Lessons to be learned
There have been plenty of big accidents over the past 10 years in Indycar races on high-banked oval tracks. Davey Hamilton and Kenny Brӓck were seriously injured in wild accidents at Texas in 2001 and ’03, and Ryan Briscoe was badly hurt at Chicago in ’05 (above). But Dan Wheldon’s fatal crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a terrible wakeup call for the IndyCar Series. The really shocking thing was that many drivers and fans weren’t surprised by the violent, multi-car accident that resulted in Wheldon’s death.
Today’s Indycars with restricted horsepower and plenty of downforce are able to run flat out around a banked 1.5-mile oval like Las Vegas, creating what the drivers call ‘pack racing’. At this type of track everyone always worries about big crashes with multiple cars involved. Yet Las Vegas, with its banking increased five years ago from 12 to 20 degrees, was something else again.
The situation was made even worse with 34 starters, many of them inexperienced rookies, on such a short track. It was like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in the chamber and sure enough, running pedal to the metal at 220mph, three and sometimes four-wide, the inevitable ‘Big One’ happened.
Following Wheldon’s death some American commentators called for IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard to resign, while some team owners have asked Bernard to hire a new chief steward or director of operations. In early November Bernard was struggling to pull together his 2012 schedule amid serious questions about IndyCar continuing to race on high-banked tracks like Las Vegas.
Chip Ganassi was the first IndyCar team owner to comment about potential fixes for the set of circumstances that claimed Wheldon’s life. “It’s not one thing,” he said. “Six, eight or 10 things have to happen. It’s not one thing that killed Dan Wheldon, and it’s not one thing that’s going to make it safer for everybody.”
Ganassi suggested looking at developing an Indycar with an enclosed cockpit and a canopy, like a fighter jet. “There needs to be a step change now,” he added. “And there probably will be.”
Bruce Ashmore has more than 30 years experience as an Indycar engineer and designer. He was Lola’s chief designer from 1988-93 during its most successful years in CART, and then joined Reynard as its American development engineer for seven years through its spell as CART’s dominant car builder. In 2009 Ashmore formed BAT Engineering to design a new Indycar, competing against Dallara, Lola, Swift and Delta Wing for the contract to build the 2012 racer. He believes Indycars should not race on any high-banked superspeedways.
“You’ve got to make a very big step to make an Indycar safe on those tracks,” he said. “You need a full rollcage and to make it heavier with more horsepower. If they want to race on those big, banked ovals then they’ve got to look at a car like a NASCAR.”
Like all the drivers, past and present, Ashmore believes Indycars require more grunt. “They need to have 900 horsepower,” he insisted. “To make an exciting race where the drivers can pass and race back and forth and not be trapped in a pack, the cars need to have a lot less downforce and much higher horsepower.”
Ashmore is convinced that the 2012 Dallara is not a big enough change, either aerodynamically or in terms of preventing interlocking wheels, to seriously address the problems. “IndyCar are telling the world that they’ve made a big change with the new car that will solve all the problems they’ve got now. But they’ve really made only a small step of probably five per cent.
“The problem is they’re going to have the same accident again. It might be the first race of 2012 or it might take six years, but that same set of circumstances will happen again. They think they’ve solved it by scrapping all this equipment and making everybody buy new equipment. But they haven’t solved the problem.”
IndyCar clearly needs a new way forward on all fronts.