Drivers critical of New Jersey Motorsports Park track
The first major event at New Jersey Motorsports Park got off to an inauspicious start Thursday when a top driver was involved in a violent wreck during testing, leading to questions about the track's safety.
Scott Pruett, who along with co-driver Memo Rojas hopes to clinch the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series title at Sunday's Supercar Life 250, lost control of their No. 01 Lexus and hit the end of the pit-road dividing wall shortly after testing began Thursday afternoon on Thunderbolt Raceway.
Pruett, 48, was taken to an area hospital for precautionary reasons but did not suffer any major injuries.
The track was shut down for racing for the day.
"We wanted to really just check out the track, and make sure that whatever damage was done during the incident was cleaned up," NJMP co-owner Joe Savaro said. The accident occurred as Pruett was approaching the longest straightaway on the three-week-old, 2-mile track. He was going approximately 145 mph, according to Ken Brooks, an assistant engineer for Pruett's Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team.
As Pruett entered the straightaway, which runs next to pit road, he attempted to swerve around an unidentified Porsche from the series' slower Grand Touring class, witnesses said. But he lost control and hit the end of the dividing wall on pit road, breaking his car into three pieces. Brooks estimated that Pruett slowed to around 100 mph before hitting the wall.
Pruett was taken by ambulance to South Jersey Healthcare Regional Medical Center in Vineland. He was evaluated and released with nothing more than soreness and bruises. He returned to the garage less than two hours later.
Pruett said he didn't remember much about the wreck since it happened so fast.
"It was a big hit," he said. "I remember there was a Porsche in front of me, and I was on my way by him. He swerved, and I swerved to miss him. (But from then) until they had taken me out of the racecar, I don't remember a lot."
Nick Nield, a crew member for the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing team, was at the beginning of pit road and saw Pruett's car hit the dividing wall. Nield said Pruett was lucky the car separated the way it did, with the cockpit intact.
"Two feet one way, he would've been dead," Nield said.
Pruett had been complimentary about Thunderbolt during a media session Wednesday. But soon after being released from the hospital Thursday, he said he didn't think it was safe for a race.
"I think the track is a year away from being at the standard it needs to be," he said. "Something needs to be done about pit road."
Pruett declined to specify what could be done to make pit road safer.
But that wasn't the only part of the track with which drivers had issues. Several drivers complained about the dirt bordering the track. When the dirt kicked up, it got on the track and made it slippery and difficult to see.
"As soon as someone goes off, you cannot see anything," said Michael Valiante, co-driver of the No. 10 Pontiac. "You're completely blind. To be honest, I think that it's not safe right now. There are a few major concerns that they need to take care of."
Savaro, the racing facility's co-owner, said that although the track had been inspected by Grand-Am prior to this week, the drivers' concerns about pit road were being addressed immediately. He said the guard rail was being extended and water barriers being installed at the front of it. The improvements were expected to be done in time for Grand-Am practices this morning, and the race remains scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday.
"Hopefully they're going to make it safer than what it is at this point," said Joao Barbosa, co-driver of the No. 59 Porsche.
A Ganassi spokesman originally said Pruett and Rojas, who have a comfortable lead in the series standings with two races to go, would not race Sunday since the car was damaged beyond repair.
However, the team later announced that a transporter was on its way to the team's headquarters in Indianapolis late Thursday afternoon and planned to bring back a spare car. The spare car will be prepared there by crew members who were flying back, and it is expected to arrive here Sunday morning before the race.
"It's not a good way to start a weekend," Rojas said. "We had a really good racecar, and now it's vanished. (But) I think our team will do a great job of giving us a good car."
The last time that spare car was used was when Pruett, Rojas and NASCAR drivers Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya used it to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.
Pruett and Rojas already have clinched a tie for third place, as only defending champions Jon Fogarty and Alex Gurney, currently tied for third, have a chance to catch them. A driver gets 35 points for a win, and Fogarty and Gurney trail by 42. pressofAtlanticCity.com