James: Drivers try to cope with Justin Wilson’s trauma – USA TODAY
LONG POND, Pa. — The fading of the helicopter blades revealed how unsettlingly quiet Pocono Raceway had become just minutes after the end of the Verizon IndyCar Series race Sunday.
Ryan Hunter-Reay had won, and a muted celebration would begin in victory lane. Even he and his team seemed to struggle to care too much, though. Team owner Michael Andretti said something to the former series champion and left for Lehigh Valley Health Network Cedar Crest Hospital in Allentown, Pa., where that helicopter was carrying one of Hunter-Reay’s teammates.
Justin Wilson is popular, affable and bright, and the details of his head injury suffered when he was struck by debris that had reached Hunter-Reay at that point — “All I know is that he was unconscious. He was not responding. He was airlifted. That’s all obviously very bad details,” he said — had also filtered to those who lingered after the race in the Adam Petty Garage. That name, an homage to the 19-year-old NASCAR driver who perished in a crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000, was in and of itself yet another reminder of something they all knew and dealt with in their own ways: motorsports in general and open wheel racing in particularly is inherently dangerous and often cruelly random.
Just after 9 p.m. ET, IndyCar released a statement on Wilson’s condition, saying he had suffered a severe head injury and was in a coma, his condition critical.
That Hunter-Reay’s 16th career win tied him for 29th on the all-time list with Dan Wheldon was just another morbid irony. Wheldon died Oct. 16, 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and is the last IndyCar driver to perish in a racing accident.
There were prayers for Wilson and his wife and two young daughters but also ashen faces and concern. Everyone hoped for heartening news for all the right reasons and to console themselves about what they do for a living and how it affects those who love them. It’s not easy.
“I’m not going to act like I have no fear, ‘No problem, I just put it all aside,’” Hunter-Reay said. “No, you think about family, for sure. You think about your health, your well-being. The Indy car is much more dangerous than NASCAR, and I think that’s something that is more on our minds than it is in NASCAR or sports car racing. It’s more in our minds than in some other forms of racing. I’m not saying we’re better or anything because of it. It’s just a part of it.
“There’s fathers out there. There’s husbands. There’s brothers, sisters. It’s something that absolutely we think about. We hope for the best with it.”
There was no outrage from drivers about the level of safety during the race, at least not in terms of the much-maligned aerodynamic body kits in their first season of implementation. There was no post-race furor such as in June when numerous drivers, including defending series champion Will Power and current points leader Juan Pablo Montoya, decried the high-risk pack racing that had developed at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The type of pack racing that occurred during Wheldon’s crash.
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It was a good race despite some crashes, they said. Hunter-Reay, while sensitive to Wilson’s injury, decreed the race action “phenomenal.” And then, as it too often does in the sport, something happened, as a piece from the front of Sage Karam’s car appeared to strike Wilson in the head as his car passed through Karam’s debris field in Turn 1 on Lap 179 of 200.
Ryan Briscoe, whose job with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports was created this season when James Hinchcliffe was punctured by a suspension piece during an Indianapolis 500 practice, ended the Fontana race when his car tumbled through the front stretch. Briscoe spoke of “overall, really good for the quality of racing.”
And then something happened.
Ed Carpenter, whose Chevrolet had gone airborne in another pre-Indianapolis 500 practice incident, stood with his family in the garage amid the gear they would lug back home. It had been a very good race at a difficult track — a high-speed 2.5-mile layout — in cars that are more of a chore to drive than widely believed, he said.
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And then it changed. It was, Carpenter said, “just one of those days, kind of crazy.” At the end of such days, drivers and families do what they can, which is sort through the emotions of it all and in the meantime, help.
“We just pull together,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s all we can do. Justin, a lot of us have been doing this a long time and when we started we didn’t have families. Now we have families. I know my wife has already talked to Julia (Wilson) and everyone is kind of figuring out how they can help get everyone where they need to be and pray and hope for the best.”
And they invariably return to the racetrack because that’s what they do. And they hope this day doesn’t happen again. But they know better.
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