It’s not unusual for Jay Frye to be approached by someone he doesn’t know who then hands him a scrap of paper with some random scribbles on it.
When that happens, the president of IndyCar – one of the world’s three major racing leagues – dutifully sets the document aside and gives it to an employee whose job is to carefully examine such things.
The drawings are ideas supplied by racing fans, mechanics and would-be inventors who believe they can make the sport safer, and Frye can’t afford to be dismissive.
With several major accidents in recent years, including the deaths of Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Justin Wilson in 2015, followed by the crash last year that left Guelph, Ont., driver Robert Wickens paralyzed and in a medically induced coma for 10 days, IndyCar is facing a reckoning when it comes to its safety record.
In isolation, each of the tragedies could potentially be written off as a mere freak accident.
Wheldon was killed by a pole after crashing into the fence that prevents cars from careening into the stands. Wilson died when debris from another car ricocheted off the pavement and struck him in the helmet at top speed. And Wickens severely injured his spine when his car went airborne and slammed into the catchfence.
Taken together, though, all three incidents represent a broader safety problem IndyCar needs to solve.
That is why Frye can’t say no to any idea that comes his way – whether it’s handed to him on a napkin, as they sometimes are, or on a blueprint designed by a mechanic in the paddocks.
It’s something that inevitably happens each time tragedy strikes the sport.
“All the time, literally,” Frye said, referring to how often he gets unsolicited pitches on safety ideas. “And some of them you look at and you think – this has got a little merit to it.”
Beyond the dreamers and tinkerers, though, the sport has faced questions about how quickly it acts.
After the crash that left Wickens paralyzed, IndyCar was criticized for being too slow to improve its catchfences – the steel mesh barriers that keep cars from launching into the stands in the event of a collision.
The fences were made to protect fans, but have a long history of shredding cars and injuring drivers. They are also largely based on decades-old technology that has its roots in the design of a basic chain link fence, albeit a stronger, more expensive version.
But for anyone who can come up with a viable solution, there could be huge money involved.
The Globe and Mail investigated attempts to make auto racing safer, examining U.S. and Canadian patent databases for concepts that have been put forward. The files represent proposals that have been taken beyond the rough-idea stage to the point of intellectual property, which suggests they have potential to be turned into reality.
In the past decade, though, only a few concepts for new catchfences and other safety measures have made it to the patent stage in either Canada or the United States.
Two particular patents examined by The Globe, from 2011 and 2014 respectively, give no indication as to whether the proposed technology ever received any credible interest from racetracks, or if the idea was abandoned by the owners. Efforts to reach the patent holders were unsuccessful.
Frye said IndyCar hasn’t yet found a workable solution. However, the ideas purport to solve one of the biggest problems he has on his hands – the danger of the catchfence.
“Current fences are a hazard to drivers because of their rigidity and tendency to cause severe damage to the car if it strikes the fencing material,” one of the patent files says. “Fatal crashes, particularly for IndyCar drivers, have brought this need to the forefront in recent years.”
One patent proposes moving rigid poles and other dangerous parts of the fence away from the track, while increasing the cushioning and catching effect of the fence, preventing the car from striking any fixed objects.
Not all of the technology is groundbreaking though. One file examined by The Globe referenced a series of previous patents for similar inventions, including a proposal for an “energy absorbing fence” built with cables and beams filed by an inventor named Phineas P. Mast in 1889.
The proposed racing fence, simply a derivative of Mast’s original design which was intended for livestock, sought to increase energy absorption by making the structure more flexible, yet stronger, to withstand being hit by cars.
But if new technologies and ideas exist, what keeps them from being adopted in auto-racing? The short answer is money. Though auto racing is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, profit margins at individual racetracks are sometimes slim. The cost of new technology is one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of safety advancements that could have kept Wickens from nearly dying on the track.
Uncertainty over whether some ideas will work has also stood in the way of investment. In the past, IndyCar officials have talked about developing reinforced Plexiglas structures that would absorb the energy of an impact, but allow the car to glance off the surface rather than being chewed up by the catchfence. But that idea is extremely expensive – as much as six times the cost of some current structures – and not everyone is convinced it would be effective.
“It wouldn’t withstand the forces that it needs to, and [as] you see in hockey, that glass can break,” said Nick Igdalsky, chief executive officer of Pocono Raceway, where Wickens was injured. “So that’s not the answer.”
The sport has shown in the past that cost issues can be overcome if the right technology is found. The introduction of foam-backed steel barriers along the wall in 2002, which help cushion the blow of a collision, has improved safety, though some facilities initially balked at the price tag.
Igdalsky said he often has ideas presented to him at the track, but hasn’t found one he thinks would work.
“You get your backyard inventors, your armchair quarterbacks all sending you sketches on napkins, I kid you not. [Recently] we got two sketches on loose-leaf paper and one on a napkin about catchfences,” Mr. Igdalsky said.
“One gentleman said he did patent it, but it didn’t look like anything that would improve the safety at all.”
Igdalsky has also dabbled with a few concepts of his own, knowing the potential if a solution is found.
“Nothing that worked. Nothing I’ve been able to patent yet,” he said. “I just have concepts. I don’t have any technical background or engineering background.”
Despite not being able to solve the fence problem in the wake of the Wickens crash, Frye is optimistic auto-racing can figure out a solution. The sport’s origins, he points out, are rooted in technological innovation. It was at the debut Indianapolis 500, in 1911, that the first known use of a rear-view mirror in North America occurred. The idea wasn’t formally patented until 10 years later.
“There’s millions of ideas, but how do you prove it?” he said. “You almost have to do it – ‘We’re going to take this car, we’re going to flip it out of the track and see how it works.’ ”
With three serious accidents in the past four years, including the tragedy that has left Wickens fighting to walk again, Frye acknowledges there are significant risks for IndyCar.
“Our drivers, our athletes, are our most important asset,” Frye said. “Obviously it’s an inherently dangerous sport, you’re going very fast, and you’ve got other people out there around you.”
“It behooves us we have to look at everything we can because this is so critical.”