Does IndyCar Need to Re-Examine the Idea of Closed-Cockpit Racing?

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By Greg Hudson

At the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, Chris Bristow crashed at the Burneville corner. Thrown from his Cooper chassis, he was decapitated by a barbed wire fence. Moments later, at the very same corner, Alan Stacey was killed after being struck in the face by a bird while travelling at over 120 mph and crashing heavily. The crashes were standard for the day: tragic, avoidable, unnecessary, a product of negligence and scant regard for safety.

Over 50 years later, in 2011, Dan Wheldon’s IndyCar was launched into the air at over 220 mph at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. catapulting into crash fencing. Wheldon’s head struck an upright, inflicting fatal injuries. In 2014, Formula One rising star Jules Bianchi skidded off the track at Suzuka in Japan, his car submarining under the rear of a track crane being used to remove a disabled vehicle. Binachi suffered massive head injuries and died last month after almost a year in a coma in hospital.

Then on Sunday at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, popular British driver Justin Wilson was struck in the face by a piece of flying debris from another car. After almost 24 hours in a coma, he died Monday at the age of 37.

The 60-plus year history of modern Formula One and IndyCar racing has been laced with tragic incidents such as these. In the 1960s and 70s, with vehicle and track safety being tenuous at best, a high proportion of fatalities came as a result of vehicle failure, fire or driver ejection. Many of those accidents were of “fluke” nature, as Helmut Koinigg was decapitated as his car slid underneath the fence at Watkin’s Glen in 1974, and Tom Pryce died instantly after colliding with a teenage track marshal at over 180 mph at Kyalami in 1977 and was struck in the head by the fire extinguisher the marshal was carrying. It was a sign that driver and spectator safety needed to become a priority, fast.

And since the 1970s, cars and tracks, to their credit, have completely revolutionized safety in the automotive industry (from the SAFER barriers in NASCAR to the energy-displacement systems in modern street cars designed to limit the impact felt by passengers), but the nature of open-wheel, open-cockpit racing remains perilous.

It’s a risk that can often be overlooked when a spectator watches a race, as cars blur past at insanely high speed, often in very close proximity to each other. Accidents do happen, of course, but it’s all a part of the show, and the safety revolution has meant that drivers almost always escape unscathed – almost.

But the fact remains that the open cockpit is a dangerous place. The driver’s head is exposed to all manner of hazards, from the bird which struck Stacey in 1960 to a spring which struck the face of F1 driver Felipe Massa in Hungary in 2009 – Massa escaped with his life and a scar over his left eyebrow, but spent almost a month in hospital after the accident and missed the remainder of the season – and flying projectiles are now decidedly the biggest danger to drivers today.

This latest incident, the second fatal accident in a major motor racing series in a year, will surely spark a new round in a not-so-new debate: should open-wheel racing series like IndyCar switch to a closed cockpit?

The answer, if you base your answer on whether or not IndyCar’s first priority should be driver safety, is yes. It’s safer, for certain. Head or neck injuries have been the almost universal cause of death in motor racing fatalities in the past 25 years. Since 1991, 21 drivers have lost their lives in Formula 1 (three), NASCAR (nine but none since 2001) and IndyCar (nine), with 19 of those deaths due to head, neck or brain injuries.

The evidence is overwhelming. And safety-first observers will be eager to point it out.

But for traditionalists, closing the cockpit in IndyCar would be like changing professional football to a two-hand-touch league to reduce concussions. Open-wheel racing is dangerous precisely because it’s supposed to be. In many ways open-wheel racing is humanity’s closest way to reach back to the past. As sports have evolved over time – the lowered mound and video review in baseball, the tuck rule in the NFL, the three-point line and shot clock in basketball – open-wheel racing has remained remarkably the same. Sure, technology has made the cars look more like fighter jets than a sedan, but the principle of man and machine has never wavered.

But even assuming that IndyCar does consider the idea of closing the cockpit, there are more important design elements to consider as well, primarily the fundamental design flaw which caused the accident that claimed Wilson’s life: lack of downforce.

IndyCar, more than any other sport, has always been about pure speed. Whereas F1 races the world’s most challenging road courses, IndyCar races predominantly on ovals and super-speedways to showcase the speed of the cars – and the skill of the drivers – for the fans. But that excitement comes with great danger, and drivers live under the sword of Damocles as they attempt to find a balance between going fast enough and going too fast. And recently, higher and higher speeds led to more and more accordion-style chain-reaction crashes which risked serious injury to drivers who often had little to do with the accident itself but had no hope of avoiding the crash once it began, and who often would be launched airborne after colliding with other cars.

Wheldon took most of the 2011 season off from IndyCar, helping design a safer car with redesigned aerodynamics, rear wheel guards and a lower nose, making takeoff must less likely while reducing the risk of wheel-on-wheel crashes. In an almost ironic twist of fate, with the newly designed IndyCar chassis set to be unveiled for the 2012 season, Wheldon returned for the final race in 2011 in the existing chassis at Las Vegas, and was launched to his death in a chain-reaction crash on lap 11.

Since then, however, aerial crashes have been less frequent, as the new aero package and added downforce led to fewer takeoffs and a considerable drop in driver injury. But increased downforce also slowed the cars considerably, and IndyCar saw fit to alter the rear wing for 2015.

This produced a more thrilling experience for fans – and a much more dangerous one for drivers – as the 2015 car is both faster and more unstable. Dozens of accidents this season have featured drivers simply going about their business and losing control when lower downforce on the rear of the car causes the back end to jump around and cause a wreck.

Such an incident occurred Sunday at Pocono, as leader Sage Karam lost control and crashed into the wall quite innocuously late in the race. And while all other vehicles avoided Karam’s stricken car as it slid down the track, bouncing debris, including the nose cone which was torn from the car upon contact with the wall, bounced dangerously in the path of the oncoming vehicles. The nose cone took an unfortunate bounce and caromed into the air, striking Wilson in the face and inflicting fatal injuries.

Safety in sports is always paramount. But in a sport whose nature is dangerous, implementing safety often means finding a balance between the way things are and the way things ought to be. For IndyCar, it almost certainly means either closing the cockpit or finding a way to reduce speeds or increase downforce and reduce the number of potentially fatal accidents. But whichever route IndyCar chooses, the road will be long, rough, and painful.

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