Flat Spot On: The Perplexities of Danger in Racing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 7 2019
Track workers work to repair the catch fence at Pocono as a medical evacuation helicopter transports injured driver Robert Wickens to a hospital in 2018. (File photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Last week there was an outpouring of grief when two drivers died in high-profile racing crashes. This week, there’s been a lot of squawking from fans who are sorry to see a change by IndyCar that dropped Pocono from the schedule due to concerns about the track’s fencing.

All these situations bring to mind an age-old question. Is it up to drivers to avoid dangerous situations? I personally don’t think that’s the answer. And history has showed us that it can be a bad idea to leave safety up to driver judgement on risky tracks. (See Niki Lauda’s crash at the Nurburgring in 1976.) 

From the perspective of a journalist and author, I was saddened by the deaths of F2 driver Anthoine Hubert and land speed driver Jessi Combs. There’s always the shock when fatalities happen—and disappointment given the safety revolution that occurred at the turn of the 21st Century. It’s too early to understand why the survival cell of Hubert that is built into the Dallara F2 2018 did not save him. On the other hand, his car suffered two severe impacts, the latter resulting from a driver not on the racing surface.

In the case of Combs, she attempted to drive 500 mph without so much as a roll cage, much less a survival cell, and the unanswered question in her case remains why she was willing to take so little precaution.

What perplexes me most was the almost simultaneous debate about Pocono, which included the outmoded idea that safety depends on drivers avoiding dangerous crashes. Safety depends on the equipment used by drivers and the facilities where they race. Period. It’s up to organizers to make sure the highest standard of safety is in place. The goal is to make racing a sport where the price paid for failure is reflected in the race results and possibly the loss of a sponsor or a job due to tearing up a team owner’s equipment.

It’s a bad business model for major league series to risk the death of their drivers on live television, which risks unraveling relationships with sponsors, TV partners and manufacturers. It’s also simply a lousy thing to risk killing or severely injuring the people who make the most significant contribution to the sport when it can be avoided.

I pause here for some statistics for the boo birds who want to suggest safer racing means more crashing and risk taking. NASCAR has not had a single death since 2001 in its three major traveling series after committing itself to the highest standards for cockpits, vehicles and barriers. There’s no evidence of more crashes or more dangerous risk-taking by drivers. And there’s every indication that a committed effort on safety can be successful.

Judging from comments in social media, I’m not alone in being biased in favor of safety over an outmoded culture of bravery. We’ve been down that tragic road. In fact, I’ve written a book called CRASH! about the difficult and history-making transition from the old school to a new era.

The safety revolution started with the death of three-time world champion Ayrton Senna in 1994, a revolution that continued after Greg Moore’s fatal crash and hit high gear after Dale Earnhardt lost his life at Daytona in 2001. CRASH! is a close look at how Formula 1, CART and NASCAR each arrived at a no-holds-barred commitment to safety as a result of tragedy. It’s a story told through the lens of history and the struggle by HANS inventor Dr. Robert Hubbard and business partner Jim Downing to gain acceptance for their life-saving device.

Racing became safer because sanctioning bodies decided to mandate. They decided to force drivers to accept the HANS, albeit after deaths from basal skull fractures and near misses. Once committed, the sanctioning bodies did not wait for tracks to decide when to put in better barriers and they did not wait for car builders to decide when to make their chassis stronger. The new methodology of assuming responsibility for safety instead of trying to avoid legal liability has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of deaths in major league racing. It’s why the deaths of two high-profile drivers in one week came as shocking news.

As usual, there’s work to be done. The debate over Pocono is a case in point. After a second straight year of cars going into the fencing, it’s self-evident the fencing presents problems for open-wheel racers traveling at speeds of 200 mph. The ability of the track’s personnel to repair damaged fencing on a timely basis also proved woefully inadequate during this year’s race. To suggest drivers not try to win on the first lap and avoid multi-car incidents is an absurd safety policy. It’s up to promoters and sanctioning bodies to make their venues and cars safe enough to contain driver error without critical injuries such as the paralysis suffered by Robert Wickens at Pocono last year.

Racing will always be dangerous. In 2015, Jules Bianchi became the first death in F1 since the loss of Senna due to exposure to a head injury—six years after Henry Surtees suffered a fatal blow in his F2 cockpit from debris. The FIA responded by installing halos last season to protect drivers in F1. The howls of protests from fans about their precious sport no longer looking the same, or the undocumented fan “research” about how the halo would not prevent injuries or cause them, were ignored. Instead, the FIA followed its own lead after research and testing and then followed up by mandating halos in F2 this year.

Since 2001, the FIA has maintained a dedicated and largely transparent commitment to racing safety through the wholly owned FIA Institute (incorporated into the FIA in 2016). More significantly, to demonstrate the value of racing as a sport, the FIA has made racing safety the centerpiece for a worldwide highway safety campaign that has led to lives saved in highway crashes thanks to the New Car Assessment Program. Think of it as helping to create survival cells for highway drivers.

As part of its commitment, several days after Hubert’s death, the FIA announced an investigation into the crash. It will necessarily focus on how and why the survival cell required by regulations and built into the Dallara F2 2018 failed. And it will determine, one anticipates, if the halos used in F2 had any bearing on the failure. We’ll also find out if the halo helped avoid a double fatality as a result of the horrendous car-to-car contact resulting in the flip of Juan Manuel Correa’s Dallara. The issue of track configuration and creating a wider runoff area—where the incident occurred—is also expected to be examined.

By comparison, privately owned IndyCar, a subsidiary of the Hulman & Company, has stumbled when it comes to transparency and timely responses to safety concerns. The sanctioning body born as the Indy Racing League retained the model of considering legal liability first and did not mandate the HANS Device until 2006, for example, six years after it was first introduced in CART and five years after it was mandated by CART for ovals. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, also owned by Hulman & Co., may have introduced the SAFER barrier in conjunction with NASCAR in 2003, but since then there have been no similarly dramatic improvements in fencing where open-wheel machines are destined to fly.

IndyCar finds itself at another crossroad with the aeroscreen. Final testing begins this fall with the new device designed in conjunction with Red Bull, which provides cockpit protection for drivers from debris and, possibly, fenceposts or other intrusions. Given the FIA’s advances with the halo, the aeroscreen can’t arrive soon enough after the deaths of IndyCar drivers Dan Wheldon in 2011 and Justin Wilson in 2015 in circumstances where better cockpit protection could very well have saved them.

Thanks to a generational change in safety, the major leagues of racing and their understudy series have evolved into a display of skill at high speed in extraordinary machines where fatalities are rare. Driver judgement is important. But, puh-leeze don’t tell me it’s up to drivers to provide their own safety on the razor’s edge of split-second decision-making. It’s not enough, either, to build a consensus that one particular driver is responsible in multi-car incidents.  What a sham: unfairly blaming one driver in the false hopes it will make things safer in the future.

Sorry Pocono. At least bring your fences up to a proper standard for open-wheel, open-cockpit cars that race at 200 mph. Also, improve mid-race repair procedures when necessary. Then, try to get on the schedule again. It’s the least, the very least, that can be done.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is a 43-year veteran of reporting on racing and the author of six books. CRASH! How the HANS Helped Save Racing, is being released this month. For more information, see www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 7 2019
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