By on August 25, 2015

Ed Carpenter apexes Turn 3 during the 2015 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway

Former and current drivers have called on IndyCar officials to review safety equipment in place after racer Justin Wilson died Monday from injuries suffered Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Reuters is reporting.

Wilson was struck in the head by debris from a car that crashed ahead of him, driven by Sage Karam. The incident was similar to accidents in other race series with open cockpits; Felipe Massa was hit by debris in Hungary in 2009 and required surgery, James Hinchcliffe was struck in the head in 2014, which caused a concussion. Wilson’s death was the first for IndyCar since Dan Wheldon was killed in 2011.

“Safety is not one of those things that because you have a clear record for a certain amount of time that you stop doing development,” former race driver Eddie Cheever told ESPN.

Many in the sport have called for further face protection, including a canopy or guard in front of the driver’s face to deflect debris. IndyCar officials said removing the driver from a cockpit was a key concern in adding anything that might cover the driver’s head.

“It is being considered; it’s been on my radar ever since I came to IndyCar,” Derrick Walker, who is president of the series, told Racer in 2014.

“I’ve had discussions with Dallara about trying to design a partial canopy – not a fully enclosed, but a partial one that would serve as a deflector for debris that comes at the driver.”

Walker later said that a deflector would be a fit for the series.

“Getting out of the car as quickly as possible is the first priority, so a front deflector section seems to be a logical step,” Walker said.

Racing veterans have suggested other alternatives, including latching components to the car in event of a crash.

“The next thing, I think perhaps, they should have a tether on something that’s so detachable as a nose,” Mario Andretti told ESPN. “There is a quick disconnect on the nose so they can change it quickly. Maybe they should have a tether on there.”

Safety advocates may also direct their concerns toward the type of track that Wheldon and Wilson raced on. Banked ovals like the one Wilson was racing on are particularly dangerous because of the speeds involved. Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which is also a banked oval.

“We’re always looking at ways to make this sport safer,” Wilson’s teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay said immediately after the race, according to Reuters.

“First we had the innovation with the safer barrier. Oval tracks in general, we need to start looking into the next 20 years, maybe making the walls a little bit higher. Maybe coming up with something a little bit better than just mesh fencing and poles.”

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

Recommended

27 Comments on “Death of Justin Wilson Prompts Calls for IndyCar Safety Review...”


  • avatar

    At those speeds, there is no such thing is “safety”.

    • 0 avatar
      notapreppie

      I sometimes wonder what it’s like to live in your world of binary states (good/evil, black/white, safe/unsafe).

      In any event, the real world doesn’t work that way. Safety as a concept is a continuum measured using multiple dimensions (such as hazard * likelihood = risk).

      Automotive racing (much like it’s more common cousin, commuting) will never be perfectly safe but it can be made safer. Every time a new potential hazard is identified, steps can be taken to mitigate it, at least partially. The progression of technology, while increasing both hazards and likelihoods, also provides new ways of improving safety.

    • 0 avatar
      Signal11

      The reality of engaging in inherently dangerous activities as a vocation is that risk mitigation becomes more important, not less.

  • avatar
    baconator

    It’s been known for decades now that open-wheel / open-cockpit racing is inherently more dangerous than sportscar / Daytona prototype configurations. The maddening thing is that designers and engineers also want enclosed wheels and cockpits: They are more aerodynamically efficient and, all things being equal, can be higher-performance.

    The early days of racing at Indianapolis had a wide variety of configurations and engine types, which was much more interesting and also turned out to be more relevant to manufacturers trying to engineer street cars. Indycar should just go back to that “run what ya brung” formula – the current spec is both uninteresting and anachronistically unsafe.

    • 0 avatar
      wmba

      And who is going to make wildly different 250 mph tires by the mere dozen for a motley collection of mules?

      Nobody.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        Spec tires.

        • 0 avatar
          Zoom

          Spec tires also means spec wheel sizes, offset, camber, etc.

          The “run what ya brung” racing leads to sky rocketing costs, run away leaders, and boring racing. That’s why it has been abandoned.

          The current spec provides for outstanding racing. The best in years.

          The simple solution is a tether for the nose cone, with a carabiner style disconnect of the tether for quick nose changes, or something more sophisticated.

          • 0 avatar
            baconator

            Nothing wrong with a spec tire – ALMS, IMSA, and FIA prototypes use them and get good diversity of chassis and engines across teams.

    • 0 avatar
      Jacob

      The car manufacturers no longer have interest in spending that kind of money on IndyCar racing. We now have a spec chassis, with custom aero, and quasi-spec engines, which is a lot better than the era preceding DW12, which involved all cars racing the same Dallara chassis with the same Honda engine.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      Racing in an open wheeled open cockpit car is very different from racing in a closed wheeled coupe. I found out how much when I changed from racing sedans to a Formula Ford. More than a little intimidating at first, but with the visibility being so much better and being able to see the wheels, you can race closer than in a sedan or coupe.

      The racing in the current Indycar series is as good as it ever has been,

  • avatar
    Sammy B

    It perhaps wasn’t a primary factor with Wilson, but certainly for Wheldon: flat-out pack racing simply does not work for open wheels. The formula needs to change (less downforce?) so that it’s not 100% throttle 100% of the time on ovals. In the CART/Champ Car days they’d need to lift or even brake for turns. It creates some separation each driver/car is not on the ragged edge for the entire race.

    • 0 avatar
      Zoom

      Down-force was lowered, among other things, after Weldon’s death. The issue in this case wasn’t pack racing. It was a nose cone projectile, something I’ve never seen before.

    • 0 avatar
      Jacob

      IndyCars do not run 100% full throttle on all ovals. Maybe on Indianapolis and Texas, they do. But at Pocono, I could clearly see from telemetry that the drivers downshifted to 4th gear, then back to 5th and 6th on the straights.

  • avatar
    walleyeman57

    This is a freak thing. Of the fatalities, it seems that each one is a one-off now.

    With Wilson being one of the tallest at 6’4″ would his head be higher up than the typical shorter driver? Could the seat be lowered to compensate?

    I would think that having the driver’s head tucked into the cockpit as much as possible would be desirable.

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      I wonder if, in some freak way, the HANS device was a factor in this being a fatal incident? HANS devices have saved countless racers lives over the years by limiting the forward movement of the helmeted head in a frontal impact. But have they ever been tested so see what effect they have in a head strike like this, when a heavy object hits the front of the helmet, pushing the head back?

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        Don’t see how. HANS protects the neck in front and rear collisions. He died from head injuries. It sounds a lot like Senna’s crash. Ultimately a helmet can only absorb so much energy. Heck, even a windshield can only do so much. But given the hundreds of thousands if not millions of miles driven in open cars like this, at speed, without similar injuries, I would write this off as a freak accident.

        I think yesterday’s QOTD was highly relevant though. Motorsport is never worth dying for, but it’s especially sad when it’s in a high stakes event that’s not relevant. Oval racing in general just seems kind of quaint and antiquated…. who is still entertained by it?

        • 0 avatar
          Jimal

          Senna’s fatal injury was caused by a steering component puncturing his helmet and his head.

          Everything about a HANS is to limit the movement of the driver’s head relative to their body, not to protect from impacts by objects.

    • 0 avatar
      Jacob

      Nonetheless, the accidents that spray a debris shower at the cars following at 200mph does happen much more often on the ovals. On road courses, if a car is lost, it’s usually sitting in the sand/gravel instead of hitting a wall and breaking into many plastic pieces. With enough such crashes, somebody else will get hit in the head, sooner or later again. That’s a serious problem with the ovals. The crashes and high speeds are a lot more common than in road course racing. Indeed, they should consider racing with closed cockpits, but I think this is the decision that drivers themselves should take. Would they trade worse visibility and ventilation for a little more safety? It’s their call.

  • avatar

    Wilson’s death is a tragedy, but as BigTrucks notes, the energy inherent at even 100 mph means that the driver is at risk. Kimball’s qualifying crash at Pocono demonstrates the incredible safety which is built into these cars, yet high speed always provides the potential for unforeseen high energy impacts. Even in a closed car typical of NASCAR, a strike by an object with the mass of a nose, a brake caliper or a spring still has the energy to penetrate the driver’s compartment.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      Your daily driver travelling 25 mph is a potentially lethal object carrying a staggering amount of energy. If vehicle operators had *any* understanding of physics and basic numeracy, discussions of risk would be profitable. As it is, the noise continues to obfuscate the signal as we spin in space…

  • avatar
    tjh8402

    I think it’s time for these open cockpit cars to go away. The last two drivers to die in an Indycar (Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson) and a Formula 1 car (Jules Bianchi and Ayrton Senna) were killed by a head injury, never mind the severe trauma those fortunate enough to survive their incidents had to recover from (Massa and Hinchcliffe). I understand the romantic appeal of an open cockpit car (I love the pictures I took at the US GP a few years ago where you can see the drivers fingers gripping the steering wheels). However, safety must march on. As the previous top threats and dangers are investigated and dealt with, ones previous below them on the list now rise to the top. Le Mans realized this when they began mandating that all prototypes be closed cockpits. Alan McNish’s R18 accident showed how well a closed cockpit can protect a driver (that car landed on its roof on the tire barrier at one point so if that had been an open cockpit car I wonder if Alan would’ve fared as well as he did). Thoughts are with Wilson’s family. Can’t imagine the devastation they must be feeling.

    • 0 avatar
      Jezza819

      Alan Simonsen was killed at LeMans in 2013 driving an Aston Martin GT2 car. Sean Edwards, a driver in the American LeMans GTC class was killed in 2013 driving a Porsche Supercup car I think while testing in Australia. It happens in closed cockpit cars too. Race drivers aren’t killed at near the rate of say 40 to 50 years ago but it still happens. You mention McNish’s crash at LeMans. Mike Rockenfeller also had a huge crash during the night in another R18 on the second part of Mulsanne. It looked every bit as bad as McNish’s crash from what we could see of it since it happened during overnight coverage. Don’t forget the two Mercedes flipping over at LeMans in what 1999 I think. Mark Webber was driving one of them.

      • 0 avatar
        tjh8402

        @Jezza819 – this is why I specified Indycars and F1 cars – because yes, it would appear that closed cockpit cars are presenting different dangers than open cockpit cars. I haven’t been able to find an actual cause of death for Simoensen or Edwards but I’m assuming some sort of massive deceleration injury was involved in both. I reference McNish’s crash because footage of it showing the roof of the car striking the guardrail/tires is readily available, giving credence to that he was in part saved by it being closed cockpit. Rockie’s class being at night is harder to analyze but his outcome certainly is a testament to the safety package of the R18.

        I see a lot of parallels between motorsports safety and aviation safety. We had a good run of both over a decade + period there with minimal fatal crashes. They were in fact so rare that it was hard to derive solid trends that could illuminate areas of deficiency to address. Unfortunately, both have seen a rash of accidents such that we now have enough to note some trends. In aviation, there is deficiency in some in basic airmanship and a (possibly related) over reliance on automation. Most major airline crashes since 9/11 have been human error.

        In racing, when the cars are open top, head injuries seem to be the greatest danger. There is no clear evidence that is the case in closed top cars. Since the 1998 Porsche GT1 flip at Petit Le Mans, prototypes becoming airborne became an overriding concern. The ACO since developed the front fender cutouts and rear fins to combat this – time will tell if this was correct.

        It is worth noting that prototypes are continuing their impressive safety record, with the twin Audi crashes being an excellent demonstration of an LMP’s crash efficacy (Memo Gidley’s DP crash is a bit more questionable – seeing crash photos of that car, I’d say the DP has some deficits in front crash protection. I think Gidley would’ve been better off in an LMP). The two sports car deaths have both been in production based GT cars (Porsche 911 and Aston Martin Vantage) and both would seem to be the result of some sort of massive deceleration injuries, meaning that we probably need to look into the crash structures and energy absorbing properties of the GTs.

  • avatar
    JMII

    In recent years F1 has moved the areas surrounding the driver up to avoid leaving them exposed. We saw the advantages of this twice recently with Kimi where a car jumped up and over his car, but his head and arms/shoulders stayed protected. So moving forward something must be done to limit air born debris from striking the driver in the head because a helmet is not enough. Two ways to help in this regard are tethered parts and either an enclosed cockpit (F16 aircraft style) or something like windscreen type surround.

    Watching lots of racing I’ve noticed safety has come a LONG way. These open cockpit cars often flip (see Indy this year), spin into walls and or smash into the catch fence… yet most of the time the driver can walk away. Still accidents like this are going to happen, freak things like when Massa got hit with the spring and what we saw in Justin’s incident.

    While speed clearly plays a factor, car design and track construction all must work together. Dan was killed by a pole so now organizers are looking to have the poles installed outside the fence. However this takes time and money. Unfortunately horrible accidents like Justin’s remind everyone to take a step back and attempt to find a solution.

    Someone mentioned Justin’s height (he is above average, especially for a driver) so that might have contributed, as he was likely hit head-on instead of a glancing blow at the top. Now I’m not a doctor so maybe the outcome would have been the same for even a shorter driver like Helio. I know Justin was used by both Dallara and Honda during the car’s development as example of the extreme end of the height scale. I can only assume this was to ensure not only the roll hoop height but pedal box placement to get the driver’s feet moved away from the nose as in many crashes foot/leg injuries are commonplace.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      One of the reasons Wilson got hurt (fractured vertebrae) at Mid-Ohio in 2011 was that he had no padding underneath as they were trying to position him as low as possible.

  • avatar
    Signal11

    The last five years have seen a huge shift to enclosed cockpits from open cockpits in LeMans Prototypes in both LMP classes.

    Other than being the fastest, most sophisticated racing vehicles in competition next to Formula One (in many ways more sophisticated), the basic layout of many LMPs aren’t that far from being bodywork over the wheels and a canopy over the cockpit of an open wheel/open cockpit car.

    I understand the tradition and the romance of open cockpit racing, but going to a closed cockpit doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the sport.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Old_WRX: slavuta, “you don’t understand how similar USA [today] and USSR feel to me.” I know I...
  • mcs: “That massive amount of stuff tacked on all over the car is required for truly autonomous driving.”...
  • chicklet: Yes sir! “Studies show” 98% of journalists are hard left. They have a right to be, and they...
  • chicklet: Journalists can write about whatever they want, isn’t that what America is all about? Now, the snarky...
  • HotPotato: That massive amount of stuff tacked on all over the car is required for truly autonomous driving. Bear...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Matthew Guy
  • Timothy Cain
  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Chris Tonn
  • Corey Lewis
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber