In light of this weekend's tragedy the knee-jerk reaction will be to blame speed first and ovals second. Blaming the speed misses the point and blaming ovals neglects that death has occurred on road and street courses in the past as well. Also, just a few weeks ago we saw Kanaan's car launch at Baltimore (a street course). It's wheel to wheel contact that is the problem. I do admit this Dallara chassis has had its share of launches but I'm not sure how much of that is the chassis and how much of that has been the amount of wheel to wheel racing this spec series racing has brought. We've never seen everyone in the same car and engine combo for this many years. That bears (IMHO) a LOT of examination heading forward.
The cars have so much downforce and the matching engines are so equal that on a high banked track they can get no separation. It's smash the gas and go. Nobody has to brake. In fact, slowing down is not a good idea because the car behind you is so close he'll run over you if you do.
Everyone's pretty much figured out the aero and the gearing on these cars.
Honda has advertised the engine reliability. Yes, that is impressive on the surface. But then you have to consider the 'detuned' nature of the engines. Since they are competing with no one but themselves the Honda engines aren't running at peak performance. They are not trying to tweak it to be faster than another engine manufacturer. They are not running on the edge. They are running in a comfortable powerband. Another reason for the pack racing we see on high banks.
Cars have to run in the pack to stick in the draft and maintain contact with the leaders.
In the race Sunday there were 34 cars. Any time you have a start or restart you're going to have a potential issue because that is when the cars are bunched up. But, as stated, on the high banks these cars aren't really going to separate. Maybe the 34 cars could've been a factor in a similar circumstance, but it wasn't here IMHO. Dukie made a statement about Vegas being too narrow. I'm not sure that's the case. The cars were 3 wide because the track has some of the highest banking in the series (in fact I think Vegas is the highest banking they've raced on). And from what I gather it's a smooth track. No bumps to unsettle the car. So, 3, even 4 wide was not too scary for anyone who wanted to stay or get as close to the front as possible.
We need an engineer to tell us whether there really is anything and a number on the high banks that would allow the cars separation. Slowing the cars down just guarantees they will be together. It creates unnatural competition and equalizes the drivers (holding the good drivers back while making the less experienced and less capable drivers just as able to shove it and hold it). But do we really want to equalize the drivers? Shouldn't that be high on a list of things for Indycar to be talking about now?
Back to the banking... The banking helps keep the cars stuck to the track as it is. Take the rear wings off and remove the rw drag.... I assume that would force them to brake for the corners... but they'd be smoking fast down the straightaways. But does the banking at a track like LV still let them keep it smashed to the floor even with faster straightaway speeds?
And at what point are the speeds too much for the track?
Back to the point about airborne cars... When all 4 tires are touching pavement Indycars have made tremendous strides in predicting and understanding various impacts and creating ways to handle them. The forces are at least somewhat understood and predictable. But when the wheels lose contact and a car takes to the air then it's really Russian Roulette. Any number of things can happen to you or a surrounding car and a couple of inches one way or the other could literally be the difference in walking away with a concussion at worst, or being killed. Wheel to wheel contact is clearly the most likely scenario to get a car airborne.
The series has been really, really, really lucky that a driver hasn't been killed before now. Every time they've ran on these high banks they've really tempted fate. In fact, Renna was killed by getting airborne at a test in Indy but AFAIK nobody really knows what exactly happened in that case. But lost in that is that it clearly showed if a car gets airborne, death is a possibility. I'm not sure why it happening in practice by himself didn't set off more alarm bells than it did because we clearly know launching is possible with other cars on the track. Further, we know that pack racing and launching are potentially always a possibility because of the tight running (I hesitate to call it racing) and how little time there is to react when something happens in front of you. And when it does it's several cars, not just a couple, that are randomly getting together.
So I say all that to say (ask?) this... WTF was Randy Bernhard thinking to create this 5 million challenge to any driver to "challenge Indy's best"... on a high banked oval? Never mind it would be throwing a wild card into the drivers racing for championship points, how could anyone think it would be safe to put someone into an Indycar for their first race on this kind of track??? Fortunately, it never materialized and nobody took the series up on it (although it appeared Pastrana would've been in it had he not broken an ankle this summer). I'm sure there would've been testing and practice... but seriously... how could you prepare anyone for that racing experience? And even IF you could prepare them... the other drivers need to be familiar with the driving habits of those they race with. They would have no idea what to expect with a new guy on the track. Let alone if it would've been more than that.
Thankfully that never got off the ground and it morphed into this ride for Wheldon as a replacement idea. And there's no questioning Wheldon's ability so fortunately that wasn't a factor. And honestly, I think series officials would've worked hard to get Wheldon (current 500 winner) in a car for this final race anyway. The race was self-promoted by Indycar and they were hoping for a showcase event. The 5 mil challenge just gave them a marketing angle to use and probably a little face-saving along the way (for the failure to attract a Nascar driver or whatever).
I've wondered if traditional ovals like Loudon and Milwaukee were hurt by these high banked ovals? Do fans equate all ovals the same as far as racing goes? I wonder how many people ultimately were turned off by the manufactured close 'racing' of the high banks and spec cars? And/or saw that as too dangerous? Something the series need to look into.
I've always been a little confused with the desire for spec cars and the closed rulebook. Wouldn't costs be contained just as much by the economy as being contained by the rulebook and dumbing down racing? Why did that not need to be the way in the past if it's so important these past several seasons? In the past if someone got too big of an advantage either everyone else eventually figured it out or the series clamped down on the guy stinking up the shows. Not sure why that isn't the better way.
With the 2012 car coming online I was really disappointed to hear they were postponing the multiple aero packages. It would've been another way to separate the pack racing as well as allow for some innovation. Sometimes I wonder what the series actually costs themselves while trying to save money....
As far as the spec cars goes.... SOME of the problems mentioned here are being addressed. Too little too late for Dan Wheldon. Ironic, that the new car he was the test drive for was being built with features to address some of the problems noted and in particular the launching aspect that ultimately took his life. While there's been grumbling about how much the new cars protected the wheels I wasn't one doing any grumbling about that aspect. I also didn't grumble about the airbox remaining on the car. I figure more mass for the airbox means more protection and attenuation for an upside down car to protect the driver.
Racing is never going to be 100% safe. But also, part of the attraction is the speed. And it's not just going fast, it's the quest for speed. You cannot take that away without harming the sport IMHO (having Indycars qualifying in 2011 at the same (or less) speeds as in the early 90's is part of the problem of the sport and 500 losing the imagination of fans IMHO)... So the sport has to balance driver (and fan) safety with allowing competitors to always chase speed. Otherwise, what's the point?
If the ultimate outcome of this past weekend is deciding pack racing is always going to be the way no matter the rules on high banked tracks then I'm fine with never seeing an Indycar on a high banked track. Pack racing must stop. OTOH, if the take away is slowing the cars down and even more spec racing and pack racing then I think we're going to see the series slowly decline into oblivion. You can't just keep slowing race cars down. Sure slower is safer (altho never safe)... but where's the line? If that is the only goal then would 100MPH be too fast for an open-wheeler to keep it safe? 50MPH? It loses it's fascination. And maybe that's where we're at. Maybe AOW has crossed the threshold and the technology of speed has went past the bounds of safety that society is willing to accept? Maybe not chasing speed records is not interesting to the public but seeing drivers tempt fate is no longer acceptable either. Indycar needs to figure that out. If so, then that means there needs to be a drastic re-think on a lot of levels.
Several bullets were dodged at these high banks over the years where severe injuries and rehab was the worst case in the end. But that was more for luck than it was anything else. Sunday was likely inevitable, and could've been worse. That it happened on the last race of the season in the last race for this current spec chassis was just a cruel twist of fate... but exactly within the odds that the bullet wasn't going to continue to be dodged.