The IndyCar season has just four races left, and the next one — at Pocono Raceway on Sunday — has every team in the paddock thinking about a lot more than the finish line.
The series has a double dose of sadness to contend with — the death a year ago of 37-year-old Justin Wilson after he was struck in the helmet by debris during the Pocono race, and the death less than two weeks ago of 27-year-old Bryan Clauson after a stunning crash during an open-wheel event in Kansas.
"It's definitely going to be weighing heavy on our hearts," said Marco Andretti, who grew up in nearby Nazareth and counts Pocono as his home track. "We just lost another friend of ours, Bryan Clauson. It's definitely heavy hearts."
Wilson's death was surprising. Sage Karam was in the lead when he spun and slammed into the wall. A split second later, as Wilson drove around the accident, the nosecone from Karam's car landed in Wilson's cockpit and struck him in the head. The Englishman died the next day. IndyCar later announced that aerodynamic components of the cars, including the nosecone, would be tethered to the vehicles.
Clauson was having a season to remember. Clauson, who drove the No. 88 in the Indianapolis 500 and finished 23rd after leading three laps midway through the race, was chasing USAC's all-time wins mark (he had piled up 117) and was well on his way to complete his idea of "Circular Insanity" — driving in 200 events this season.
Regarded as perhaps the best open-wheel dirt driver in the country, he was leading the Belleville Midget Nationals on Aug. 6 when he crashed while trying to pass a lapped car. After barrel-rolling along the wall, his No. 17 came to a stop on the track and was then slammed violently by another competitor.
Clauson was airlifted to a Nebraska hospital and died the next night surrounded by his family.
Dale Coyne Racing announced Tuesday that Conor Daly will drive the No. 88 in Sunday's IndyCar race to honor Clauson. Daly wrote on Twitter: "Honored to carry the initials of a legend on the side of our car this weekend. Let's ride." DCR also announced that Pippa Mann will drive the No. 19, and her helmet will have the "BC Still Chasing 200" logo on it in Clauson's honor.
"The past week has been incredibly tough for everyone in the racing family, and I'm amongst those who have been feeling the loss of a friend and a teammate," Mann said. "He told me this May he always wanted to run this race (Pocono), so I hope between Conor and I he sees this as us making those starts for him."
When last season ended, the 21-year-old Karam, who also grew up in Nazareth, lost his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing because of a lack of sponsorship. He raced in this year's Indy 500, led a couple of laps, but has spent most of the year driving sports cars. Karam tweeted last month that he wanted to race at Pocono, but he plans to be there as a spectator after a deal didn't come together.
Although Andretti is having a forgettable season — he has not led a lap this season and sits 18th in the standings — rebounding in the final races of 2016 can go a long way for next year.
"We're just trying to maximize everything," he said. "We need to just look at the next four races and just try to end on a solid note."
Racing not far from his home track — and racing to honor the memories of Wilson and Clauson — might just give Andretti a head start.
"The way I get through it, I think of the type of people they were," Andretti said. "They were true racers and they'd want me to attack the weekend full-force and not let anything affect me, basically try to win it for them. That's my goal."
Online: AP Auto Racing Website: www.racing.ap.org
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