After Justin Wilson’s Death, What Should IndyCar Do?

IndyCar Racing remains an extreme sport. Will Power's car flies through the air in the accident that killed Dan Wheldon

Automobile racing was an “extreme sport" long before the term was coined. The age of city-to-city races was ended by government fiat in mid-event after at least seven people were killed — two drivers, three riding mechanics, and two spectators — in the star-crossed Paris-Madrid rally in 1903. Now, the sport has made it back onto newspaper front pages and website home pages that usually ignore it, thanks to the death of Justin Wilson, who succumbed Monday to injuries suffered the previous day during the Verizon IndyCar Series event at Pocono Raceway.

Wilson, a 37-year-old Briton, was a genuinely sweet and extravagantly talented racer who had persevered despite setbacks ranging from a lack of funding that relegated him to second-tier teams to breaking his back in a wreck at Mid-Ohio (2011) and his pelvis at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California (2013). His death came, perversely, just as his career was trending upward: In midseason, he unexpectedly landed a top-tier ride with Andretti Autosport, and he finished second at Mid-Ohio, the race preceding Pocono.

Wilson was an innocent bystander in Pennsylvania, struck in the helmet by a bouncing nosecone from another car that disintegrated after it spun into the wall ahead of him. His death came barely a month after that of Formula 1 driver Jules Bianchi, who also suffered mortal head injuries when his car slid into a crane that had been unwisely deployed on the Suzuka Circuit during a soaking wet Japanese Grand Prix last October.

Predictably, the similarities between the two incidents prompted knee-jerk calls for drivers in open-wheel cars to be protected by some sort of as-yet-undefined canopy. This sounds simple at first, but canopies would come with their own safety issues. More to the point, cockpit strikes are exceedingly rare, and rarely fatal. Wilson’s death has some people predictably thinking other-wise, but IndyCar’s real problem is not objects violating the sanctity of the cockpit; it’s cars running into immovable objects.

The modern era of racing began with the death of F1 superstar Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994. Car safety was upgraded dramatically, not just in F1 but also in IndyCar and — belatedly, after Dale Earnhardt died in the Daytona 500 in 2001 — NASCAR. But a far more significant result turned out to be a radical, new approach to racetrack design. Aside from the glorious anachronism that is Monaco, F1 now races mostly on circuits that have been created from the ground up with safety as a paramount factor. Where once there were guardrails and walls, there are now capacious runoff areas. A handful of grand old circuits remain on the schedule — Suzuka, Spa, Silverstone, Monza — but they’ve been largely defanged and are fearsome only in the memories of old-timers.

The landscape looks entirely different in North America. IndyCar is named after Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which over the years has seen something like 55 competitor fatalities. But ovals are part of American motorsports’ DNA. The features that make them so appealing — daunting speeds and tight racing — also make them inherently dangerous. When something goes catastrophically wrong on an oval, the driver usually hits the wall. Hard. To its credit, IndyCar has limited the pack racing that led to Dan Wheldon’s fatal wreck at Las Vegas in 2011. But several drivers have taken hellacious, car-pulverizing licks on ovals this year, and it was only fast work by the Holmatro Safety Team at Indy that prevented James Hinchcliffe from bleeding to death in the cockpit after he hammered the wall during practice and was stabbed by a suspension piece.

Not that the rest of the IndyCar schedule is any bargain. The calendar features several street circuits, which are ringed by unforgiving concrete barriers and catch-fencing that’s proved to be an imperfect solution for protecting drivers and spectators. Two years ago, Dario Franchitti retired from driving as a result of injuries suffered at the Houston street circuit, where 13 fans were showered with debris from his crash. Permanent road courses are the other element on the schedule, and North America is dotted with some of the most challenging ones in the world — Road America, Road Atlanta, and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Mosport), to name a few. But none of them would ever be approved for F1. Too fast and too dangerous, according to FIA regulations, with no room for the requisite runoff areas.

All of which leaves IndyCar in a quandary. In the coming weeks, officials no doubt will talk earnestly about improving safety. But what, really, can they do besides making marginal upgrades? Eliminating ovals altogether is inconceivable, and aside from Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas — a track designed specifically for F1 — there aren’t many circuits that could meet the FIA’s exacting standards. Even if IndyCar wanted to adopt an F1-style zero-tolerance goal for injuries, the realities of American motorsports make achieving it impossible.

In our risk-averse world, it would be impolitic for IndyCar officials to strut around, boasting, “We’re the deadliest form of racing in the world!" But for years, the series has offered some of the planet’s most compelling racing, and hardly anybody has noticed. This might sound callous, if not cruel, but maybe this is an opportunity for IndyCar to embrace the very danger that sets it apart from the competition.

F1 has devolved into an insanely expensive engineering exercise conducted on antiseptic race circuits between drivers who have been reduced to human surrogates for the technocrats who really run the show. There’s rarely more than a few tenths of a second between teammates, and the penalty for an on-track mistake is running wide around a corner and losing a few seconds. The start of an F1 race is a thrilling moment, but no more so than the start of a big football or baseball game. Because, ultimately, that’s all it is: another game. IndyCar racing raises the stakes to another level. When people talk about IndyCar drivers putting everything on the line, they’re not speaking metaphorically. Just ask the families of Wilson and Wheldon.

Thankfully, the world of motorsports has come a long way from the carnage of the Paris-Madrid race more than a century ago. But even now, in 2015, IndyCar racing remains an extreme sport. Preston Lerner/Automobile Magazine

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