Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How to Fix IndyCar ... or Not

TAMMY: The only topic in the world of racing this week has been the passing of Dan Wheldon. The wind has been taken out of the sails of most in that world, and it's hard to contemplate another race (though there are still races to be run, including a typically fun one in Aussie V8 Supercars). That's not what this blog is about, however.

The conversation among drivers, industry insiders, fans, friends, and media has primarily centered on is How To Fix It. How to make sure it never happens again. How to feel like you're doing something to mitigate the grief. Every reaction and comment has been magnified and transmitted far beyond the norm, because of the increased attention of the media and therefore the world. Statements have been made by people who know what they're talking about and people who don't.

Suggestions have ranged from plexiglass catch "fencing" that would presumably bounce a car back onto the track but not tear it up, to closed-cockpit IndyCars that would offer more protection to the driver, to never allowing IndyCars to race 225 m.p.h., to ensuring they can't run in packs. I've stated many times before that I have a sportscar and road course bias, and I can't help thinking that IndyCar drivers would be a lot safer with a lid.

But I know Simon and others will argue for open-cockpit cars as being plenty safe. Simon, how would you "fix things," or would you change them at all?

SIMON: It’s a tough call. I think a lot of crap has been talked this week from various quarters that kind of feels like a mix between arse covering and thinly disguised attempts to say NASCAR is safer and better. At the end of the day, racing involves speed and crashes are inevitable and fatalities are a possibility and trying to pretend they aren’t is ridiculous.

I will say open-cockpit cars are safe. The driver is pretty well cocooned in there now. The driver’s head is supported from the sides and back. The driver sits very low now and their head doesn’t ride too high out of the cockpit like it did even ten years ago. Closed cockpit isn’t the answer. It’s been talked about before in F1 and it didn’t go far then and I think it has even less reason now. The issue comes down to escape routes. You enclose the cockpit and a driver will struggle to escape. The interesting thing that will come out of this crash will be the survival cell. Did anything fail and can it be improved. I’d be interested what comes out of the crash analysis.

I would like to see the design of Vegas Motorsport and for another oval, say Michigan or Indy, because the wall looked a little low on TV, so whether any design issues can be improved there.

For me, the big question is ovals themselves. The issue I have with ovals is that there's nowhere to go in a crash. There’s the wall. With a road course, there are gravel traps, tire walls and run off. A spins off on a road course, a car has somewhere to go. There’s room for the car to decelerate before hitting something. There isn’t with an oval. You hit an immovable object in the form of a wall. It’s a high speed impact combined with massive deceleration (or negative G). Physics takes over and there’s not a lot car design can do to change that. The interesting thing will be if anyone can calculate a survivable speed. It might not have made a difference if Dan had crashed at 200mph or 100mph. I would like to know whether there’s anything oval designers can do to soften the wall. Anything that can diffuse the energy would be a massive help. That would be my big fix.

That said, I think Sunday’s pileup was a perfect storm of elements that created something that is the exception and not the rule when it comes to crashes. Any attempts to un-write what happened with kneejerk solutions to help soothe the pain a lot of people are feeling will only create more problems.

TAMMY: Well, I agree on a few points. It was a perfect storm of bad stuff, any one of which hardly ever happens, but when taken together: disaster. I also agree that the situation requires slow study rather than knee-jerk response. I'm not so sure about the argument that closed-cockpit cars being hard to get out of. Look at sportscar racing. They get out of cars just fine. And the collar that IndyCar drivers have holding them in place seems awfully difficult for the drivers to manage. But perhaps it's the closed-cockpit of the IndyCar configuration that would be hard.

What do the rest of you think? Is there a way to fix things? What's the best approach?


  1. Obviously it's a very complex issue. Every potential change provides improvement in one area and a cost in another. You have to make sure that the changes that get implemented don't alter the fundamental nature of the racing event.

    The problem we're trying to solve (driver injury) is too broad and will have to be broken down into specific issues in order to devise appropriate solutions.

    I think the perfect storm comment is correct. There were 15 cars in that horrorific crash. If there had only been 14, then we would all be talking about how wonderful the Dallara and the SAFER barrier are at protecting the driver. How there was a 14 car, 200+ MPH, fiery crash and the worst injury was Pippa's little finger. Sadly, there was the 15th car with Dan having the worst possible outcome. I think that's pretty much what Mario says in this ESPN article.

    At this point, all that needs to be done for certain is a lot of investigation and research. Keep the oval lynch mob at bay until we can identify and prioritize the areas of concern then turn loose some talented engineers on finding workable solutions.

  2. That's a good article, Rick. Thanks for the link. And yours is a totally reasonable approach. I think everyone's already settling down into reasonable after the first bout of anger/grief.

  3. Totally agree Rick. The information isn't in to make reasoned decisions.

    Tammy, There's so little moveable room in a single seater compared to a sports prototype i don't think an enclosed cockpit is practical.

  4. IMO, both of you (Tammy and Simon) made valid points. I disagree w/ putting a lid on the car. Doing that would start looking like a prototype sportscar (look at the Delta Wing and their direction as Exhibit A). We should also be grateful for the SAFER Barrier because there would be a lot more blood on the track. After watching practice and qualifying at LVMS, I, too, was concerned about the high speeds and the best of the best drivers barely holding a consistent line around the track. Traveling close to 225 mph on a 1.5 mile track and the high banks was a recipe for disaster. We probably need to look at similar tracks, like Chicagoland and Kentucky, to see what set up speed is proper for Las Vegas.

    I just want the fake TV and radio "experts" who are crying foul and asking for banishment of open-wheel oval racing to shut up. Fans pay to see "pack" racing. We want to see drivers who push the ultimate human endeavor of speed. That is what we got at Vegas. CEO Randy Bernard hyped it as the best of the best drivers today, and this is what you get. But at the end of the day, we want to see all the drivers go home with their loved ones in one piece.

    Can race fans ask themselves how many times have you seen crashes, even the most horrific ones, and ask how many were able to walk away, unassisted? Every race season we continue to find new ways to improve safety for all drivers and teams, and unfortunately, we all will learn from DW's death how to prevent another incident like his from happening again.

  5. Thanks for the thoughts, Kevin. I hope you've recovered from the sadness of being there in person.