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2011 Editors Picks - IndyCar Suggests That The Track Did It...

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Commentary By Rick Carlton Originally published December 2011

By its very nature, the tendency toward political correctness has become an intellectual blight on professional motorsports. Illustrations of this malignancy abound, and range from sanctioning body policies based on zero accountability for its ultimate decisions, to athletes who offer cardboard cut-outs of what leaders are 'supposed' to be, without actually having to walk the talk.

In the former case, for example, last Wednesday IndyCar delivered its findings associated with the death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas. While the report was long on hyperbolic detail, not much was learned beyond one tried and true exception. After all the tears, the medical investigations, the engineering meetings and the word-smithing, one is unfortunately left with a clear impression that some how or other the race track itself killed Dan, which I find as disturbing, as it is unsatisfying.

IndyCar's oblique finding should have resulted in a larger truth, rather than simply attempting to scientifically paper over the loss of a popular athlete, but that isn't the way things are done in racing, and it sure as hell isn't the first instance either. In 1994, for example, Ayton Senna was killed at the San Marino GP driving an Williams FW-16 at Imola. Reports suggest that he had become uncomfortable in the car, as he had already witnessed the death of Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying, and stood-by as Williams teammate Reubens Barrichello experienced a serious shunt, but the Brazilian was ready to race regardless, because of what he was - a professional.

After a lap 6 restart, and while leading, Senna left the racing surface and struck the outside wall, after skipping across the edge of the run-off area at the high-speed Tamburello corner at a speed in excess of 135 mph, and braking-down from an estimated terminal velocity of 205 mph. The right front suspension fractured on impact, and a piece of that structure struck, and partially penetrated, Senna's helmet causing an initial blunt head trauma, which ultimately lead to his death at the hospital shortly after the crash.

In an immediate follow-on series of inquests, no central cause for the crash was identified. However, thirteen years after the event, the Italian Court of Appeals 'determined' that the principal cause of Senna's loss of control was pinned on a broken steering column, and that Williams' Patrick Head was found 'culpable' in the engineering failure. However, no one was ever charged with manslaughter, nor was anyone ever arrested during the years prior to the ultimate legal 'finding.'

In retrospect, while one may question the science, legality, formality, and failure of the Court's punitive action, the hardest 'truth' of all seems to be that, in the end of the day, the evolution that lead to Senna's death was managed by his own hand. And while the ultimate result 'may have' involved a series of unknowable precursors that 'could have' lead to the crash, chance intervened in the same way that Wheldon was killed at 'Vegas. Motorsports is a brutal mistress, and to opine Steve McQueen in the 1971 movie Le Mans, 'This is a professional blood sport. It can happen to you, then it can happen to you again...," with the point being, that race drivers don't put themselves in harm's way, unless they choose to, and sometimes bad things happen at speed. However, there are always 'lessons learned' in the aftermath of a fatal event, and in IndyCar's investigatory effort, rather then going on about grooves, geometry, and 'we just don't know what happened," the general value of 'pack racing' should have been deeply considered, and in the end, ultimately criticized heavily.

Prior to Tony George's snit with CART in 1995, open-wheel racing was comparatively 'safe,' when it came to managing large fields of cars on ovals. In those days, five chassis manufacturers operated in the CART/PPG IndyCar World Series, (Reynard, Penske, Lola, American Eagle, and Rahal/Hogan), and four available engine packages existed throughout the 80s, and up until the middle of the 90s, when the CART/IRL split materialized (Chevrolet/Illmor, Ford/Cosworth, Toyota, Honda). Each chassis/engine mix offered its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of performance, and as a result, cars were intrinsically and dynamically separated based on each configuration.

However, after George realized that he'd have to stretch his family's pocket book, once a majority of the IRL's previous commercial partners fled, he hit on the idea of translating NASCAR's more economical spec model into his own open-wheel version. Subsequently, he hired Brian Barnhardt to run a migration from high to low tech, then built a set of rules that left nothing to the imagination in terms of cutting edge technology. This approach caused all of the original engineering teams to leave the series as well. So in the end, the IRL ended up with Dallara as a sole chassis provider, along with Honda engines bolted onto the Dallara's rear bulkhead. Unfortunately, common specs, using common chassis', pushed by common powerplants, tends to breed common performance, and the result was that 'pack racing' emerged, since entire fields suddenly found themselves running the same speed, while trying to occupy the same racing space.

However, although the NASCAR stock car economic model made sense then, as it presumably does now, open-wheel racing was, and still is, a different animal entirely, if for no other reason than two central unenclosed elements; wheels/tires. Full bodied stock cars in a pack do better with car-to-car contact, whereas open-wheel cars are easily made to go airborne, due to the dynamics of a sudden positive angle-of-attack, triggered by the potential of tire-to-tire friction. However, the same IRL brain trust that originally fostered and subsequently created high-speed 'pack racing' in the first place, has continued to turn a blind eye to the impending threat of life and limb, and instead, has spent its time making noise about 'safety,' in terms of recurrent engine power reductions, smaller wings and rear-end bumpers, when the racing itself should have been the point of focus.

Now, IndyCar is going to get a new 2012 Dallara configuration equipped with thick, oddly-blended sidepod kick ups, along with the addition of beaver-tail rear cladding, and together the dual body-elements enclose the front and rear surfaces of the back tires. Although some may immediately suggest that open-wheel racing will no longer be able to be called 'open,' anymore, even the addition of these 'safety' elements will not avoid the inevitable, in the event that the front tires manage to ride up on the beaver-tail, and lift the nose high enough to touch the top of the rear tires. At that point, the vehicle will still experience a positive angle-of-attack, and given the wider blended mid-body, could create even more lift than previously suggested by earlier designs.

Unless the open nature of the wheel/tire elements are entirely enclosed, there will never be a time when the potential of tire-to-tire contact won't exist and, inversely, any effective alternative will doom American open-wheel racing for all eternity. So rather than trying to jam a square, and entirely half-assed, IndyCar peg in a round NASCAR hole just to save some money, IndyCar should stop jerking everyone around, and simply allow rule sets that encourage varieties of technical innovation that mitigate against the dynamic attraction of 'pack racing,' as opposed to continuing to create clusters of rolling bricks that are only capable of trundling around for 200 laps, at 200 mph once trapped in a field-sized draft. Had Wheldon been offered a chance to experience that, perhaps we wouldn't be talking about him in the past tense, and that's what makes the whole situation all the more tragic for those of us who loved watching Dan race, while at the same time, loving real US open-wheel racing as a unique and culturally important form of international motorsport.

Rick Carlton has been covering professional automotive/motorsports news for 30 years in a range of print and online publications including; SCCA Magazine, On-Track Magazine, The Global Racing Network, AllRace Magazine, Automobile Magazine, Teknikan Maalma, F1 Maalma, RaceTech, Forrest Bond's RaceFax, Hill Country Wheels and Wings, The Highland Lakes Business Journal, The Austin Business Journal, and The Auto Channel.