Races like the crash-fest in Michigan thrill fans, not drivers


BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Now that the Firestone Indy 400 is in the history books, the IndyCar Series drivers can breathe a big, collective sigh of relief.

Not too many are shedding a tear that the open-wheel championship won't be returning to Michigan International Speedway.

Dario Franchitti's frightening 200 mph somersault was a graphic visual expression of what many drivers and outside observers are always thinking when the IndyCar Series races on superspeedways: That a major accident is always just a split-second away, with potentially catastrophic results.

Questions about the aerodynamic instability of the current generation of IRL cars have subsided in the past couple of years, but Franchitti's spectacular flight demonstrated that the Dallara-Honda package is still balanced on a knife-edge. The wreck happened when Dario's car touched wheels with the machine driven by Dan Wheldon.

Franchitti didn't lay the blame on Wheldon for the accident, but several other drivers, including Danica Patrick, singled out the flamboyant and brave Englishman. Not surprisingly, Tomas Scheckter was also accused of overly aggressive driving.

"I talked to Dan about it," Franchitti calmly remarked. "He bobbed when I weaved and we just got together. Whatever happened, we touched and the next thing I knew I was upside down.

"I opened my eyes and I'm going backwards about 30 feet in the air. I thought to myself, 'This isn't good,' and when I stopped and realized I was in one piece, I couldn't believe it. I'm a lucky guy."

The seven-car wreck took Wheldon out of the race, but he seemed surprisingly void of emotion afterward, given that one of his closest friends on the circuit was briefly launched into the heavens.

"It looked like I was coming up just a touch while Dario was coming down a little," he said. "You know, just normal superspeedway stuff and unfortunately, we touched wheels. You try to find every little bit of real estate you can out there and in a race like that you know you are going to get crowded in a corner. You've just got to give yourself and others a little room, and we just ran out of room."

Race winner Tony Kanaan was near the back of the field when the accident occurred, and he was one of the seven drivers who dodged the debris and continued to the finish.

"That's the first time that being almost last paid off," Kanaan wryly observed. "I got chopped off by someone and ended up in the back, so I was behind the whole thing."

But the fiery Brazilian was quietly seething at the way some of his rivals treated the afternoon. He said it showed a lack of respect.

"People were chopping people off, banging wheels and cars flying," Kanaan said. "I mean, that's not a way to race. I definitely think a lot of people disrespected each other out there, and it's not anybody's fault besides ours -- and the Indy Racing League not [taking] measures with the drivers that have been driving a crazy race.

"I did not enjoy a single bit of it, apart from Victory Lane. So I would say it was a bit crazy out there."

Although cars have rarely taken flight, Sunday afternoon's carnage was right in line with nearly 40 years of open-wheel history at Michigan. Yet MIS is not even the IRL's scariest track. That honor falls to Texas Motor Speedway, followed by other 1.5-mile tracks like this weekend's venue, Kentucky Speedway. At those superspeedways, the cars are going just as fast as they do at Michigan or Indianapolis, but they are compressed onto a shorter circuit.

It's a tricky situation for the IRL to manage. On the one hand, Sunday's wheel-to-wheel dicing is the kind of action that put the IndyCar Series on the map. But thanks to engine and aerodynamic changes implemented for 2007, that kind of racing has been conspicuously lacking this year.

Championship contender Scott Dixon likened IRL races at Michigan to NASCAR restrictor plate races. Fans love close quarters, but drivers hate it.

Kanaan said races run under the IRL formula at a track like Michigan are tougher than the old CART superspeedway races there, even though the speeds are 10-20 mph slower. That's because it's even more stressful when there is always another car 6 inches away, especially given the inconsistencies some drivers exhibit.

"For us, it was just like death row waiting for somebody to kill you," Kanaan said. "I knew it was going to happen. I knew it. I avoided two times sending Scheckter to the grandstands.

"I knew somebody in the front was going to get stubborn enough and say, 'I'm not going to give up,' and that's what happened there.

I opened my eyes and I'm going backwards about 30 feet in the air. I thought to myself, 'This isn't good,' and when I stopped and realized I was in one piece, I couldn't believe it. I'm a lucky guy.

Dario Franchitti

"Really it was just a bomb waiting to explode. Somebody just pulled the plug and then they just wait. I saw at least 25 potential cars that could have flipped at some point in this race. Only one flipped, and thank God he's OK. But I really don't think it's a way to race like that."

Kanaan had a close-up view of the risks Wheldon and Scheckter were willing to take in order to lead the race, and he wasn't happy with what he saw.

"The way they were both driving, they did not want to give up," Kanaan said. "So I said, all right, it's a long race, and it paid off.

"I'm not saying that you've got to give up, but you've got to respect each other, too. I have to say a lot of guys knew what they were doing at that point, and they did it on purpose."

In all, the Firestone Indy 400 was slowed by five crashes. And while Franchitti's looked the most spectacular, Helio Castroneves may have wound up with the only injury. The Brazilian had X-rays taken (which turned out negative) of his right knee after his Lap 58 get-together with countryman Vitor Meira.

The knee obviously wasn't hurting HCN when he chose to make the half-mile walk to the infield care center, gesticulating all the way and hurling his HANS device neck brace in a manner worthy of Danica Patrick.

Sarah Fisher suffered a strained neck in a one-car Lap 83 crash caused by a mechanical failure on her Aamco Transmission car.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.