INDYCAR didn’t do “nothing”

IndyCar commentary — By on November 7, 2011 8:49 am

It’s one thing when the national pundits who have no knowledge whatsoever of auto racing try to dissect the Dan Wheldon tragedy and tell all of us in the racing world exactly what happened, why it happened, and all the ways it could have been prevented.  It’s quite another when people inside the racing industry point fingers and say “I can’t believe INDYCAR saw this problem for years and did absolutely nothing about it.”  Nothing?  Really?  I don’t think so.

It’s an unfortunate reality that racing is expensive.  The current IZOD IndyCar Series is an expensive series to compete in, and there has been little development on the cars for the past eight years.  In a series that allows for continuous development of cars and engines, the costs are staggering.  One of the symptoms of this high cost is that the INDYCAR teams have simply not been able to afford the implementation of a new car for the past several years.  There are still grave concerns about all the teams being able to answer the bell at St. Petersburg in March after having to purchase new equipment during this off-season.  That isn’t to say, though, that INDYCAR and Dallara have just been sitting around idly waiting for the Las Vegas tragedy before addressing the safety problems that have been lurking for years.  It’s not as if INDYCAR would not have liked to introduce a new car years ago.  Sadly, there was just no way that the teams could afford such an investment in these difficult economic times.  Getting by with what they already had was the best way the Series could move forward.

There are a lot of keyboard critics who will point out every little thing that INDYCAR could have done over the past eight years to eliminate the chances of a massive accident like we witnessed two weeks ago at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  “It seems so obvious,” they will say.  “They should have just [insert favorite idea on how to space out cars here]!”  The issue is that not a single one of these keyboard critics has ever designed a race car.  They have probably never tested their theories in the real world.  They have probably never considered the thousands and thousands of other consequences their changes might inflict on the rest of the car.  And before this devastating tragedy, they probably forgot the cries of the critics in 2009 when the ovals races got too spread out and fans claimed previously exciting races at Texas and Richmond had turned into snoozefests.

In the off-season following the 2003 INDYCAR season, INDYCAR made a number of changes to the then-year-old chassis designed to help with some of the blow-over problems that the cars had been experiencing.  During the prior season, high-profile accidents such as Mario Andretti testing at Indianapolis, Kenny Brack at Texas, and the fatal crash of Tony Renna in a testing incident at The Brickyard after the season led Indy Racing League officials to investigate ways to make the car more resistant to lifting off the ground once it began to rotate around its vertical axis.  As a result, engine displacement was lowered from 3.5 L to 3.0 L, a ¼” vertical wicker was placed running the length of the car from the nose to the back of the engine cowl, and a number of other enhancements were made to the sidepods and undertray, all in an effort to keep cars from lifting off the ground when they got turned sideways.

I certainly don’t claim to have valid answers that could have magically prevented the accident from happening.  What I do know is that, in my everyday job as an engineer, I often find myself making one seemingly small alteration that requires me to confirm and tidy up 10 more changes that occurred, usually unplanned, as a result of the one thing I wanted to change.  The Law of Unintended Consequences can be a real pain, and many times those unintended consequences are just too great to overcome, no matter how good the original idea is.  Sure, INDYCAR could have reduced or eliminated the mandated rear wing angles on the high speed ovals to make the cars faster and theoretically harder to drive, but how well would that work?  How much faster could they go?  I’m quite sure I don’t need to remind fans about what happened when CART attempted to run at Texas Motor Speedway with high horsepower and low downforce.  With speeds only about seven miles per hour higher than what INDYCAR experienced at Las Vegas, the drivers began blacking out while driving at speed.  Is that the type of solution we are looking for?  Would harder tires have meant less grip and theoretically less pack racing?  Perhaps, but one driver told me in 2009 when Firestone attempted to bring a harder tire to the track that passing was almost impossible because of those tires.  A solution is never as easy as only fixing the symptom.

I know there are those who will say INDYCAR should have debuted the new car years ago.  Again, that’s easy to say from the keyboard critic’s standpoint.  It’s also easy to say when it isn’t your money on the line.  Sure, INDYCAR could have ruled with an iron fist and mandated that teams buy a new car several years ago.  However, what happens when the teams can’t afford to buy the new car?  What happens when the owners have to look their crew members in the eyes and say, “Sorry, we’re shutting down shop now because we can’t buy the new car for next year”?  INDYCAR, as much as it would like to, cannot simply dictate to the teams what they must do.  The team owners and INDYCAR, particularly in the fragile post-merge era, must work together and move forward collaboratively, not as combatants.

Dan Wheldon’s death was certainly a tragedy that has shaken all of us.  Unfortunately, it is also a part of automobile racing.  Fatalities have been part of racing since the very beginning, and knowledge has been expanded every time.  From the likes of Bill Vukovich, to Eddie Sachs, to Scott Brayton, to Greg Moore, each time a driver has given his life for racing, he has been memorialized by the advancements in safety that have come as a result.  Racing will never be completely 100% safe, and as long as there is still a 0.001% chance of a driver being fatally injured, the job to improve racing safety will not be complete.  INDYCAR and racing as a whole will learn from this and move forward with a new set of tools to work toward preventing further incidents like this.

Were the changes that the Indy Racing League and INDYCAR implemented enough to prevent all occurrences of flying cars?  Obviously not as we have seen more blow-over incidents such as Dario Franchitti, Mike Conway, and others.  But while focusing on those incidents, how many blow-overs were prevented as a result of these changes?  Could the IRL and INDYCAR have done more to get the cars to keep from taking to the air?  I honestly don’t know, but without having been a part of their technical team, I can’t, and more importantly won’t, say for sure.  It is too easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and point to problems that should have been fixed or issues that could have been handled differently.  The reality is that in a sport that goes by at 220 mph, you will never been able to eliminate all of the risks — reduce them, yes, but never fully eliminate them.  No matter how much money, how much time, how many resources you put toward solving the problems, there will always be great risks in auto racing.

What I do know is that to say INDYCAR stood around idly knowing this issue was a problem and did absolutely nothing about it is completely asinine and an insult to the many men and women who have worked for several years to make Indy car racing safer.  Many of the changes learned from years of research and experience have already been built into the 2012 INDYCAR that will debut next March in St. Petersburg and carry Dan Wheldon’s name.  Those changes were put in place well before Dan’s accident and were intended to prevent the very type of accident that took his life.  They weren’t a response to the Las Vegas accident.  INDYCAR was trying to get ahead of the problem.  Sadly, they just ran out of time.  We hope that going forward, the issue of interlocking tires and lifting cars will be eliminated by the changes that INDYCAR, Dallara, and other teams have implemented, that Dan Wheldon tested for miles and miles on end this summer, and that other drivers will use in 2012 and beyond.