The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Jenna Fryer

The same mes­sage is re­peated at least once a year — af­ter a fright­en­ing crash, an in­jury, the death of a driver — that rac­ing at high speed any­where is in­her­ently danger­ous.

Scott Speed, a for­mer NASCAR and For­mula One driver, broke three ver­te­brae on a hard land­ing dur­ing qual­i­fy­ing last weekend for the Amer­i­can Ral­lyCross Cham­pi­onship Nitro World Games in Salt Lake City. He has been hos­pi­tal­ized in Utah.

Speed’s in­jury didn’t get nearly the same at­ten­tion as an IndyCar crash two days later at Po­cono Race­way that reignited a de­bate on the com­pat­i­bil­ity of the Pennsylvan­ia track and the open-wheel se­ries.

Justin Wil­son died of a head in­jury in 2015 when he was hit by debris from an­other car at Po­cono. Robert Wick­ens last year suf­fered a spinal cord in­jury that has con­fined him to a wheel­chair when his car sailed into the fence.

Then came Sun­day’s open­ing-lap de­ba­cle, a five-car ac­ci­dent that sent one driver to the hos­pi­tal, al­tered the cham­pi­onship race and put Po­cono square in the crosshairs of crit­ics who don’t want Indy cars hurtling around the 2.5-mile oval at 200 mph.

Felix Rosen­qvist com­plained of back pain and a headache af­ter his car hit the fence in the crash. He was re­leased from the hos­pi­tal and is await­ing IndyCar ap­proval to race again this weekend.

“Def­i­nitely feel lucky es­cap­ing with­out any se­ri­ous in­juries af­ter vis­it­ing the catch fence there,” the Swedish rookie posted on so­cial me­dia.

The other four driv­ers in­volved in Sun­day’s crash were not hurt — Alexan­der Rossi’s quest to win his first cham­pi­onship took a se­ri­ous blow — but that didn’t stop a slew of com­plaints about rac­ing at Po­cono. Some of them came from Wick­ens, who called the re­la­tion­ship be­tween IndyCar and Po­cono “toxic” and in need of a “divorce.”

The sit­u­a­tion might have been headed that way any­way as the se­ries and the track don’t have a con­tract for 2020, so it would be easy for both sides to just walk away from this tu­mul­tuous seven-year run. It’s not the solution sought by the three podium finishers, all se­ries cham­pi­ons, who in uni­son supported Po­cono re­main­ing on the IndyCar sched­ule.

“It’s a great oval for us. Ob­vi­ously some un­for­tu­nate ac­ci­dents here … that could hap­pen any­where,” race win­ner Will Power said. “Kind of got a bad rap for that. It’s a good race­track, man. A good track for rac­ing. I re­ally hope we come back, I do.”

Five-time IndyCar cham­pion Scott Dixon said “I feel bad for Po­cono” and pointed to on-track driver er­ror for its spate of spec­tac­u­lar crashes.

“If you look at Justin or Rob­bie, those can hap­pen any­where,” Dixon said. “I think the driv­ers in a lot of sit­u­a­tions can do a bet­ter job to help that sit­u­a­tion.”

And In­di­anapo­lis 500 win­ner Simon Pa­ge­naud said he loves rac­ing at Po­cono but ac­knowl­edged “when you’re trav­el­ing at such high speed, you know a crash is go­ing to be a big crash.”

What happened Sun­day be­gan even be­fore the green flag. Re­plays clearly show mul­ti­ple driv­ers fan­ning across the track in a fran­tic bid to pick up po­si­tions be­fore the green even waved. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who wound up with Takuma Sato’s car on top of his, cited the im­por­tance of track po­si­tion and dif­fi­culty in pass­ing for the over-aggressive start.

When Hunter-Reay, Sato and Rossi wound up three-wide fly­ing into the sec­ond turn, some­thing bad was bound to hap­pen. It was too early and no 500-mile race has ever been won on the first lap. Most think for­mer Indy 500 win­ner Sato was egre­giously at fault, but Sato thinks Rossi raced too hard and no mat­ter where the ac­tual blame falls ev­ery­one could have and should have raced smarter at the start of the race.

Alas, that is not the na­ture of a race car driver. So ac­ci­dents hap­pen, some­times with dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences. Driv­ers make mis­takes, equip­ment fails and tracks can present danger­ous con­di­tions.

Those are the stakes ev­ery time a race be­gins any­where in the world. Ev­ery driver knows and ac­cepts this, and when they don’t want to do it any­more, they don’t. Max Chilton ear­lier this year said he’d no longer race ovals. Ed Car­pen­ter only races on ovals.

Now comes the re­newed de­bate about Po­cono.

Walk­ing away would prob­a­bly be the smart fi­nan­cial move for Po­cono. The track was such an im­por­tant part of open­wheel rac­ing through the 1970s and 1980s but can’t be break­ing even as it hosts IndyCar in its proud ef­fort to sup­port the se­ries.

But there aren’t any other ovals court­ing IndyCar right now, and the loss of Po­cono would leave the se­ries with only four races not on street or road cour­ses (the 2020 sched­ule has not been an­nounced).

One of those tracks is In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way, where there have been 73 fa­tal­i­ties since 1909 in­clud­ing 42 driv­ers. No­body wants to drop that race from the sched­ule.

It’s up to IndyCar to push for­ward with its safety in­no­va­tions and en­sure its cars are com­pat­i­ble ev­ery­where it races. A small de­flec­tor added in front of the cock­pit ear­lier this year may have worked in stop­ping one of James Hinch­cliffe’s tires, and a full cock­pit-protecting aero­screen is com­ing next year. But IndyCar needs its cars to stay on the ground, and Rosen­qvist’s air­borne car Sun­day is a trou­ble­some as any­thing that might be wrong with Po­cono.

IndyCar and its driv­ers need a can­did dis­cus­sion on the risk ver­sus re­ward of returning to Po­cono, and track of­fi­cials need to de­cide if it’s even worth the has­sle. Po­cono next year is host­ing a NASCAR dou­ble­header, a large enough en­deavor with­out also open­ing the gates for an IndyCar Se­ries that maybe shouldn’t be there.

There’s no easy answer to this, and losing Po­cono is go­ing to be a blow to IndyCar if it can’t re­place the race. The ques­tion is whether it’s worth it any­more.

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