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At first, it just looked like one of a half-dozen spins that filled the IndyCar weekend. Sage Karam’s car broke loose exiting Turn One at Pocono, hit the outside wall, and shattered. The rest of the field sifted their way through the debris field. As the camera zoomed in on Karam’s stationary car, in the background Justin Wilson’s vehicle rolled to a stop against the inside wall, traveling at what appeared to be a fairly slow speed. Yes, he hit the wall head-on, but it would be random indeed to have that impact cause serious injury. Both the cameras and the safety crews remained focused on Karam’s car…until it was clear nothing was happening over at Wilson’s. He hadn’t radioed into his crew, removed his wheel or made any movement.
It took several minutes in the production booth and at home on our DVR’s to figure out why Wilson might be seriously injured. Then we found it—the nose cone that snapped off of Karam’s ride during the initial impact with the outer wall managed to impact Wilson’s helmet, then shoot back into the air. That’s when his car turned left and rolled straight into the wall—it seemed clear nobody was piloting the machine.
No, Karam didn’t make some rookie mistake. Plenty of other teams suffered the same sudden lack of control throughout the race. Wilson didn’t fail to slow down; he was not at race speed when he entered the pile of pieces. Nobody did anything wrong. It was simply a racing deal that resulted in Wilson’s death.
Wilson was not the first driver in the open wheel series to suffer an impact to the head in the last few years. We all recall the horrific manner in which Dan Wheldon passed away, with his head smashing into the support bars of the fencing at Las Vegas. So, then, why isn’t the obvious being implemented in the safety measure for the IndyCar Series? Why isn’t there an enclosed cockpit, or at least a deflection shield that could help protect drivers’ heads against flying debris?
I’ve heard the arguments of maintaining tradition within the open-wheel series. Um. Tradition is not an acceptable stance when you are talking about somebody’s life. Not buying that one. Besides, it’s called an open-wheel car, not an open-cockpit car. Let’s just dump that theory.
It would negatively affect the aero for the car. Okay, since F1 and INDYCAR pretty much place speed and performance above everything else, there’s something to discuss there. But, hey, haven’t there been mandatory adjustments when it’s clear the sanctioning body is willing to specify changes when they perceive there to be either a performance or safety problem in the design of the car? Shielding the brain of the pilot seems like it ought to be a higher priority than horsepower. Requiring a closed cockpit would simply be a new challenge to the engineers. The aero would change, but life would go on.
Finally, perhaps the most compelling argument against the closed cockpit is that it could hamper recovery efforts if the car comes to rest on its lid. Well, that’s a fair concern. And then, well, just about every four-wheeled vehicle on this planet save for these high-octane speed demons sport an enclosed compartment. If it was such a safety problem to drive in a protected cockpit, wouldn’t car manufacturers be selling a whole lot more convertibles than family sedans? Can’t the comparatively light pod of an Indy car be moved fairly easily? Would the INDYCAR safety teams need new means to extricate a driver? Yes. Would Justin Wilson have suffered a lethal head wound on Sunday if even a simple Lexan shield had been in place? No. Before I’m buying this point of view, I want to see hard data and research that precludes the installation of some kind of canopy.
This is one of those moments where a sport just has to look at what happened, what has happened in the past few years and think about solutions rather than obstacles. Would drivers be safer in an enclosed cockpit? If the answer starts with yes, then any qualifying arguments must be swept aside in the name of progress. It’s time for INDYCAR to buckle down and make it happen. May Justin Wilson’s death be the last caused by an impact by debris to the head. It just can’t happen again.
It was just plain fun. In 2003, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya came together and fulfilled one another’s dreams: Montoya offered up his F1 car for Gordon to take a spin around the road course at Indy, and Gordon handed off his NASCAR No. 24 to Montoya. It’s days like that when we recognize that no matter what series we might call our own, auto racing is auto racing and all of it is beyond cool!
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