Following the death of Dan Wheldon in a horrific 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two months ago, how does the IZOD IndyCar Series ensure more sensible racing on tracks that regularly feature some of its most exciting races? In an interview with RACER Editor David Malsher, Justin Wilson reveals just how hard it is to come up with solutions.
RACER: Pack racing has become so synonymous with IndyCar racing on ovals, and the near-constant proximity of the cars to one another has to be considered one of the contributing factors to many accidents on this type of track. How do we get more separation?
Justin Wilson: It all depends on the type of oval. It's a really fine balance. Take Texas Motor Speedway, for example. That used to be all about pack racing but, over the years, the race surface has lost track grip so now you slide around a little more and you don't get the three-wide or four-wide packs that used to be seen there. It's my belief – and many others would agree – that the biggest problem is the banking, not the size of the oval in terms of length or width and not the cars' aero configuration, either. The banking most affects how we race. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has really high grip because of its new surface and a lot more banking than when we used to race there in Champ Car, and so it was easy flat all the way 'round. You could take the wings off and still go flat and we'd go even faster.
RACER: Townsend Bell mentioned you'd had a brainwave and that, if IndyCar was to return to LVMS in 2013, you could use the apron and maybe the first lane and a half?
JW: Well, I wouldn't say it was a brainwave – I just threw the idea out there. But I remember seeing the pictures and noticing how wide the apron is there. You don't want to leave out the banking altogether, because then you wouldn't get any side-by-side racing and it would be boring and no one would want to watch it. And even now at most ovals they're not exactly breaking the doors down to come and see us! So if they used the apron and the first lane, it would be a lot more entertaining.
RACER: And it would be a Loudon-type track.
JW: Yeah. Well, it would be a super-size Milwaukee – a 1.35-mile version – and, depending on the downforce level, we'd still be close to flat on the throttle all the way, but not actually flat, even on fresh tires. But that was just one idea and everyone has alternatives. When you speak to Paul Tracy, Townsend, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, etc., and ask, “What's it going to take?”, they come up with different alternatives.
I think it was Paul who pointed out that at Texas in 2001, when they [CART] had 900hp, the cars could run so fast around there that the constant g-forces meant drivers were almost blacking out. As he said, those people who say we should remove downforce and add horsepower are making it sound much more simple than it is; if the grip levels are huge because of the banking, you're still going to be flat-out all the way 'round, however much power we've got. How much downforce do you take out?
RACER: That's exactly what Paul said to me. Even at Indy, the cars are running with wing angles that actually give you lift, so exactly what downforce are the rule makers supposed to be removing to break up the pack racing?!
JW: I know. It's a bad situation to be in where removing the wings would actually give you more downforce and make you faster in the turns at some tracks. And that's another crazy thing: we really are that close to the edge and yet from the outside you can't see what risks we're taking. We're on a tightrope the whole time.
RACER: I don't want to throw the burden onto Firestone, but if they had a lot narrower tires, particularly at the rear, and also made them harder compound, or treaded, would that help solve the issue?
JW: You know, I've thought about that and I've gone both ways. There are times I think less downforce and more tire grip is the way, and other times I've thought more downforce and less tire grip. So I'm not sure. Look at the difference between a NASCAR Cup car and an IndyCar: The Cup car weighs twice as much, has a tire only two-thirds of the width and has no downforce, but even that's still nearly flat all around the Vegas oval! So…what, should the IndyCar run on, bicycle tires?! I don't think that's the quick fix that we'd all like. And, anyway, Firestone does such a good job for us, it wouldn't be right to give them this entire responsibility.
RACER: For years, Mario Andretti has been saying that to make oval racing more reflective of driver talent, there needs to be a bigger difference between a car's top speed on the straights and its speed at the apex of a turn. And I cannot find any reason to disagree with him – nor can anyone I've talked to about it. If that state was achieved, that would have the natural consequence of spreading the field out. Even at Indy, it's ridiculous how little difference there's been between terminal speeds on straights and apex speeds. Alex Tagliani's pole position was 227mph. I suspect he was going 230 down the straights and 223 in the turns.
JW: Yeah, I think that might be a big part of it: make us a little slower through the corners because we've got to lift but a little quicker at the end of the straights. That would produce slingshot maneuvers and keep the racing interesting. It would be cool if everyone, no matter what their downforce levels, had to lift at Turns 1 and 3 at Indy. That would be very interesting. But that probably only works with Indy and other flat ovals. Making that happen on banked tracks would be far harder.
RACER: And, in the case of Vegas, there was no way anything you did to the cars could have made it a track where you have to crack the throttle in an IndyCar.
JW: Right. And that's why the drivers are saying, “Let's go to tracks without much banking like Loudon or Milwaukee." On Wikipedia it says Phoenix is 10-12 degrees in Turns 1 and 2 and 8-9 degrees in Turns 3 and 4. But because of the track's shape you would still get separation, and you wouldn't have these three-abreast packs lapping together endlessly.
RACER: On another note, those bumpers behind the rear wheels of the Dallara DW12: Are they going to be any help in preventing cars from touching wheels?
JW: I don't know. I think they look ugly, but if it reduces the likelihood of cars launching, then I'm all for it, and drivers and fans have to accept it as part of the evolution of the sport. We're no longer driving front-engined roadsters with giant fuel tanks hanging out the back, either. So as much as some of us don't want to necessarily see those kinds of changes, it's going to happen. Change is part of racing, part of all sports and part of life.
RACER: Do you think that increasing safety reduces a drivers' feeling of vulnerability and causes him or her to be over-aggressive?
JW: I think it is important that drivers race with discipline and understand the consequences of what they're doing. Were we too complacent about that before Vegas? Possibly. But for sure we aren't now.
RACER: Something that worries me about the new car, given what appears to be a larger surface area underneath, is whether it will be more susceptible to getting airborne and flying farther. We've seen some lurid sports car shunts over the past couple of decades.
JW: Yeah, and that is a question that's been asked a number of times. I asked IndyCar what happens with the new car when we go backward or sideways, and they said they've gone through and improved it and sent me a document that kind of answered the question. Put it this way: IndyCar is definitely aware of our concerns and are working on improving it.
RACER: As far as the tracks are concerned, what changes can be made?
JW: I read somewhere the idea that where there are no grandstands, why not build a high wall like at Motegi in Turns 3 and 4? There are no grandstands there, so where the catch fencing would be, there's a tall wall above the regular white wall, and it carries sponsor banners. First time I saw that, I thought it was a good idea. Where the grandstand ends, a lot of tracks have a big advertising hoarding 20 feet high and 40 feet wide, but they're behind the fencing. Why not bring the banners closer to the track, and build them onto into a high wall and remove the catch fencing there? I'd think a flying car will ricochet off them a lot better than off the catch fences. Obviously, that's more to do with worst-case scenario: the important thing is to keep the car on the ground in the first place.
We need to make sure that any ideas we have work for both IndyCar and NASCAR, because there's no point in bankrupting all the tracks. It's got to make sense but safety has got to be improved. We need to use this time to be smart and make the right choices, not panic and make wrong choices. And simply saying IndyCar shouldn't race on ovals is the wrong choice. A schedule with a diversity of track layouts is what separates the IZOD IndyCar Series from other series. We have to find a way to keep that unique status.