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Ryan Hunter-Reay crossed the finish line first for Andretti Autosport at Pocono Sunday evening, but there were no celebrations and no confetti in a subdued victory lane. His team mate Justin Wilson had already been airlifted to the hospital and as yet no one at the track knew his status. It was the strangest scene after a race in memory as a pall hung heavily over the gathered crowd.
Wilson was hit in the head by debris from Sage Karam’s car, which disintegrated when he spun and hit the wall while leading the last portion of the race. Karam injured his right foot in the wreck, but he got off lightly compared to Justin. Slumped forward in the cockpit, Wilson was clearly already knocked unconscious as the car hit the inside wall and came to a stop.
Today Wilson remains in a coma in critical condition. Sadly Justin passed away Monday night. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Englishman’s family.
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The incident isn’t dissimilar to the case of F-1 driver Jules Bianchi, who was in a coma after suffering head injuries in an accident during the Grand Prix of Japan in 2014. Bianchi passed away in July. While Bianchi hit a safety vehicle and Wilson was struck at high speed by flying debris, the tragic results were the same.
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Josef Newgarden finished second ahead of Juan Montoya who stormed to the podium from a nineteenth place start. Graham Rahal who started the day nine points behind Montoya in the title chase crashed in an incident with Tristan Vautier when the Frenchman attempted to make it three wide in the corner. Taking a hit to his title hopes, a frustrated Rahal confronted Vautier on track and finished twentieth.
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Wilson was driving a heck of a race before his accident, running in the top three much of the day and leading a couple of laps. Michael Andretti had mentioned running the journeyman veteran in a full time program next year; obviously that’s all now very much up in the air. AA’s Carlos Munoz ran strong too and finished fifth while Marco struggled, crashing to finish eighteenth.
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The racing was entertaining on the high speed 2.5 mile oval track, particularly on the restarts following the dozen caution periods, one even being caused by a red fox running across the track. At times the cars were spread out seven and eight wide as they raced furiously down the vast straightaways of Pocono, side by side as they screamed into the corners.
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NBCSN faced the challenge of broadcasting the conclusion of the race after Wilson’s incident and struggled at times with the job. The tone was appropriate until the very end when Jon Beekhuis was interviewing the race winner. In a low point of the broadcast, Beekhuis awkwardly told Hunter-Reay in victory lane that Justin “would want us to hear” about the race. Ryan wasn’t buying it though as his thoughts were clearly with his injured team mate. “I have no details,” he said.