Is next-generation IndyCar race car safer than the previous one?
One week from today a gleaming present is scheduled to arrive in race shops around Indianapolis. It will be fawned over for a few moments and then prepared for a much-anticipated, much-needed on-track testing in January. The delivery of the Dallara DW12, the next-generation Izod IndyCar Series race car, to individual teams will mark the next phase in the implementation of a vehicle designed, according to the series, to be innovative, competitive and cost-effective.
It will be more stylish, more adaptable, more affordable and, in ways, safer. But it could have been a lot safer, said Dr. Terry Trammell, an orthopedic surgeon and pioneer in motor sports medicine and injury prevention. The series, he said, missed a rare clean-sheet opportunity to make the advancements he and others in the medical community advised. Whereas NASCAR constructed a sort of rolling armored personnel carrier with the debut of its new car in 2007, IndyCar's seven-member ICONIC committee, Trammell said, recommended a Dallara-designed chassis with improvements, but not sweeping advancements in driver safety.
"The car was not built [with] all the safety innovations that we'd hoped for," Trammell told SI.com at a global safety symposium at the annual Performance Racing Industry trade show. "The [medical] people working in this literally asked to be able to position the driver the way we wanted him, with the seat around him the way we wanted him and then hand them [IndyCar] that and say, 'Ok, build the car around it.'
"Didn't happen. They did what they could within the envelope they were working with. They tried to accommodate the needs that we had, but it's still not optimal for every size driver. If you're little, it's better. But there were a lot of tradeoffs in order to come up with a chassis that is similar to what we have in size and shape."
There is a poignancy in the alleged shortcoming, because the new car bears the initials of Dan Wheldon, its original test driver, who was killed in the final race of the IndyCar season, utilizing the old car at Las Vegas on Oct. 16.
Trammell said a narrow timetable for selecting and announcing a new car for 2012 also impacted safety implementations.
"The rapidity of getting it into production and out onto the track was also part of the rush," he said. "So we didn't have all the time we would have liked."
The formation of the ICONIC committee, which included series chairman Randy Bernard, then-president of competition Brian Barnhart and 2012 car project coordinator Tony Cotman, was announced in April of 2010. It recommended the Dallara "safety cell" from among a host of hopefuls. The pacing, Trammell said, felt brisk.
"I'll put it this way: Would you want me to be in a big hurry when I'm operating on you?," he posed. "That's kind of the analogy. I would have liked to have had more time and been able to do more crash research. We're doing things that we think are going to be effective, but we haven't tested it."
Bernard did not immediately respond to an interview request.
The advisory committee's name was an acronym formed from the words "Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective." Note that "safer" was not among. Gil de Ferran, a two-time CART champion and former Indianapolis 500 winner elected to the committee by the series' owners, said he had not seen data from testing of the new car, but he was sure "it must be an improvement" safety-wise.
"The committee didn't design the car. What we came up with was, in the end, a concept that I still think can address and in a way has addressed some of the issues facing the series, including reducing costs and trying to increase the framework to bring in new manufacturers," de Ferran said. "That was really the role of the committee, to create a new technical framework whereby that was a possibility. I think the engineers that were in charge of designing the cars, I don't know if they have or they haven't consulted with the various safety experts around the globe including Mr. Trammell -- who is a beacon of light, in that sense -- but I am sure they must have to, to some extent."
Trammell deemed the DW12 "better," mainly because of increased room and standard padding in the bottom of the car that better positions and protects most drivers in their seats. Taller drivers such as Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal, Trammell said, will benefit from the improvement, but remain more vulnerable.
"For Justin it's still not enough and we've tried to monkey around to try and get more [protection] for him. You just can't make him fit. Rahal the same way," Trammell said. "It's better, but still not ideal. The rest of it is very, very similar to the old car. If you overlay a tracing of the old car with the new one, there's not a whole lot of difference in the top contour heights and so forth. There's more room in the bottom."
Trammell said the new car would have likely prevented the broken leg Mike Conway sustained in a crash in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 when his car flew bottom-first into the catch fence.
"He had the leg injury from a penetration of the bottom of the tub by a metal fixture and the impact that broke his back was probably from the pull from the bottom of the car with the padding and the structure," Trammell said. "He would have at least mitigated that impact to a lesser load. He was right at 70 Gs so that could have been no break. The side panels are part of the car, they're not added on, so that gives you a layer of structural integrity the old car didn't have."
The DW12, Trammell said, would not have saved Wheldon because he, unlike Conway in 2010, impacted the catch fence with the top of the car and the exposed cockpit.
"It wouldn't have made any difference at all," said Trammell, who is part of the IndyCar investigation into Wheldon's death. "His injuries were such that, with an open-cockpit car, it's going to be the same problem. There was no failure of the car that caused his injury as best we can say now."
It is unclear whether the DW12, which features bumper-style covers around the rear tires, would have prevented Wheldon from going airborne.
Closing the cockpits on IndyCars is not viewed as a palatable or effective solution by most.
"A canopy would be similar to what they did in off-shore power boat racing," said Dr. Steve Olvey, the CART medical director for 22 years and an associate professor in the department of neurological surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Along with Trammel, he was also a founding fellow of the FIA Institute. "There were three power boat racers killed [four] weeks ago in Miami [due to] offshore racing. I don't think that [a canopy] is the answer. If a wheel and tire assembly goes up the front of the car and hits the canopy, it could easily launch into the crowd. If a car hits head on it, it may make it more likely to become airborne and all bets are off if that occurs.
"It's not the end-all answer. I think open-cockpit racing has been around for years and will continue to be. I don't think making them closed is much of an answer."
Finding a humane compromise for driver and spectator in catch fence design is a current priority within FIA, IndyCar and NASCAR, Olvey said. Dr. Dean Sicking, one of the innovators of the revolutionary Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier credited anecdotally with saving scores of driver lives and preventing even more injury, told SI.com this summer that pit wall and catch fences were the next main improvable areas of a racetrack.
"There has not been a tremendous amount of research in that area and there's been debate on what method would be best," Olvey said of catch fences. "And there's also question of whether there are newer materials that would serve the purpose of protecting both the participants as well as the spectators to the same level. You can't risk endangering the lives of the people that go to watch the race. The drivers know it's a risky business. Anytime you're racing wheel-to-wheel at 224 mph, there's a lot of risk involved, but it's been that way forever and it'll continue to be that way."
But there are answers to be had, de Ferran said.
"In general, my view on safety is quite simple," he said. "There are a lot of clever people out there. There's a lot of knowledge and a lot of research that has happened in the field of safety and continues to happen worldwide. Everyone that is involved in motor sports has almost a duty to continue to make the sport safer, to improve the cars, every time there is a technology that provides a breakthrough. That's a commitment.
"Racing is racing, so there is an element of risk there you will never be able to wipe completely clean. Never the less, it doesn't mean everyone who is involved, in every capacity, shouldn't have a very strong commitment to keep making it safer and safer."
Whether IndyCar went far enough with its next-generation race car remains to be seen.