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Flat Spot On: ‘Wind Screens’ Coming for IndyCars

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 27 2016
Indycars may look a lot different in coming years. (INDYCAR/LAT USA file photo)

Indycars may look a lot different in coming years. (INDYCAR/LAT USA file photo)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Race car drivers often say that walking into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be like channeling ghosts, because the place is such a testimony to history. Walking into the hallowed venue on Friday, however, I had a different perspective.

bugindy500I was in the pedestrian tunnel that leads from Georgetown Rd. into the infield at a time when many people are still eating breakfast. I was surrounded by fans, walking and talking, animated by the anticipation of the day’s final practice for Sunday’s 100th running of the Indy 500 and the pit stop competition to follow.

For the first time, I was almost persuaded that fans will continue to embrace motor racing despite the fact the chances of a fatal injury are far slimmer compared to 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Since the latest safety revolution began around the year 2000 – when CART became the first sanctioning body to mandate the HANS device – the goal of preventing fatalities in major racing series has come much closer to realization. But recently I’ve had to ask myself if less danger has meant less enthusiasm from fans as indicated by steadily declining ticket sales and TV ratings.

Given that the number of fans at “Carburetion Day” on Friday was about double that of last year and that Sunday’s race is the first sellout in over a decade, I indulged my fantasy that people are coming to the Speedway expecting to appreciate the skill of the drivers and teams and not the possibility that

Justin Wilson and Ed Carpenter in the pits at Texas in 2013. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Justin Wilson and Ed Carpenter in the pits at Texas in 2013. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

drivers are literally cheating death. Maybe safety isn’t a cause of fan disenchantment.

Then again, the cynic in me says that last May James Hinchcliffe nearly lost his life in a crash at the Speedway and last August Justin Wilson lost his life when some flying debris struck him in the cockpit of his IndyCar at Pocono. So the specter of bad outcomes still looms.

I was coming into the track at an hour when I normally would be eating breakfast. I was trying to catch up with Jeff Horton, the director of engineering for the Indy Racing League. He occupies an office in the far reaches of Gasoline Alley and a well placed source had told me I might get a chance to see a canopy designed for IndyCars made of glass that one could peer through without any distortion.

The new concept has been shown to half a dozen drivers or so to get their comments. Ultimately, I missed seeing what is more accurately described as a windscreen due to my credential-carrying status as a journalist. But Horton was available and we talked about the new safety project that includes Dr. Terry Trammell, longtime medical director for the IRL, as well as others recruited by Horton. PPG, long involved in Indy racing, is the manufacturer for the project.

To be made by a PPG department that specializes in military and transportation glass, the windscreen will begin at the cockpit opening and reach as far back as the steering wheel at a height of one inch above the driver’s helmeted head. The cockpit will remain open in the sense of the fan’s view and, perhaps more importantly, the driver will be able to get in and out.

“It’s actually a small piece of glass,” said Horton, who pointed out the windscreens have been used in various forms throughout the history of the Speedway.

With this modern version, the driver might still be vulnerable to something falling from directly overhead, but the goal is to prevent any object a car might drive into from reaching the driver’s head. Horton said the windscreen would have prevented Wilson’s fatal accident by deflecting an errant nosecone. It would likely not have helped in Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident in Las Vegas in the IndyCar season finale in 2011, he acknowledged.

“Our scenarios are all that the driver ran into a piece (of debris),” said Horton. “We don’t think there’s much of a chance that a piece will fall out of the sky and hit somebody. We’re working off the deflection concept. It will allow full egress by the driver without any help. That’s where you get the windscreen concept.”

Testing and development will intensify this summer and the object is to begin work on a final design once the season is over.

“We’ve got several designs. We’ll pick one,” said Horton. “We need to get it back to PPG for load analysis. That will help us design the thickness (of the glass) and the final design.”  There will also be a load analysis done in conjunction with Dallara to determine how a car with a windscreen handles impact during crashes.

What about a driver’s vision? “The driver does look through it,” said Horton, who said the products produce by PPG have resolved the problem of distortion.  “The angle you can look through it from is unbelievable,” said Horton. “They can handle an angle up to 35-degree angles with a complex curve (without distortion).”

Fans who are worried about seeing the driver or yet another modification to open wheel racing may not be enthusiastic about endorsing the windscreen approach. In Formula 1, where Wilson’s accident helped raise more consciousness about canopies that has been present since Felipe Massa was struck in the helmet by an errant spring in 2009, the idea of a canopy continues to draw criticism.

You could probably write a book on how much resistance all manner of safety devices once received that are now accepted as crucial to racing safety. In fact, I am in the process of writing a book on the HANS Device and how difficult it was for inventor Bob Hubbard and business partner Jim Downing to introduce it to motor racing, where it has saved hundreds of lives. It took them ten years to persuade major sanctioning bodies to mandate the HANS, which is now headed toward universal use in all levels of racing.

In the case of a windscreen in IndyCar, it may not be a cure-all protection for drivers in open cockpits. (Even closed cars can get upside down in ways that result in fatal accidents such as the 2001 crash in an Audi prototype that claimed the life of Michele Alboreto.)

If vetted with lab testing and proven to be acceptable in racing circumstances through testing, why not take an additional step needed to protect drivers?

A windscreen may not solve all problems of exposure for drivers in the name of maintaining tradition, if not the ghost of history. But it can provide better protection from a wide variety of unexpected events.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 27 2016
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