Rain and more rain was predicted for the 2019 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, but the dark clouds weren’t just in the sky. The specter of Robert Wicken’s 2018 horrific crash into the fence at Turn 2 lurked overhead as NTT IndyCar Series teams set up in the paddocks and welcomed race fans for the weekend. The 2.5 mile (4.023 km) Tricky Triangle seems to have its own micro climate with weather unlike anywhere else in Pennsylvania. Saturday’s first practice was scuttled when low cloud cover prevented the MediVac from flying to the track, then a torrential downpour quashed Qualifying. A two-hour practice session was scheduled for the afternoon once the track was dried. Championship points determined the starting grid, putting Josef Newgarden in pole position followed by Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon, and Will Power. A hopeful Tony Kanaan had the fastest lap in qualifying, a blistering 216.354 mph.
There was hope for Sunday’s race – more rain wasn’t predicted until late afternoon, giving the drivers just enough time to finish the 200 laps before thunderstorms were supposed to blow through. The race didn’t stick to plan, though, and after the safety car pulled away and the racing started, it was deja-vu “all over again”. Three deep in the corner in the first lap, Takuma Sato pulled forward on the high side of the turn and clipped Rossi, who then went into Ryan Hunter-Reay on the low side. Sato careened into the wall collecting Felix Rosenqvist, whose race car eerily rode along the wall but fortunately avoided barreling into the fence. James Hinchcliffe – who can’t seem to catch a break at Pocono, and was also involved in last year’s Turn 2 crash along with Sato – hit the wall while trying to avoid the crash. Sato’s #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan car turned upside down and was on fire, but he walked away after extracted. All except Rosenqvist were cleared by medical fairly quickly; Rosenqvist was alert and walking but went to hospital as a precaution. A 45-minute red flag delayed the race while the fence was once again repaired in Turn 2. Hinch returned to the race after being cleared. Despite the severe penalties for repairing the cars under caution, Rossi’s team fixed the car and re-entered the pit on Lap 75, and Hunter-Reay followed soon after.
Pagenaud snagged the lead early on, then his Team Penske mate Will Power took the lead in Lap 48, jockeying for the lead several more times during the race. By Lap 115, Power was in the lead followed by Dixon and Pagenaud. They would stay the top three until a full course yellow came out on Lap 126, quickly followed by a red flag to return to the pits because of lightning in the distance. The race was soon called and Power declared the winner as fans evacuated the stands. As the trophies were awarded in the cramped media center sans champagne and confetti, the violent storm arrived to unleash a barrage of hail.
While originally contrite about the crash, Sato holds firm that he didn’t turn into Rossi as he shot forward. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing issued a rare statement supporting his insistence that on the cockpit camera footage, he didn’t move his hands to turn. Rossi begs to differ, and the debate continues. The controversy over the crash was immediate on social media. Robert Wickens tweeted, “How many times do we have to go through the same situation before we can all accept that an IndyCar should not race at Pocono. It’s just a toxic relationship and maybe it’s time to consider a divorce. I’m very relieved (to my knowledge) that everyone is okay from that scary crash.” Sage Karam also tweeted, “Glad to see everyone is ok. Never a good feeling when you see something like that especially when it’s your brothers. Think the answer is clear that we should not be here. In my opinion that question was answered awhile ago.”
Commenters weighed in in various forums echoing Wickens’ sentiment, even calling for a suspension or full ban on Sato from the sport. However, the response from the three winners in the post-race press conference was a bit more measured. Regarding the actual crash, Power said. “Looking at that replay, I don’t know what happened there, whether Sato got a seam or something, but man – you just can’t do that. The seams down the back there, like you’ll see cars move around a lot. And maybe that’s what happened. Being three wide is pretty tough, going in there and getting close because it’ll move half a foot, it moves six inches either way when you’re on them. It sucked too to see it in Turn 2 on the first lap, I feel bad for the guys that were taken out that were in the championship too, especially for Rossi. But man, you just gotta respect these places, you do, in every situation, you can’t screw around much.”
Regarding the question on whether INDYCAR should continue racing at Pocono, Dixon weighed in saying, “Honestly, I feel bad for Pocono, the group of people here work extremely hard… some of the race was fantastic, it’s getting some really good momentum and hopefully it does continue, but (it’s) down to weather and some mistakes that happened on track that honestly could happen anywhere… I think the drivers in a lot of situations could do a better job to help that situation. Honestly, I hope we come back and I want to say a big thank you to everyone here at Pocono, the fans and everyone that comes out because it’s definitely a tough place. Will can tell you how rewarding it is to win here because it is so difficult to get it right.” Power continued, “I agree, it’s a great oval for us. Obviously it’s an unfortunate accident that, like Scott said, could happen anywhere, they kind of got a bad rap for that. But the crowd’s up 15% every year we come back so it’s getting better… It’s a good race track, man, it’s a good track for racing and I really hope we come back, I do… it’s hard to find good ovals these days that suit our cars.” Pagenaud added, “…it is a fun track to drive on, and really unfortunate because we’re close to New York, it’s a great market for IndyCar… And personally I love superspeedways, I think it’s been a bad – exactly what they said, a bad set of circumstances – and obviously when you’re travelling at such high speed a crash is a big crash. Hopefully we can come back and keep working with the people at Pocono, as a driver I really enjoy coming here.” INDYCAR at this time has not announced whether or not they will renew at Pocono for 2020.