LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — The black clouds that enveloped Pocono and officially brought the IndyCar race to a premature end didn’t appear until the halfway point. But they’ve really been hanging over the track since the series returned to the mountains in 2013.
A fatal crash. A promising career wrecked by paralysis. And again Sunday, a first-lap demolition derby that sent another driver to the hospital and stirred an angry mob howling for IndyCar to get the heck out of town once and for all.
It may be a moot point, IndyCar and Pocono don’t have a deal for a 2020 race.
But for Robert Wickens, the Canadian confined to a wheelchair after last year’s accident, IndyCar has no place on the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway.
“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,” he tweeted.
The counter argument was posed from the Australian snapping victory lane photos inside a cramped Pocono media center as rain pounded the track outside. Will Power was in the right position Sunday to claim the win when lightning struck in the area to not only win the race, he ended the potential for his first winless season since 2006 and he took the checkered flag at Pocono for the third time in four years.
“I really hope we come back, I do,” Power said. “It’s hard for us to find good ovals that suit our cars.”
IndyCar at Pocono has turned into perhaps the scariest race day in auto racing, 500 miles of danger for drivers on the 2 1/2-mile track and white knuckles and clasped hands for anyone watching the event.
Justin Wilson died in 2015 from a head injury after being struck by debris from another car. Wickens was paralyzed in an early-lap accident last year. His car shot into a fence, leaving the promising IndyCar driver paralyzed from the waist down.
The green flag had barely been dropped when 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato used an aggressive — arguably foolish — move to trigger a wreck that sent Felix Rosenqvist to the hospital.
Sato tried to shoot a gap on the first lap, cut off Alexander Rossi and connected with Ryan Hunter-Reay in a crash that left cars and debris strewn across the track. Sato’s car landed upside down on Hunter-Reay’s Honda.
“I can’t even begin to understand how after last year Takuma thinks that’s acceptable,” Rossi said. “It’s disgraceful.”
Rosenqvist hit the fence nose first and his car slammed back on the track. Rosenqvist did not suffer life-threatening injuries and was cleared.
“Definitely feel lucky escaping without any serious injuries after visiting the catch fence there,” he tweeted.
Wickens, who remains resolute in his mission to race again, said on Twitter that IndyCar should no longer race at the track.
“It’s just a toxic relationship and maybe it’s time to consider a divorce,” he wrote. “I’m very relieved (to my knowledge) that everyone is okay from that scary crash.”
Sato pulled out his phone in the paddock and showed frame-by-frame footage from the in-car camera of the incident and said he was going “dead straight” until he brushed Rossi’s Honda which jolted the car down the track.
“So why am I the one to be blamed,” Sato asked.
Sato said he met with IndyCar and the situation would be reviewed.
“They are just on hold at the moment, there’s no judgment,” he said. “They already said there is no punishment.”
James Hinchliffe also was caught up in the crash and served with Rossi a 10-lap penalty because of car repairs under the red flag. The race was stopped for 45 minutes and two minor mesh patches were needed to repair the fence.
Sage Karam, who races sporadically in IndyCar, agreed it was time for the series to move on from Pocono. Karam spun into the wall in the 2015 Pocono race and debris from his car struck Wilson.
“I think the answer is clear that we should not be here. In my opinion that question was answered awhile ago,” Karam wrote. “I think it’s a great track it’s just not meant for indycars. We need to be smart and move on and go to tracks that fit these cars. I love oval racing and want it in Indycar I just simply don’t love Indycar at pocono.”
Rossi, who won Pocono last year, saw his IndyCar championship hopes take a serious blow because of the wreck. He entered just 16 points behind IndyCar points leader Josef Newgarden and fell to 35 points back.
Power raced to his 36th career victory when the race was called with 72 laps left because of lightning and severe weather in the area. The Team Penske driver won the 2014 series championship.
Not long after Power had his win, it started pouring at the track (lightning strikes at Pocono after a rain-shortened NASCAR race killed one fan in 2012) and he was ushered to the media center for a makeshift podium celebration. Scott Dixon was second and Simon Pagenaud was third. Newgarden, the 2017 series champion, finished fifth.
With three races left, Newgarden leads Rossi by 35 points (535-500), Pagenaud by 40 points and Dixon by 52 points. Newgarden and Pagenaud are both trying to win for team owner Roger Penske.
“He’s my teammate, I can only think of good things for him, but I want to win,” Pagenaud said. “It’s good to be in it. We’re going to keep pushing.”
Pagenaud, the Indy 500 champion, recently brought the Borg-Warner Trophy to Paris.
“When you bring this amazing trophy with all the faces on it, it just wakes up people,” he said.
Team Penske has held the edge on ovals, with Newgarden winning at Texas and Iowa, Pagenaud winning the Indianapolis 500, and now Power at Pocono.
IndyCar races Saturday at Gateway International Raceway. Power won the race.
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