HOUSTON - When he came upon the three-car crash Sunday that injured four-time IndyCar Series champ Dario Franchitti and sent a section of catchfence into the crowd at the Grand Prix of Houston, Graham Rahal immediately thought of Dan Wheldon.
Rahal was one of the first drivers to arrive at the scene of the crash Sunday involving Franchitti, Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso. The impact sent Franchitti's car airborne into the fence - which held and sent Franchitti's car spinning back onto the track. Debris and tires went flying.
Hours after the incident, Franchitti was being treated at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center for two broken vertebrae, a broken right ankle and a concussion. Franchitti had surgery Sunday to repair his right ankle, Target Ganassi Racing spokesperson Kelby Krauss told USA TODAY Sports.
The three-time Indy 500 winner's crash refocused attention on catchfence safety technology. It has been among the hottest topics in motor racing since two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wheldon died when his head struck a post at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after his car sailed 325 feet through the air in a fiery 15-car wreck that caused the race's cancellation. Franchitti's accident occurred 10 days shy of the two-year anniversary of Wheldon's death.
"To be totally honest, when I came up on it, I had a flashback to Vegas, but on a smaller scale," Rahal told USA TODAY Sports. "When I came through there, the amount of carbon fiber and debris was mind-boggling. I was just hoping everyone was OK at that point. There were parts and pieces everywhere."
FRANCHITTI: Suffers broken back, broken ankle, concussion
The Associated Press reported that Houston Fire Department spokesman Ruy Lozano said 13 fans were injured. Eleven were treated on site at Reliant Park. Lozano said two were taken to the hospital for treatment. an IndyCar official also was injured.
Wheldon's crash brought calls for changes to fencing at superspeedway ovals. Sunday's race was held on a temporary street circuit around Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, and the Astrodome. Temporary catchfences are attached to large concrete barricades that serve as walls for the racetrack.
"I don't know what else we can do, especially when the fence separates from the block like it did in this case," Rahal said. "Dario is our guy on the safety committee, and I'm sure he'll have something to say about it. The biggest concern is when the fence comes apart from the concrete and goes into the stands like that. I don't know what else can be done. I don't know that the track did anything wrong or could have prevented it. It was just a worst-case scenario."
The accident occurred at a high-speed, sweeping right-hand turn near the Astrodome, where cars reach speeds close to 180 mph. Franchitti was approaching Sato when Sato's car lost traction on the bumpy street surface. Franchitti moved to his left to avoid Sato and drove over Sato's left rear wheel, launching the No. 10 Honda into the fence.
"I don't know that that was such a bad spot on the track, but it is bumpier there and it does make you hang on a little harder," Rahal said. "On older tires, you slide around a lot. Sato got loose on one of those bumpy sections and Dario had nowhere to go."
Rahal and Simona de Silvestro, who were racing not far behind Franchitti, quickly came up on the aftermath of the crash and had to take evasive action to get through the debris.
"We were coming through there at full speed," Rahal said. "The next thing you knew, everyone was stopped. It caught both Simona and myself off guard."
Rahal said he noticed the tub of Franchitti's chassis was intact. Dubbed the "DW12" for Wheldon's test work on it in 2011, the Dallara chassis has gained a reputation for durability and safety.
"That part of it was good," Rahal said. "You didn't see anything exposed or any open holes on the tub. Obviously you never like to see that no matter what, but especially when a car gets up into the fence."
Franchitti team owner Chip Ganassi rode to the crash site on a scooter and talked to his driver before he was taken to the hospital by ambulance.
"He's talking," Ganassi said on TV. "His ankle is a little sore. His back is a little sore. He's going to take a trip to the hospital, but he is OK."
Later he told USA TODAY Sports' Curt Cavin when he asked Franchitti if he was OK, the driver replied: ''I don't know.''
Catchfence safety has been among the hottest topics in motor racing in recent years.
In the season-opening NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway in February, Kyle Larson's Chevrolet went airborne into the fence and scattered debris that injured 28 fans. The track reinforced its crossover gate fencing by adding cables before its NASCAR weekend in July, but debates still raged over further improvements.
The posts at Las Vegas are positioned on the inside of the fence meshing, and many IndyCar drivers, including Franchitti, lobbied tracks to move the poles outside the fence, while some suggested a complete overhaul was needed.
After the Nationwide crash at Daytona, Franchitti tweeted, "it's time @indycar @nascar other sanctioning bodies & promoters work on an alternative to catch fencing. There has to be a better solution."