Following the death of Dan Wheldon, the IZOD IndyCar Series has not only been cooperating with the investigation into the former champion's accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October, but has also brought together drivers, team owners, engineers, technical staff from the series and its suppliers to discuss safety. All wish to make IndyCar's oval racing less hazardous but without losing the challenge for the competitors and the entertainment for the spectators.
Not surprisingly, few wanted to put their heads above the parapet (on the record) until the investigation was complete and/or decisions were reached in the safety discussions. But no one disagreed with one abiding principle that Mario Andretti, for one, has been advocating for years: In order to heavily reduce pack racing on ovals, whereby IndyCars lap endlessly three abreast, there has to be a far bigger differential between terminal speeds on the straights and apex speed in the turns. How that's achieved is The Big Problem.
So how does the IndyCar Series get back on the circuits that allow it to produce some of the best racing in the world, yet at the same time provide a safer environment for the competitors and hold events that are truly reflective of the combination of driver talent and team skills? Here are the thoughts of some of those prepared to talk. Not one of them claims to have the solution(s).
GIL DE FERRAN Ex-driver, team owner
There are a variety of factors that contribute to a car's performance at any given racetrack. They are to do with the track's corner radius, angle of banking and surface grip. On the car, you're talking drag, downforce, horsepower and tire grip. These factors provide infinite variables and so a lot of careful studies need to be made to understand which combination of these factors are suitable and which are not.
The technologies to do such studies are out there and there are clever engineers who can direct them. A lot of them can be done in a virtual manner and, when combined with on-track testing, the picture will become clearer. We all have instinctive thoughts on what we want to see, but sometimes instincts are wrong, so to make a definitive decision on what needs to change, you need a very scientific approach to the problem.
There must be a way to resolve this issue, because I'm a firm believer in “where there is a will there is a way.” Since the resources exist and the necessity exists, let's get on and make it happen.
However, we all need to be very careful to steer clear of superficial analysis and knee-jerk reactions because you can end up with unintended consequences if you don't do your homework correctly. That would be the worst thing – to move forward but in the wrong direction. Like I say, there are enough resources available to IndyCar to make progress, so let's take advantage of them, and move forward decisively but correctly.
TOMAS SCHECKTER Driver
We must carry on racing on the 1.5-mile ovals, and obviously part of the attraction are the high speeds and the side-by-side racing. But do we need 30 of us in a big group? No. I'm happy to go even faster but we need greater separation, something to distinguish the best driver from the worst driver. So I'd say give us 1,000hp. Then we'd see how easy it is to keep your foot flat to the floor when your car has the ability to spin the wheels at 180mph! Getting the straightaway speed higher but making the car harder to drive is a personal wish of mine.
At tire tests, we're always focusing on how much grip we're going to get from the tires and how long they last, but I think we've seen in Formula 1 this past season, it's quite good when a tire goes off quickly. It changes it up so that you have people trying a greater variety of strategies and you have passing, because there are some cars going quicker, some slower at different times. And, under yellow, the tracks can be cleaned. I don't think marbles should be a problem.
I don't mind going three-wide every now and then, but to just sit continuously in the third or fourth lane, lap after lap, waiting for someone to touch tires, is crazy and it's not real racing. I want to be going three-wide as part of a great passing maneuver, not as a way of life!
AL SPEYER Executive Director of Firestone
I think our record shows very clearly that we've always made safety a priority and that our tires are durable wherever the IndyCars run. And high-speed ovals are one of the most difficult to get right. Ask 10 people what they want and we'll get 15 answers – at least! Now that safety record is something we don't want to mess with.
It's feasible to make narrower tires in time for the 2012 season, but there is a limit. The load-carrying capacity of a tire is largely influenced by the volume of air inside it: a motorcycle's tire can't bear a vast amount of load, whereas an earth mover's tire can. But whatever we do, we must not trade off durability for some other gain, because ultimately that could make the situation worse.
There are other ways to take grip out – you can add grooves, you can make harder compounds. But there's no quick fix from the wings, tires or tracks – not when a machine is so highly tuned as a modern open-wheel racecar. Our minds are completely open and we talk about it every day. However, the important thing is to get everyone working together. People from the chassis, aero, engine, tire and sporting regulation side of things all need to work together, we need to pool everyone's inputs, get a consensus and then move accordingly.
ROBBIE BUHL Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team co-owner, ex-driver
While we cannot be complacent, we also have to accept that this is a dangerous sport and we will never be able to eliminate the risks 100 percent. The possibility of cars going airborne at an oval is always going to be there because a) they're traveling at 220mph, b) they're light, c) they're open wheel, and d) there's always going to be a critical angle where the aerodynamics stop acting as downforce.
So, although we can obviously never deal in absolutes, we need to look at preventing the accidents rather than curing the effects of them. What I mean by that is, looking at ways to lessen the likelihood of IndyCars making contact, and to me, that means getting the cars harder to drive so they don't pack up as much. There needs to be a bigger difference between straightline speed and corner speed, so drivers have to back off, creating variance between driving styles, so we've got two cars running side by side into a corner instead of a pack of 12 all tripping over each other.
Should the worst happen and cars make contact, I hope the new car's rear “bumper” works. It's been mounted centrally, and extends to the full width of the rear tires, so that's a big leverage point. It's probably not that hard to break off, so I'm not sure how effective it would be if another car's front wing or wheel made contact with it. And, if it breaks, is it just another part that can fall on the track and cause another hazard? I think it may be worth re-examining that.
PAUL TRACY Driver
The Vegas oval gave us the type of pack racing that only a new, high-grip surface provides, exactly the way Kentucky and Texas started out when they were freshly paved. As their surfaces have weathered, those two tracks have lost some grip, gotten bumpier and you can't really run three-wide anymore. The two Texas races this year were fine – lots of two-wide racing but everyone fairly strung out.
Do you slow the cars down? No, because then they're easier to drive so you get more pack racing. Do you speed them up? Well, speed alone doesn't make them harder to drive because on a high-grip surface with steep banking, the cars stick anyway: their grip overcomes all their handling characteristics. At Texas in 2001, when we had 900hp, I ran a 238mph lap in practice because the surface was so grippy. We were running negative wing angle on the front and a Handford device on the rear which was giving us lift: we'd have had more downforce by removing the wings completely! So, with 650hp cars, it's even easier to reach that point.
Basically, we shouldn't be on tracks that have so much surface grip and so much banking – the ones designed to make NASCAR cars look fast. We need the virtually flat ones: Milwaukee and Loudon are great, but it seems like the commercial viability of them is dreadful. So, if that means looking outside America, so be it. I think Rockingham in the UK and Lausitzring in Germany were good.
As for the cars themselves, I'm a traditionalist and I like open-wheel cars to truly be open-wheel and open-cockpit. It's eliminating unnecessary risks that we have to focus on – and that includes racing at tracks unsuitable for our cars.
IN DEFENSE OF THE FENCE:
Eddie Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway president
Some of the drivers' unofficial statements in the weeks after the Las Vegas tragedy about the proper placement of materials in the fencing around ovals was interesting, and I understand their response was emotional. Whatever the order of materials around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was going to be wrong in their eyes. However, according to our engineers who've studied this for years, the way we have it placed at Texas Motor Speedway – from the racetrack to the grandstand it goes SAFER barrier, wall, cables, upright posts, mesh fencing – is the best way and it won't be changed. It is the safest for the drivers and safest for the fans.
The talk of reinforced Perspex- or plexiglass-type material as a substitute for fencing is just talk and has never been tested in any scientific setting at all. If we knew it worked, that would be a great concept worth looking at, sure. But how thick would such a material have to be to absorb the impact of a flying racecar at 220mph? And how soon would it yellow and distort the views of the people in the grandstands?
And then there is the expense. It goes without saying that all of us in the sport want it to be safer, and whatever we can do we will do. But there has to be a cost analysis brought in, too. If foot-thick plexiglass around a 1.5-mile track costs you X amount of dollars to purchase and install, and we make Y amount of dollars from an IndyCar race and there's a huge difference between X and Y, then where's our return on any investment?
I know I'm going to get blasted for that comment by angry people saying, “Well, what's a life worth?” I'm saying every life is precious, and therefore if IndyCar were to decide that such an investment was necessary, then we'd probably be better off saying, “OK, we won't run IndyCars.” If you're not making a lot of money, you're not in a position to make a demand.
What I do know is that the series needs oval venues if it wants to be competitive and have a role in American motorsports because we're an oval-track country and IndyCar is a series known around the world because of an oval race. And I'll tell you another thing: while there is all this uncertainty over the oval races, we're not able to start selling tickets to our IndyCar race…
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the January 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands. CLICK HERE to subscribe.