IndyCar Straddles Line Between Speed, Safety

By JOHN MARSHALL | June 30, 2015

Organizers in every motorsport try to walk a fine line between creating fast, entertaining racing and keeping drivers and riders safe. Finding that middle ground is particularly vital in IndyCar, where cars occasionally go airborne in accidents.

Many drivers at Saturday’s 500-mile race at Auto Club Speedway believe IndyCar officials crossed the line by putting too much downforce on the cars, adding speed and risk at the 2-mile oval.

Now the series needs to figure out what to do next.

“I don’t have an answer,” said Tony Kanaan, who finished second to Graham Rahal at Fontana. “How can we make it so we keep drivers happy and fans happy? I wish over the course of this year we can come up with a compromise for both of us, but right now I really don’t know what to tell you.”

IndyCar drivers have lamented the pack-style racing on the circuit’s big ovals since two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the series’ 2011 season finale.

Drivers were concerned about the speeds at the high-banked, 1 1/2-mile oval heading into that race and Wheldon was killed when his head hit a fence post after car went airborne during a massive wreck.

IndyCar officials have continued to fight the battle between speed and safety.

Conditions became dangerous at last month’s Indy 500, where three cars went airborne during preparation for the race. James Hinchcliffe’s car did not go airborne in a fourth accident, but he nearly died after a piece of his car’s suspension pierced his thigh, causing massive blood loss.

IndyCar made a series of rule changes to keep the cars on the track at Indy, including wheel covers to prevent the cars from lifting off the ground when they get turned around during accidents.

The changes worked at the Indy 500 and at Texas’ 1 1/2-mile oval on June 6, but fans complained that the caution-free race in the Lone Star State lacked excitement.

More changes were made at Fontana.

IndyCars drivers officials discuss safetyThe race had been held at night while serving as the series’ season finale the past three years, but it was moved to June this year. With higher temperatures expected to make seam-filled Auto Club Speedway slick, IndyCar mandated a new aero kit package to add downforce and, hopefully, keep the cars on the track.

Following the practice sessions, several drivers, including points leader Juan Pablo Montoya, complained the setups would lead to the pack-style racing fans love but drivers fear.

Those predictions came true on Saturday, when cars bumped and banged at close to 220 mph pretty much from the drop of the green flag. The racing was intense and entertaining as drivers swapped places all over the track, with an IndyCar-record 80 lead changes and cars going up to five wide.

While fun to watch, it left some drivers jittery and shaking their heads when it was over, particularly after Ryan Briscoe’s car went airborne in a spectacular crash that caused the race to finish under caution. Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay weren’t injured after the collision, but several drivers compared it to the Wheldon crash even though Briscoe flew into the grass, not the fence.

“It’s insane because you cannot get away and you have to take massive risks to gain track position,” said Will Power, who was involved in a late-race crash. “That’s crazy racing. Crazy. We just don’t need another incident like we had in Vegas and running like this it will happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Of course, it wasn’t a consensus that conditions were too dangerous.

The fans – the few who showed up for the race and watching on TV – seemed to love the spot-swapping action, calling it one of the most entertaining IndyCar races in years. A few drivers enjoyed the show from inside the cockpit, too.

“I love close (at)IndyCar racing. Hate to see drivers bad mouthing a series. If you want to race, race. If not, retire,” driver Ed Carpenter said on Twitter.

As is usually the case, there is no simple answer.

IndyCar officials want to make the series exciting to keep its fans engaged and hopefully draw in new ones. But they also have to find ways of keeping drivers safe; no one wants to see another devastating crash like the one that killed Wheldon, one of the series’ most popular drivers.

“I think it’s good for everyone to have an opinion; if we agree with everything, it would be boring,” Kanaan said. “I think for sure IndyCar is going to think about it.”

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