As the racing world comes to terms with the death of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and former IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon, the spotlight once again turns to safety in racing.
While IndyCar’s standard protocol means a full investigation into last Sunday’s horrendous 15-car pile-up at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway has begun, there have already been some suggestions on how to improve safety in the open wheel series.
Canadian driver Paul Tracy zeroed in on the need to improve catch fencing construction in an appearance on all-news network CNN earlier this week to talk about the accident.
“Why can't we have some kind of ballistic safety glass or Plexiglas or safety glass that will still allow the fans to see the racetrack but will keep the cars from getting tangled in the catch fencing like a spider web?” asked the 2003 Champ Car titlist who’s considering retirement as a result of Wheldon’s death.
“Once the cars get in there, it just starts ripping the cars apart. So maybe that is the next thing that needs to happen in terms of safety for race events.”
Although the cause of Wheldon’s fatal injuries has not been established, an autopsy Monday found he died of blunt force trauma to his head. His car launched off the back of another in the crash on lap 12 of Sunday’s IndyCar season finale and hit with the top of the car parallel to the fence.
If Wheldon’s death brings improved driver protection in racing, it won’t be the first time a fatal crash has made the sport safer. Formula One went on a huge safety blitz after the death of three-time world champion Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. NASCAR has a similar awakening following the loss of its biggest star Dale Earnhardt in a seemingly innocuous crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. Canadian Greg Moore’s death in 1999 spurred the old Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART later Champ Car now merged with IndyCar) to mandate the Head and Neck Support device (HANS) and explore soft wall technology.
None of that helped save Wheldon, who was the first driver to die in the three racing series in a little more than a decade.
1978 Formula One world champion and four-time IndyCar titlist Mario Andretti chalked up the fatality to a freakish series of events that conspired to throw Wheldon’s car directly into the catch fencing above the soft SAFER barrier designed to help dissipate the force in a crash into the wall.
“Unfortunately, it's never going to be 100 per cent safe,” he said Monday on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight.
“On the plus side, the sport, with every incident, will analyze every aspect of it. What can we do better? What can we do different? This is not something that you forget, move on to the next race, and not do anything about it.”
While it comes too late for Wheldon, IndyCar will move to a new car in 2012 which has design features, such as guards around the tires, to prevent the kind wheel-to-wheel contact that caused his car to go airborne.
As odd as it might sound, one of the issues that might need to be discussed among the drivers is the false sense of security that all the safety measures create in their minds. Yes, they understand that racing is still dangerous, but the cars and tracks are also light years ahead of where they were even 20 years ago that it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security.
Certainly no one wants to go back to the era Andretti describes where he would look around the room in the first drivers’ meeting of the year and wonder who wouldn’t be there at the end of the season. On the other hand, having drivers feel virtually invincible makes them take chances they might not otherwise.
A few years ago, former Jordan and Jaguar technical director Gary Anderson mused that drivers being able to trust that the equipment will protect them in a crash is a good thing, but its by-product has been a removal of the fear factor in modern racers.
“We've seen drivers pushing themselves over the limit and normally you come out still walking,” he said.
“You can tread the line very close today and be pretty sure you're safe — it used to be you had to leave a window just in case.”
NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson suggested earlier this week that IndyCar stop racing on high-banked ovals because it was just too dangerous.
“I wouldn’t run them on ovals. There's just no need to,” Johnson told the Associated Press on Monday.” Those cars are fantastic for street circuits, for road courses. I hate, hate, hate that this tragedy took place. But hopefully they can learn from it and make those cars safer on ovals somehow.”
While likely not something that IndyCar would consider, the angry reaction showed the raw nerve Wheldon’s death created.
Four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt called Johnson “pretty stupid,” while Andretti added it would be “absurd” to think IndyCar didn’t know enough about ovals to make the racing safe. Several fans voiced their opinions, filling Johnson’s Twitter feed with harsh and unfair criticism.
Anyone who has been around the racing community would know there’s no doubt that Johnson’s suggestion came from a place of honest concern and nothing else.
After their harsh words toward Johnson appeared, both Foyt and Andretti spoke to the five-time NASCAR champion on Wednesday and agreed they were all on the same page. Andretti said his thoughts were “sensationalized.”
Several current IndyCar drivers also rushed to Johnson’s defence, including Penske driver Will Power, Tony Kanaan of KV Racing, and Tracy.
“Lay off JJ people, something said in the moment of shock and grieving can be taken in the wrong way,” Tracy tweeted.
“All drivers now need to use their power to push safety to the next level in Dan’s name. Band together drivers, we are all in the same family.”