The race was immediately tense. The field tried to spread out slightly but with the high drag of the aero package, the draft kept the pack together. Only 6 laps in, Ryan Briscoe and Alex Tagliani touched wheels, though they were able to keep their cars pointed in the right direction. Cars were ducking, darting, weaving, and trying to survive to the first pit stop.
Nobody could be blamed for what happened. 34 cars running at 220 mph covering less than two football fields…all it takes is one small error of judgement and a high speed chess match turns into a demolition derby. Wade Cunningham and James Hinchcliffe set things off after making contact and getting loose in Turn 2. Since this happened smack in the middle of the field, one spinning car quickly became three, skidding towards the wall. As they did, the cars behind began to duck and dodge. At those speeds it’s difficult to slow down and in many cases it’s impossible to react in time. Multiple cars ran over each other as they drove into the accident unsighted. Wheldon was one of those cars, getting caught between two cars at nearly full speed. He sailed through the air and went straight into the fence with only the friction of the air to slow him down. Will Power also got airborne, as did Pippa Mann as they ran over their crashing competitors. Multiple cars caught fire as oil tanks ruptured in the impacts. The catch fences and SAFER barriers spat out thousands of pieces of shattered racecar as groups of cars collected in the middle of the track and centripetal force shot them towards the wall. The crash happened in Turn 2, but the debris of the 15 cars involved littered the entire back stretch.
IndyCar initially threw the yellow, but soon red flagged the race as it became apparent this would be a major cleanup. Not only were there over a dozen racecars to remove and sweep up, but the catch fence and barriers needed to be inspected and repaired. The live feed cut to Franchitti as he drove through the wreckage under yellow. It looked like a warzone with broken cars, smoldering parts, and safety trucks everywhere. Most drivers immediately climbed from their cars. Power was one of the few that did not as he was winded from his ferocious impact with the fence. As the TV helicopter flew overhead, images showed a dozen rescue workers swarming one particularly destroyed race car. While the ABC crew never named the driver, it was not hard to discern it was the car of Wheldon.
“That’s not a good sign,” was the call from ABC as they spotted the medical helicopter warming up. They were correct, when the safety team calls to start the helicopter, it is only because a driver is so badly injured he or she will skip the usual medical check at the on-track hospital and will be going straight to the ER nearby. An hour passed as the cars were cleaned up and the fences repaired. One by one the drivers exited the infield care center. There were two consistent themes: first, drivers were pissed. They were unhappy with the big pack of cars, they were upset with the overcrowded field, and they were upset with the relative inexperience of the field. Of the 34 starters, eight were rookies, five had fewer than three full seasons under their belt and another eight were part time drivers who only entered a handful of races a year. Nearly half of the starting field was running on little, or rusty knowledge. The second theme was concern about the condition of Dan Wheldon.