IndyCar drivers and officials meet to discuss how to make sport safer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Now that the celebration of Dan Wheldon's life is over and the respects have been paid to the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner who was killed in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, the hard work for the series begins. The first step in making necessary corrections came on Monday when IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and other series officials conducted a three-hour long drivers' meeting at the Pagoda of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Although drivers were requested not to divulge details of the meeting, several said it was a positive exchange of ideas.
The one thing that IndyCar has going for it to help overcome the disaster of a 15-car pileup at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is time to make necessary changes to the new Dallara chassis that will begin competition in 2012. The new car already had additional safety features incorporated into its design but in the wake of Wheldon's death more changes could be forthcoming to prevent an incident like that at Las Vegas that killed Wheldon.
The private meeting included Bernard, IndyCar president of competition Brian Barnhart and IndyCar technical director Will Phillips along with many of the drivers that compete in the series.
"We were able to talk a lot, listen a lot and look at going forward, how to improve things in all areas," said four-time IndyCar Series champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti. "It was a very positive and productive meeting. That is the first step. I think we are all on the same page --trying to improve things. Obviously it was a massive shock what happened to Dan last week and the death of [Marco Simoncelli] in MotoGP on Sunday. Racing is a dangerous business and we are trying to make it as safe as possible. What happened last week reminds of that. We want to improve things as much as possible.
Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion, said the overall tone and mood was positive and called the new car a "new opportunity" to brainstorm for the future.
"What I find encouraging is how unified we are and how we can work with the IndyCar and the drivers to make racing a little less dangerous," Kanaan said. "It has always been dangerous and it always will be so that is what impresses me the most -- how unified everybody is and on the same page. I'm encouraged. This approach didn't start today. We have always worried about safety. We had many years with this car before this happened. It isn't something that is being done just because something happened now.
"We have always set the standards in IndyCar. We created the soft walls --IndyCar created that. We are always going to create the standards and we are going to make it better."
Franchitti admitted the focus has been placed on IndyCar and how the sport reacts to this is critical. With heavy hearts over Wheldon's death Franchitti believes some of the positive exchange of ideas is promising. He also defended Bernard, who has been heavily criticized since Wheldon's accident for allowed 34 cars to compete on a racing circuit that was way too fast.
This is not the time for finger-pointing -- it's time for action and Monday's meeting was crucial in taking some serious action.
Ironically, Wheldon was the test driver for the 2012 IndyCar so his lasting legacy will be on safety -- much like the late Dale Earnhardt's death in the Daytona 500 in 2001 helped force NASCAR to make advances in safety. But that is an ongoing process.
"I think one thing that was important today is I've been in this series since the start and have gone through a lot of different cars but the car we had since 2003 has been safe from the start," said Davey Hamilton, who suffered crippling leg injuries in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001 but was able to eventually return as an IndyCar driver. "We have to take the next step and be the leaders in safety in IndyCar. Dario, Tony and Justin Wilson have unified the drivers in a very positive way. It's not to disagree. It's 'What's the best for us as drivers? What's the best for us as a series and how do we put the best race on for these fans? 'It's very hard to balance of that."
A drivers committee has been assembled with Kanaan, Franchitti and Wilson taking the lead but all drivers have input.
Graham Rahal believes it's time for IndyCar to be proactive in regards to safety instead of reactive. But how does a sport predict the future until something bad happens?
"Knee-jerk reactions are not what we need right now and everybody is cognizant of that right now," Franchitti said. "It's a difficult situation for everybody. On Saturday we were at Dan's funeral in St. Petersburg, Florida and Sunday was the memorial service in Indianapolis. Monday, we're back to work trying to correct this. We have Dan in our minds and are going to use this terrible thing that happened and try to make things as safe as possible."
Even with additional safety changes, however, auto racing remains a very risky sport and that must always be in the forefront of competitors and fans.
"What people need to understand is we are never going to make motor racing 100 percent safe," Kanaan warned. "That is the fact. As long as we can leave with the fact racing is very dangerous and we can make it better. Hopefully we can make it better; make it safer but it will never be 100 percent safe."
Three-time Formula One champion Jackie Stewart was a leading advocate for driver safety during the 1960s and 1970s. Stewart's fellow Scotsman Franchitti is continuing his legacy as a voice of improvements in safety.
"There is a responsibility for all of the drivers and that has been very clear not since Dan's accident but all the drivers," Franchitti said. "The difference is when Jackie did it the sport didn't necessarily fully support it. We have total support of IndyCar and the drivers now and that is something that Jackie didn't necessarily have in his time so we have a chance to move forward. I will definitely be picking his brains."
Franchitti said there was a free and open exchange of ideas and called it a very constructive meeting.
"Right now everything is on the table for discussion and today was a preliminary discussion in that," he said.
"We're not deciding anything today; we had a brainstorming session and even then we will not fix everything then, either," Kanaan said. "We have to make it better but we can't fix everything. We are so unified right now and in a way we are going to be in a lot more communication with the series. Now, we have a lot of work to do and will be speaking a lot more about safety and change."
One idea that is gaining momentum among drivers both past and present is to actually increased horsepower rather than slow the cars down in order to separate the field. Bunching the cars together at the same speed creates pack racing, which led to the devastating crash that killed Wheldon.
Also, drivers want to take away downforce to make the cars harder to drive, a change that which will help separate the good drivers from the bad. The key answer to safety may actually be for IndyCars to go faster -- not slower. Making the cars harder to drive is a crucial point in the advancement of safety.
"We need to make IndyCars a beast again," former driver and 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran once said.
IndyCar's first step as a series is not only creating that beast, but taming the beast of negative reaction that has resulted since Wheldon's death. That may mean making pack racing a thing of the past.
Late Monday IndyCar announced information about the investigation into the 15-car crash that took Wheldon's life.
According to a statement released by the series, part of "Phase 1 of the investigation includes an internal team led by series safety and competition officials is evaluating data to make a factual determination of the circumstances surrounding the entire incident. The investigation team will utilize outside, independent experts and consultants for analysis of various aspects of the data. The results of the investigation will be turned over to an independent, third-party group for validation."
Bernard is hoping to move forward to not only get answers to what happened but ways to prevent it from occurring in the future.
"We must continue to move forward with a thorough investigation," he said. "Fortunately, that has already begun, and we have the protocols in place to get this done. This was a tragic accident, and IndyCar needs to understand everything possible about it."
According to IndyCar, Phase 1 will be complete in several weeks. Phase 2 of the investigation will utilize the information learned in the first phase to minimize risks in the future.
Accessible data currently being utilized by the investigation team includes:
• Accident Data Recorders (ADR3s) from all 15 cars involved in the accident. The ADR3 senses and records 1,000 samples per second just prior to, during and after an accident-triggering event. The ADR3 crash-hardened system can record data from the both the vehicle's internal sensors as well as information from the car's on-board data acquisition system.
• Accelerometers from all 15 drivers involved in the accident. These sensors are integrated into the left and right radio earpieces worn by drivers to measure dynamic forces during an accident, including the acceleration in the X, Y and Z axes.
• Analysis of all cars involved in the incident.
• Personal safety equipment including firesuits, Nomex underwear and helmets.
• Analysis of videos, including footage from in-car cameras, safety vehicles and Race Control.
• Analysis of photos, including the accident itself, as well as track conditions post-accident.
• Post-incident reports from race control and the Holmatro Safety Team.
• Event-specific data from timing and scoring.
Guidelines emphasizing improved driver safety and quality car construction were the key specifications stressed to chassis manufacturers that produced the current generation car, which was introduced in 2003. Key safety mandates include energy-absorbing materials, side intrusion panels and increased distance between front and pedal bulkheads. IndyCar and Dallara continue to work on developing its next generation chassis, which will debut in competition in 2012; a universal road/oval chassis with an enhanced driver safety cell and design, which reduces the risks of wheel-to-wheel contact and interlocking wheel.