Process for screening Indy 500 drivers questioned after Dixon crash

The fiery crash that sent Scott Dixon’s car airborne on lap 53 of this year’s Indianapolis 500 has some racing experts—or at least members of one team—wondering if the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway need to do a better job blocking certain drivers from competing in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Shortly after Dixon’s Ganassi Racing car hit Jay Howard’s car and went flying into the inside retaining wall, Ganassi owner Chip Ganassi told the IndyCar Series Radio Network that race and series officials need to do a better job screening drivers and determining who should and shouldn’t be in the Indianapolis 500.

Ganassi told the radio network that is an issue he thinks needs to be discussed among series leaders.

Speedway President Doug Boles told IBJ he hasn’t heard any such complaints in the wake of this year’s race.

“The IndyCar Series vets all those drivers in a pretty stringent way,” Boles said. “If a driver gets to the Indy 500, they’ve demonstrated their expertise in a significant way.”

Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indianapolis 500 champ and a teammate of Dixon’s at Ganassi, echoed Chip Ganassi’s sentiments hours after the race in pointed comments made to WRTV-TV Channel 6. Kanaan’s car just missed being collected in the accident.

Kanaan and Ganassi pointed out that Howard hadn’t raced in the Indianapolis 500 in six years. It’s also been that long since the 36-year-old Englishman has raced in the IndyCar Series.

Kanaan and Ganassi also intimated that Howard needed to do a better job of letting faster cars go by.

Howard, in a post-crash interview with ABC, blamed the accident on Ryan Hunter-Reay. Howard said Hunter-Reay forced him higher up on the track and into what is called “the marbles,” small pieces of rubber shed off tires that can cause tire slippage if they are run over.

Ganassi and Kanaan noted that Howard was already several (seven, actually) laps behind the lead when his car went into the outside wall, then rebounded into a collision path with Dixon, who was on the lead lap and appeared to be a title contender.

Incredibly, both Dixon and Howard walked away without serious injury.

Despite his race day problems—which included almost running out of fuel before his first pit stop—Howard wasn’t exactly a joke during the month of May. The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver, who earned a spot in the Indy 500 when Tony Stewart and his foundation entered a car and chose him to drive, turned in the fastest lap in practice (226.744 mph) on May 18 at the famed 2.5-mile oval.

Howard qualified in the middle of row seven between three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves and hard-driving youngster Sage Karam.

The Indianapolis 500 was Howard’s 13th IndyCar race, so he's not a complete newbie. It’s also worth mentioning that Howard was the 2006 champion of the Indy Lights Series, the IndyCar Series’ top feeder series.

Additionally, IndyCar Series spokesman Curt Cavin pointed out that all Indy 500 drivers—with the exception of James Davison, a late substitution for the injured Sebastian Bourdais—had 30-plus hours of on-track practice time in the weeks leading up to this year’s Indianapolis 500.

“Some of that was very competitive. There was a lot of race-like activity and Jay was in there,” Cavin told IBJ.

Boles said he’s comfortable with the screening process for drivers to compete in the Indianapolis 500, where cars routinely reach speeds higher than 220 miles an hour.

Rookies are required to go through an extensive orientation and testing process before they are allowed on the track. Veterans who haven’t been on the Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval in a while are required to take a much less arduous refresher course before they can get back on the track.

Howard isn’t the first Indy 500 driver to draw the ire of the other racers. Milka Duno was not so affectionately known as “a moving chicane” throughout the IndyCar paddock. (In racing, a "chicane" is an obstacle.) Other drivers have been criticized for buying their way into the Indianapolis 500. 

The issue of trying to fill the 33-car field is a big one for the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With a limited number of drivers and teams able to come up with the money needed to race at Indianapolis and fewer than 25 drivers in the IndyCar Series fulltime, there are bound to be a few wildcards in the field of 33 at Indianapolis. 

And despite what Speedway officials have said from time to time, that’s an important threshold to maintain.

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