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Two IndyCar drivers go airborne in crashes at wild season opener

Marcus Ericsson shares a happy moment after winning the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. (Steve Nesius/AP)
4 min

A wild opener to the IndyCar season Sunday saw two cars go airborne, including one on the very first lap.

Drivers Devlin DeFrancesco and Kyle Kirkwood escaped serious harm — Kirkwood was able to continue after flying over two competitors’ heads — while 2022 Indianapolis 500 champion Marcus Ericsson made it through a contentious event in Florida and came away with the win at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

DeFrancesco and four other drivers, including four-time Indy 500 winner Hélio Castroneves, were almost immediately ousted in a seven-car crash at Turn 3. Cars had already started piling up when DeFrancesco’s Honda hurtled into the fray, bounced off a wall and wound up perpendicular to the oncoming rush. Benjamin Pedersen’s car ran straight into that of DeFrancesco, causing the latter to flip off the ground and turn approximately 180 degrees before landing back on the track.

Forty laps later, Rinus VeeKay hit the tire barrier at Turn 4 and the back of his car got in the way of the oncoming Jack Harvey. Positioned directly behind Harvey as they came around the bend, Kirkwood’s car had nowhere to go but up and almost directly over Harvey’s head.

While Kirkwood was eventually able to continue racing, the crash ended VeeKay’s day and sent Harvey to a hospital out of what IndyCar described as “an abundance of caution.” A driver for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing who suffered a concussion in an early-season race last year, Harvey was released from the hospital later Sunday and said his only physical issue was pain in his wrists.

In addition to DeFrancesco and Castroneves, the Lap 1 crash also knocked Pedersen, Santino Ferrucci and Simon Pagenaud out of the race just minutes after the IndyCar season began. Sting Ray Robb and Felix Rosenqvist were also involved but could keep going.

“I’m fine, but it was a really hard knock,” DeFrancesco, who drives for Andretti Autosport, told NBC Sports. “Not the way we wanted to start the season. I saw Hélio spinning, and there was no way I could get through it, then I saw Pedersen coming at me. I said, ‘Yeah, this is going to be a big one.’ Just braced up and got ready for it. It was a wild ride.”

Castroneves, 47, and Meyer Shank Racing teammate Pagenaud reportedly suffered minor injuries.

Somehow able to avoid the carnage was Conor Daly, who found a path along the outside wall and sneaked past the pileup just as Pedersen plowed into DeFrancesco.

“Never heard anything like that impact before,” Daly tweeted. “Felt like it was right next to my face. Glad they’re ok.”

At further points, Scott McLaughlin and reigning IndyCar season champion Will Power were given avoidable contact penalties for race-altering incidents with front-row starters Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta.

Grosjean, who won the pole, was tracking down McLaughlin for the race lead on Lap 72 when they made contact and slid into tire barriers. Grosjean was shown to be visibly upset, but after McLaughlin took responsibility for the incident, the two hugged it out following the race.

Herta may not be quite so ready to bury the hatchet with his antagonist. “What an a--,” he said of Power to NBC Sports when shown a replay of their episode, which sent Herta into a tire barrier.

Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward was also unhappy, but mostly with his team’s misfortune after a brief engine issue with his Chevrolet. That momentary mishap allowed Ericsson, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, to pass O’Ward with three laps to go and hold on for the win.

“We did everything right today. There’s always something,” a frustrated O’Ward said after finishing second, just as he did behind Ericsson at last year’s Indy 500. “The boys deserved that. Compared to where we were here last year, this is a massive step. But we gave that one away. We can’t have that happen anymore.”

“I feel bad for Pato for having the issue,” Ericsson said, “but that’s racing.”

“It was a hell of a start to the season,” he added.