The Way It Is/ Some hard lessonsby Gordon Kirby
Dan Wheldon's death at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a terrible blow. But unlike most fatal accidents in racing the really shocking and disgusting thing is that it was so unsurprising to many motor sport fans around the world. Most of us knew Indy cars should not be racing on the high-banked track, particularly with 34 starters, some of them lacking much experience with the fearful world of 'pack racing'. Many fans I've heard from or read their comments at Motor Sport's website cannot believe that IndyCar could have brazenly manufactured such a desperately dangerous scenario.
Starting with Daytona in 1959 high-banked superspeedways were built for stock cars to run greater speeds than Indy cars at Indianapolis. These tracks were specifically for stock cars and when USAC ran an experimental Championship race at Daytona during its opening year two drivers--George Amick and Marshall Teague--were killed. Never again would Indy cars race at Daytona.
Meanwhile many other high-banked ovals--Atlanta, Charlotte, Michigan, Chicago and others--have tried and abandoned Indy car racing because it's too dangerous and the resulting multi-car accidents are too chilling. Nor have any of these tracks drawn much of a crowd other than Michigan through CART's heydays.
Of course the problems of running an Indy car on a high-banked superspeedway were exacerbated by the IRL's formula with reduced power and plenty of downforce built into the car. The IRL married its identity to 'pack racing' but to many of us it was something we didn't want to watch. It was too contrived, much like NASCAR's restrictor plate racing, but more importantly it was too damn scary to watch.
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In the middle of last week I talked with Michael Cannon, an old friend who's a top Indy car race engineer. Cannon engineered Tony Kanaan for the first half of this year and finished the season with JR Hildebrand at Panther Racing. A very experienced guy and a true enthusiast Michael wanted to talk a little about his frustrations with the contemporary IndyCar rules and the danger and futility of 'pack racing' on high-banked tracks in front of sparse crowds.
"As you know, the drivers can't stand doing it," he said. "It's outrageously dangerous and yet the world is collectively yawning. Nobody shows up. The television ratings are laughable. So what's the point of the exercise?
"After every one of these races, all of us go, 'Phew! Got away with it again.' You go into the race saying, 'Oh God! Just let us get away with it one more time.' It's like driving home drunk from a Christmas party saying 'Good Lord, please let me get away with this just once and I'll never do it again.' And yet there you are doing it again."
Cannon emphasized the ridiculous conflict in making the cars safer while racing on some ludicrously dangerous tracks.
"One trap we've fallen into is we've continued to make the cars safer," he said. "I think as an industry we've done an excellent job. But then we've turned around and exposed the drivers to unbelievable danger. The whole thing is so flawed from start to finish. I hope the top drivers will take some leadership and say, 'Look, we're not doing this right.'."
Cannon added a remark Tony Kanaan made as he got into his car to start this year's Indy 500.
"Tony was getting in the car at the 500 and he put his hand on my forearm and said, 'I just want you to know, if I win this, I'm done. I will never do it again.' That's the kind of mind-set these guys have and they don't want anything to do with the mile and a half tracks. They're way too dangerous."
Bruce Ashmore has more than thirty years experience as a race car engineer and designer. He was Lola's chief Indy car designer from 1988-'93 during Lola's most successful years in CART, then joined Reynard as the company's American development engineer for seven years through Reynard's spell as CART's dominant car builder.
In 2009 Ashmore formed BAT Engineering with Alan Mertens and Tim Wardrop to design a new Indy car, competing against Dallara, Lola, Swift and Delta Wing for the contract to build IndyCar's 2012 car. Ashmore is frustrated with what he considers IndyCar's low level of technical awareness and inability to find the right formula. Like many of us he believes Indy cars have no place on any high-banked superspeedways.
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"Then you've got 34 cars running flat-out around a mile and half and quite a few of them are pretty inexperienced drivers or rookies. It's a recipe for disaster. It was just a disaster waiting to happen with a car that we've all said needed to be redesigned. They gave it one last hurrah and look what happened. Silly wasn't it? And very sad."
Ashmore believes IndyCar should restrict itself to racing only on low-banked or flat oval tracks but he's also a firm believer that the cars need more horsepower.
"The flat ovals like Indianapolis and Milwaukee and New Hampshire are no problem because you can run 4,000 pounds of downforce on those tracks and you're still not flat in the race," Ashmore said. "You may be flat in qualifying, but not in the race. On the flat ovals you can take the downforce off and make an exciting race, but it still needs to have 900 horsepower. To make an exciting race where the drivers can pass and race back and forth and not be trapped in a pack the cars need to have a lot less downforce and higher horsepower.
"They need to be really careful about which ovals they race on outside Indy. They should only do a few other oval races and they should be on flat tracks like Milwaukee and New Hampshire, not high-banked tracks. Even Phoenix today, I'm not so sure it would be good for Indy cars. It used to be very bumpy and that controlled a lot of what you can do, but now it's been repaved and is much smoother and has more banking. I don't think it would work today."
One of IndyCar's many conundrums is that Milwaukee and New Hampshire failed to draw many people and neither is unlikely to stage an IndyCar race again unless IndyCar pays to rent the track and promote the race. Of course, most IndyCar oval races have struggled to pull much of a crowd. This year only the Indy 500 and Iowa were able to begin to fill the grandstands. California returns to the IndyCar schedule next year as a Saturday night race but Ashmore is among many who believes IndyCar should not race on any high-banked tracks.
"If you take the Texas and Vegas-style parabolic ovals," he says, "I don't know how you'll ever make an Indy car run safely on those type of tracks. I think those type of tracks were designed for NASCAR and I don't think you'll ever make an Indy car safe on that type of track.
"You can come up with a package with a lot less downforce for any mile and a half track that's banked fifteen degrees or less and make a more interesting race out of it. But once you get to eighteen or more degrees, like Michigan, California, Texas and Vegas, I don't know how you're going to do that with an Indy car. I don't think Indy cars should run on those tracks."
Ashmore says the car needs to be shorn of any wings or downforce-inducing devices to make it safe on high-banked tracks.
"If you design it without any underwing or wings then you might have a chance of making something for those types of tracks. You have to try to come up with a car with very little downforce. Because the cars are so light they don't need very much downforce to make it 'round the racetrack. And that's your problem."
Ashmore makes the point that NASCAR has developed the right car for high-banked oval tracks.
© Paul Webb
"If they want to run on those kind of racetracks the only sensible car is something like a NASCAR car that's heavy. If it's 3,500 pounds then you've got a lot of weight to combat the downforce. Then the car slides and you've got a lot more horsepower and a real big roll cage so you can throw the thing at the wall at 200 mph and the guy walks away from it. So you've got a NASCAR car and that's what you need if you want to run at those types of racetracks.
"NASCAR said, well, we're going to race at Daytona and Talladega and we need to come up with a vehicle that can race on those tracks and crash on those tracks and we want the guy to walk away when he crashes. So they put engineering into it and developed a car that works for their purposes. An IndyCar fan might hate NASCAR, but it works. And in this day and age a lot more engineering goes on in NASCAR than in IndyCar."
CART found the limit at Texas in 2001 of course, when the race was cancelled after many drivers blacked-out or got dizzy during practice and Ashmore recalls many worrisome days at the Michigan 500 through the eighties, nineties and into the turn of the century.
"Every year we raced at Michigan, as a car designer I hated it," he remarks. "You worried all the time about something failing because of the loads on all the components in the suspension and on the carbon fiber and the gearbox. It was a constant worry every year and as soon as the race at Michigan was over we took a deep breath in relief. And that worry is still there at Michigan, California, Texas and Las Vegas. Indy cars should not be at those tracks unless they make huge changes with the design of the cars.
"We really just got away with it at Michigan. It was never a good race. A lot of cars crashed or broke and there weren't many finishers in most races there. If you take the era when Indy car racing was great the only racetrack in the series where it was never a good race was Michigan. We just went there because it's near Detroit and the team owners felt we had to be there."
Ashmore points out that the special drag-inducing rear wing devised my Mark Handford worked for one year but was quickly defeated by the engineers and aero guys.
"We got into the Handford Device because we had a 1,000 horsepower and we wanted to control it. So we put artifical drag on the cars and that worked for a while. It worked the first year because we didn't understand how to get the drag off the car. But the next year it was boring again because we figured out how to get the drag off. So really it doesn't work. Those racetracks--Michigan, Fontana and the high-banked mile and halfs--just don't work for an Indy car. You can never make an interesting race there unless you make big changes."
Ashmore believes next year's Dallara is not a big enough change to seriously address the problems with the now-retired car that Paul Tracy rightfully christened 'The Crap Wagon'.
"The thing that really aggravates and upsets me," Ashmore growls, "is IndyCar are touting and telling the world that they've made a big change with the new car that will solve all the problems they've got now. But they've really made only a small blip, a very small step of probably five percent from where they are now. They think they've made a 100 percent change, but in fact they've made at best a five percent change.
"The problem is they're going to have the same accident again. It might be the first race of 2012 or it might take six years, but that same set of circumstances will happen again. They think they've solved it by scrapping all this equipment and making everybody buy new equipment. But they haven't solved the problem."
Our discussion continues next week.
Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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