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.