Social distancing partly to blame in pileup

Alex Andrejev The Charlotte Observer (TNS)
Cars pit during the NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 5 in Indianapolis.

A pileup on pit road during NASCAR's Sunday Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway sent at least six cars to the garage and out of the race, and one team member to the hospital.

The rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney's No. 12 team, Zach Price, suffered a lower left leg injury during a multi-car accident on pit road, Team Penske said. Although Price was shown on NBC's broadcast being carried away on a stretcher, smiling and flashing a "thumbs up" in the wake of the incident, the wreck had teams shaken up.

"That's when racing stops and compassion comes out to a fellow crew member that could be hurt," said crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, whose Front Row Motorsports No. 34 team was stationed in the pit box just ahead of where Price's leg was caught between multiple 3,500-pound moving cars.

The incident quickly ended the day for six drivers; Corey LaJoie, Martin Truex Jr., Justin Allgaier, Ryan Preece, Brennan Poole and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all exited the race after suffering damage. Blaney and Chris Buescher were also involved in the wreck and did not finish the race.

"I was scared for my guys," Blickensderfer said. "I immediately kinda called off the pit stop and told them to take cover. A tire was flying at our car. It hit our spoiler."

Blickensderfer, who started as a crew chief in the Cup Series in 2009 and said that it was one of the first times in his career that he "got quiet during his job," said the pileup occurred when one of his team's driver, Michael McDowell, pulled into the pit box early, forcing teams behind him to check up.

"Michael didn't do anything wrong," Blickensderfer said. "He turned, and because of how narrow (Indy) is, you don't get to turn to the left and slow down. You kind of slow down as you're turning into your box, and (the cars) just keep stacking up."

But Blickensderfer said the pileup, which forced the No. 48 car of Allgaier and the No. 15 car of Poole into Price as they raced their vehicles from 200 miles per hour down to the 55 mile-per-hour pit-road speed, could have been prevented by having spotters in a better position.

"We need spotters to help say, 'Hey they're checking up in front of you,' " Blickensderfer said. "So the guy three- four- five- back, they don't just keep piling into it."

Spotters were moved from their usual place on the course's iconic, 13-story pagoda tower - which allows them to see all the turns and pit road - to the grandstands overlooking Turns 1 and 3 in order to abide by social distancing protocols during the coronavirus pandemic, but the change caused another safety hazard, according to Blickensderfer.

"With spotters only down in Turn 1 - the primary spotter - they have no view of what's going on there," Blickensderfer said. "So that really hurt, so we need to get them back on the pagoda as soon as possible, which will help that situation."

Spotters also said their view was obstructed.

"What a great place to watch a race," Freddie Kraft, spotter for Bubba Wallace's No. 43 team, said on the Door Bumper Clear podcast. "What a completely terrible place to spot a race from."

"Your peripheral vision in that spot we were in was really limited," Kraft added. "And coming off of (Turn) 2, we had a good angle for a hot second, and then we had a view of the (speedway) museum."

Spotter for Joey Logano's No. 22 car, T.J. Majors, and spotter for Clint Bowyer's No. 14 car, Brett Griffin, also said on the podcast that it was tough to do their jobs at Indy.

Although spotter position shouldn't be an issue when the sport returns to Brickyard next year (and spotters are likely able to return to the pagoda), it continues to be a moving discussion point for NASCAR officials as racing resumes amid the pandemic.

Usually spotters are socially distanced, six to 10 feet apart, in the top row of the grandstands. That's where they'll be for this weekend's race at Kentucky, according to NASCAR. But the sanctioning body is still working out details for where spotters will be placed for the All-Star Race at Bristol next week since 30,000 fans will be allowed to return, and will occupy the backstretch grandstands.

NASCAR said it has not yet decided where spotters will be placed for the race, nor races beyond that, as the latest update to NASCAR's revised 2020 schedule is expected to be announced Wednesday.

A minor pileup at Indy is tough to avoid given the narrowness of pit road and the pit stalls designed for IndyCars, as Blickensderfer noted, but spotter position could have helped prevent potentially serious contact that occurred between a car and crew member Sunday.

Price is recovering at home and will be replaced by Curtis Thompson for the next race at Kentucky this weekend, according to Team Penske. And as Price recovers, NASCAR will be determining where to place spotters for Bristol and future races.

Wherever NASCAR decides to put them, they have to be able to see.