On catch fencing, IndyCar and NASCAR must pull together

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on February 27, 2013 1:51 pm

The moment Kyle Larson’s car left the track and hurtled through the air at the conclusion of Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway, IndyCar fans everywhere were transported back to that dark day in Las Vegas that ended in the death of one of their favorite champions.

Once again, catch fencing has been thrust into the public consciousness.

Reaction to Saturday’s accident was swift and fierce from all channels.  IndyCar fans in particular were harsh in their criticisms (myself included, I must admit) and were quick to condemn NASCAR for encouraging the type of racing that led to this accident.

In the collective mind of IndyCar fans, responsibility for this accident lay not at the feet of the men involved on track but instead with the suits that promote such a dangerous and reckless product.  After NASCAR escaped Carl Edwards’s scary accident at Talladega in 2009, the sanctioning body giant showed great concern for the welfare of drivers and fans alike for a brief period of time before settling back into complacency. NASCAR reverted to going to great lengths to promote on-track temper tantrums, massive multi-car crashes, and a style of racing that put everyone in harm’s way.

Unfortunately, Indy car and open-wheel racing also has a past that is littered with incidents that have led to spectator injuries and deaths. Over the past 40 years, at least four accidents have killed or seriously injured spectators at Indy car races, including two at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1973 and 1987, one at Michigan Speedway in 1998, and one the following year at Charlotte.  When it comes to criticizing a sanctioning body for accidents that put spectators at risk, INDYCAR fans are best to tread lightly.

Additionally, to call out NASCAR and say it is solely focused on promoting “The Big One” to show off their somewhat vigilante style of racing is also turning a blind eye to IndyCar’s message.  How many promotions has Mike Conway’s 2010 Indianapolis 500 crash been show in?  How about Marco ending up on his lid at St. Pete in 2011 (or Mid-Ohio in 2008, or Indianapolis in 2007)?  What about Dario Franchitti sailing through the air at Michigan?  IndyCar doesn’t focus its promotional efforts 100% on clean racing, and it’s unfair to hold NASCAR to that standard.

Moreover, to say that NASCAR has been completely negligent in regard to safety is equally unfair.  Seeing the end result of the carnage that was Kyle Larson’s car, it is astonishing that he was able to literally walk away from the accident.  To their credit, NASCAR has made great strides over the past decade to increase driver safety and ensure that their greatest assets are well-protected.  They can certainly be accused of being reactive to safety concerns, but it’s grossly unfair to call them stagnant.

Now that NASCAR has a much better grip on driver safety, it’s time for them to come to the table with IndyCar to join in a collaborative effort to revolutionize track fence safety and to protect the paying customers.  If NASCAR was given a mulligan at Talladega, they caught a Hail Mary at Daytona.  Only by the grace of God were no fans killed in the Larson accident.  Had that same crash occurred during Sunday’s Daytona 500, it’s unlikely everyone would have been so lucky. Neither NASCAR nor IndyCar can afford another accident like this. It is time for both entities to really get serious about revolutionizing the barriers between the cars and the fans.

Even if NASCAR ceases to promote the type of racing that encourages accidents or IndyCar finds a truly effective solution for keeping the cars out of the catch fences, there will always be the potential for such an accident in as sport as dangerous as auto racing.  So long as even the slightest potential exists for a car to sail into the catch fencing, efforts must be exhausted to keep the car and all its pieces within the confines of the track and out of the grandstands.

Following the Dan Wheldon accident, IndyCar made waves in the media for their focus on studying what can be done to the catch fencing to make it safer while not detracting from the fan experience.  Unfortunately, in the months since then, it seems that little has been accomplished.  News of research or ideas had slowed to a trickle prior to Saturday. I have actively sought information but have been unable to find even so much as confirmation that any undertaking is still ongoing today.

Now that the topic is back in the forefront of the public discourse, I desperately hope that the conversation can be reignited and true progress can be made.  But for the sake of the drivers and fans alike, this cannot be a topic that is only discussed and pursued in the wake of tragedy and near-misses.

An important aspect for the team developing any new system of this magnitude is to be open to new ideas from new people.  For the most part, the SAFER Barrier was developed under a veil of secrecy.  Little information about the system was leaked to the public before it was installed at IMS prior to commencement of activities for the 2002 Indianapolis 500.  For a system that must be as revolutionary as the redesign of the catch fencing, it is my hope that IndyCar and NASCAR look to open up the effort and bring a diverse range of experts into the fray.  Only with fresh thoughts and engineering can the best solutions be discovered.

After the Indianapolis Motor Speedway initiated, fostered, and largely bankrolled the development of the SAFER Barrier between 1998 and 2002, it was the iron fist of NASCAR that was largely responsible for its installation at nearly every oval track in the United States.  With a similar collaborative effort, the sport can again capture lightning in a bottle and revolution race track safety.  Neither body can afford to fail and face the consequences of having a catch fence fail catastrophically.  For the sake of all, this can no longer be a question of “Can we improve this?”  The focus now must be “How do we improve this?”

NASCAR and IndyCar certainly don’t have a history of playing nicely together. From competition to sponsors to manufacturers and beyond, the two bodies are constantly on opposite sides of the tug-of-war.  Now, it is time for them to start pulling together.