INDYCAR Boss: Danica’s Fears Are Unfounded
Randy Bernard is confident the IZOD IndyCar Series’ final scheduled race at Twin Ring Motegi this weekend will be contested in a safe environment, despite concerns voiced by superstar Danica Patrick over lingering radiation levels and earthquake aftershocks in Japan.
“If I did (have concerns), I wouldn’t be sending everyone,” Bernard said during a teleconference from Indianapolis on Tuesday. “This is a responsibility that I had to take as CEO of INDYCAR, and I think that we did a significant amount of research and evaluation.
“We started with the State Department and made sure that they cleared it. We had Dr. (Terry) Trammell do a thorough investigation on it, and we have also listened to a lot of the response from Motegi and what they have been able to learn. And everything that we have learned has come back the same way –that it’s, that, Motegi is very good.”
Bernard addressed the Motegi issue during a call announcing The Go Daddy INDYCAR Challenge as part of the Oct. 16 series season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Two-time/reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon will attempt to earn $2.5-million for himself and $2.5-million for a fan during the event.
On Monday, Japanese favorite son Takuma Sato attempted to allay fears raised by Patrick over the possible lingering effects of radiation and earthquake aftershocks leading up to and during Saturday’s Indy Japan: The Final at Twin Ring Motegi.
“I have no hesitation to race at Twin Ring Motegi or in Japan. None,” said Sato, who is in his second
full season with KV Racing Technology – Lotus. “After the tragic events of March 11, 2011, the entire country has come together to rebuild and make the country safe for all its countrymen and visitors.”
A native of Tokyo, Sato was referring to the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of the island nation last spring. Originally scheduled for the 1.5-mile oval owned by series engine supplier Honda, the race instead will be contested on the facility’s 2.983-mile road-course.
Patrick – preparing for the final three races of her seven-year IndyCar Series career with Andretti Autosport – expressed concerns about returning to Japan during a news conference prior to competing in a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Richmond International Raceway on Friday. Patrick, open-wheel racing’s most recognizable driver, will move fulltime to the Nationwide Series in 2012 as preparation for the Sprint Cup Series.
“I don’t want to make anyone mad, but heck yeah, I’m concerned (about Japan),” said Patrick, noting the MotoGP Series rescheduled its annual event at Motegi from April to October. “They (MotoGP) had a study done that seemed it was relatively safe. The radiation seems OK.
“I’m concerned about the food, to be honest. They say don’t eat beef, which probably means don’t eat vegetables and fruit. I read something about nine times the radiation in mushrooms so far out of Fukushima in that area. And there’s earthquakes every week. It seems every other week there’s a pretty big one. There’s been a couple (magnitude) 6.5s in the last month or two.
“I think there’s a general concern for the safety of being over there. I’m told INDYCAR has an emergency
plan if something happens and we need to all get out –which is terrible to think about. I guess it’s that we’ve compromised on the track, (and) INDYCAR isn’t going back after this year, anyway. It just seems like a lot of forced things to make it happen. I’m just a driver and I show up where I have to show up.”
Patrick, who scored the lone victory of her IndyCar Series career at Motegi on April 20, 2008, added that she and husband Paul Hospenthal planned to pack extra food and water for the series’ ninth and final race at TRM. “I feel like (INDYCAR) should be responsible for all that,” Patrick said of the sanctioning body, “but I’m not going to rely on them.”
Patrick, who became the first woman to win a major closed-course motorsports event at Motegi in ‘08, remains immensely popular in Japan. Last fall, her fans were out in droves during a driver autograph session in the garage area at TRM. Japanese fans not only lined up for Danica’s autograph, but also to present her with tokens of their esteem.
Sato – whose “rock star” status in Japan is the equal of Patrick’s in the USA – has been a major contributor to his country’s ongoing recovery, having started the “With you Japan” relief effort.
“I am proud to race here and I feel no harm will be done by racing at Motegi to myself, other drivers, fans or media,” Sato said during a “Takuma Sato Fan Day” appearance at Honda’s headquarters. “We all thank Honda and INDYCAR for their support of the event. Countless hours have been spent to ready the facility to race on the road course and I hope everyone looks forward to a safe and competitive event. I could not be happier to be part of the event with my fellow drivers and IndyCar race teams.”
The State Department issued a travel advisory in July stating health and safety risks outside a 50-mile radius of the Fukushima nuclear power plant – which suffered a partial meltdown and leaked radiation following the quake – did not pose significant risk. Motegi is situated about 90 miles from the station.
A former Formula One driver with Lucky Strike BAR Honda, Sato started 10th and finished 12th at TRM
last September, spending the weekend as the center of attention from adoring fans.
“Last year was the first time I had gone to Japan for a race in front of a home crowd in three years,” said Sato, 34, dubbed “Taku Tsunami” by media covering his every move at TRM. “Obviously, going as an IndyCar driver is a different scenario. The atmosphere they had at Twin Ring Motegi for the oval, it was just fantastic. It was pure racing and the drivers, the teams and the fans were fully integrated. The paddock was just full of people. I’ve never seen or felt anything like that. Just moving from engineering to the garage, which was only a hundred yards, was such a big struggle because there were so many people. But the atmosphere was fantastic.”
Sato said rekindling that feeling this weekend was critical to a country that enjoyed a similar boost when its women’s soccer team captured the World Cup with a victory over the USA squad this summer.
“I think racing in Japan is not only big for me, but for the whole series,” Sato said. “You have Japanese fans as well as (Japanese-owned) Honda and Firestone. It is absolutely necessary to go race there, especially after what happened on March 11 with the devastating earthquake and tsunami. Japan needs energy and the IZOD IndyCar Series brings that energetic excitement that Japan needs.
“The race there isn’t just a race. It gives the people an opportunity to see a race, but we can also support the people there who need something to take their minds off of what happened. Unfortunately, this is the last time that the current IndyCar Series will race there and they’ve had to convert the race to the road-course due to oval damage. (But) we are going there, which is a great commitment from the series and the rest of the teams and drivers.
“I’m very appreciative when I heard that the Indy Japan would go on this year. It will be a very proud moment for me. This year at Motegi, where no one has raced (on the road-course) is a great opportunity for KV Racing Technology – Lotus and for me. I think it will be a big chance for us and certainly, I will do my best job.”
Helio Castroneves of Team Penske won last year’s event after qualifying on-pole and also prevailed at TRM in 2006. Wheldon, who will compete at Las Vegas in a car entered by Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, won at Motegi in 2004-05. Other previous event champions are Scott Sharp (2003), Tony Kanaan (2007) and Scott Dixon (2009).
(Note: Senior Writer Deb Williams contributed to this report from Richmond, Va.)
– John Sturbin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments