively avoided hitting the wall, all while spinning and then facing the wrong direction. The impact for him came at entrance of Turn 2 when Davison’s car, wrecked and out of the driver’s control, backed into the right side of the No. 16, with one of Davison’s still-tethered tires and suspension barely missing Servia’s helmet. The part-time RLL driver spoke about the contact after being cleared,

“I was aggressive but clean all race. When (James) Davison was outside, he just closed, closed, closed on me and I had nowhere to go. I turned as much as I could. I was off the throttle. One little move and we touched and that was it. You cannot go back in time, unfortunately. I’m just so pleased with the effort of everyone on the team. I’ll be back. I’m going to win this race one day. I am.”

Davison was not as clear in his causation of the incident, but did take responsibility for any mistakes during the race and practices,

“I did the best I could with the limited practice I had. I made a couple of mistakes here and there, so (I’m) sorry to any of the drivers that I may have upset. I just got a good restart and felt I got tagged (by Oriol Servia). I need to see a replay to see if that’s indeed the case.”

James Hinchcliffe (No. 5, SPM Racing) was well behind the initial catalyst and just in front of the Penske bunch. Given the logistics, it seemed he might escape the situation. Right up until he didn’t. Hinchcliffe was struck on his right side, by the nose of the No. 12 Team Penske, piloted by Will Power. The No. 5 then made contact with Davison’s car up by the outside wall on the entrance of Turn 2 – and that impact is what moved the aforementioned tethered-tire so close to Servia’s helmet.

“Wrong place wrong time. Gutted for everyone on the (No. 5) team because we didn’t have the same pace as last year but we were trucking away and fighting and got ourselves in a good spot (Top 10) at the end, so thank you very much to them for all their hard work all month.”

But, where exactly did Power come from in the first place, you ask?

Well, in the attempt to avoid the chaos occurring in front of him, Power was just going around the outside of teammate Simon Pagenaud (No. 1, Team Penske) when the smoke cloud appeared ahead. In an attempt to avoid not just the chaos in front of him, but also from taking our his teammate, Power (in the short chute at this second) actually turned the wheel to the right and took his foot off the throttle. The No. 12 got looser in that maneuver than he hoped, as he jarred it back to the left, cutting off Pagenaud and nosing straight into side pod of Hinchcliffe. The damage was great enough to take both out for the remaining 17 laps of the event.

“I’m not sure what happened out there. All I know that I was sliding backward. It was an up and down day for the Verizon Chevy. Then, we got caught up in that deal at the end that ended our day. We’ll move on to Detroit. The thing about this race (the Indy 500) is that we get to turn the page pretty quickly.”

It’s hard to fathom how Pagenaud escaped the incident at all, honestly. It might have something as simple as having a reason time a fraction of a second sooner than Power and Hinchcliffe, allowing him to come off that throttle and avoid being collected in their contact. He skated down low, with Power and Hinch connected in front of him, and then his other teammate Josef Newgarden (No. 2, Team Penske), having lost control and heading back out to the track fast, and right in front of the yellow Menard’s Chevy. The two had to have missed each other by about a foot. If Newgarden had been going a fraction of a second slower, or Pagenaud a fraction of a second faster, we may have seen a launching scenario similar to that of Dixon and Howard earlier in the race.

“It wasn’t the finish we wanted today for the Menards Chevrolet team. But for the big picture it was a decent day. We’re still in that top group in points (three-way tie for second) as we head to Detroit. That’s a place that suits us pretty well. The (Indianapolis) 500 remains a goal and we’ll take another shot at it next year.”

Let’s examine how Josef ended up becoming collateral damage in this incident. He was behind teammates Pagenaud and Power, and seemed to react very quickly and got to a low line upon recognition of the issue on track. Unfortunately, the line was a little bit too low and he lost control of the car, the left side making contact with the inside wall and ricocheting the Hum by Verizon Chevy back up into the mess he was trying to avoid. At one point even facing oncoming traffic, and his back left pod bumping into the same pod on the No. 5 Arrow Honda of Hinchcliffe. Newgarden was able to avoid the nose of his car going into the outside wall at that point, but he was still done competing.

“It was an OK day. We just got caught up in that wreck there at the end. That hurt us. When we were up front we were good. If we would have been up front the whole time, I think we could have finished in the top five. We performed really well today, things just didn’t go our way.”

It was such a complicated incident and that’s why I wanted to look into it, understanding the intricacies of how everyone involved, had the outcome they did. The anatomy of a racing accident is always easier to look at intently when you know all of the drivers ended up being uninjured. And just as with the the other two multi-car accidents this past Sunday, it’s the advancements in safety implemented through the engineering of the cars and the track components that give us that result. Engineering beforehand in combination with the response time of professionals on site, make an inherently dangerous sport like racing, something worthy of the title “entertainment” and safe enough to welcome in-person spectators.

Just as I hope to never stop covering the sport I love and attending the tracks that feel like home, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that those behind the scenes and the unsung heroes (whose songs have gained more clarity and volume in recent years), will never stop working to make all the elements of racing safer on a daily basis for every individual that chooses to enjoy it, no matter their depth of involvement.

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Feature photo credit: ABC Network, Screencap from SB Nation
In-article photo credit: IndyCar – Doug Mathews/Chris Jones/Joe Skibinski/Jim Haines/Shawn Gritzmacher/David Yowe