IndyCar Driver's Withdrawal from Ovals Raises Larger Questions About Driver Safety (Updated)

Illustration for article titled IndyCar Drivers Withdrawal from Ovals Raises Larger Questions About Driver Safety (Updated)
Photo: Chris Graythen (Getty)

On the cusp of IndyCar’s second oval race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway, Carlin driver Max Chilton has stepped down. He’s not retiring, not yet—but he’s just not comfortable competing in the last four oval races of the 2019 season.

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Buried in the press release announcing Conor Daly as Carlin’s driver this weekend is Max’s confession as to why he’s opted out of ovals in favor of solely road and street courses:

I would like to thank [my sponsor] Gallagher for being supportive of my decision to not compete in the remaining oval races this season – I am extremely fortunate to have such a supportive partner. Risk Management is a central consideration of both Gallagher and myself in how we operate.

I’m excited and pleased by the outstanding proactive work being done by INDYCAR around driver safety and the innovation of the solution developed in partnership with Red Bull Advanced Technologies that has created a new aero screen. The innovative solution will be the most advanced single seater driver head protection in the world and will be introduced in 2020.

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The key phrase there is “risk management”—a business term usually reserved for the prediction and evaluation of financial risks to strategize a way to cushion their impact. In IndyCar terms, it means strategically avoiding situations known to be more dangerous than others. In a word: ovals.

When looking at the statistics, it’s difficult to disagree with Max’s reasoning. In the past 20 years, since 1999, there have been six deaths. One was on a road course. The other five were on ovals.

The danger has always been there—most of the time, though, we’ve simply opted to ignore it until we couldn’t anymore.

The most recent death—Justin Wilson’s at Pocono in 2015—saw a widespread media backlash. IndyCar should be shut down, Business Insider reported. Turnology called for the removal of ovals from the calendar. Another wave of criticism followed Robert Wickens’ life-altering crash at Pocono in 2018, and I chimed in that IndyCar desperately needed to do something more to protect their drivers’ lives and wellbeing here on Jalopnik.

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Max Chilton is a former Formula One driver who pivoted to IndyCar in 2016. When compared to its American open-wheel counterpart, F1 has had ample resources to stay on top of its safety. Chilton’s teammate Jules Bianchi died in a freak accident in 2015—but before him, the last death during a race weekend was Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Senna’s death marked the end of an era in F1, where fans finally put their foot down and said “no more.” While the death-heavy 1970s are an oft-romanticized era, it wasn’t until fans around the world could tune into the race on TV—to actually see their drivers dying before their eyes—that F1 realized they needed to make sweeping safety changes if they were going to keep a fanbase broken at the thought of losing their hero. IndyCar has not followed suit so quickly.

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That isn’t to say IndyCar has been entirely negligent when it comes to safety. The series will be mandating the use of the aeroscreen Chilton mentions above in 2020 as its unique form of head protection. IndyCar travels to every race with their own safety team, AMR, which guarantees experienced medical professionals will be on hand in case of emergency. IndyCar was the first series to implement SAFER barriers, which reduce crash impact. The current Dallara IR-18 aero kit was designed to keep cars on the ground and broken pieces (like the front wing) connected to the chassis.

But there are still other issues at hand that need to be addressed. Ovals remain dangerous. After Robert Wickens’ crash at Pocono in 2018—one that turned all eyes on the facility’s track maintenance, driver Sebastien Bourdais noted that the broken fencing wasn’t properly fixed, that he was glad no one else crashed in the same area. High-banked ovals like Texas Motor Speedway have drawn criticism for their notoriously crash-heavy races, like in 2017 when only six drivers finished the race. The closed-cockpit debate has been raging since Justin Wilson’s death in 2015, often in terms of making oval racing, specifically, safer for the drivers. However, IndyCar remains the only series to have waited this long to introduce a cockpit solution, and criticisms of dangerous circuit conditions have gone unaddressed.

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Any time a driver elects to step back from racing in the name of safety, the racing world should take pause and ask itself how to do better. Chilton’s decision to withdraw from oval racing until the risk to his life is reduced should serve as a crucial opportunity for IndyCar to take stock and challenge itself to revamp its safety standards. If changes need to be made, IndyCar needs to start working on them. If changes are already in the process of being made, it would benefit IndyCar to let fans and drivers know a general idea of what they can expect in the future. It should be a race series’ prerogative to be forthcoming about its efforts to protect its drivers. If there’s a time to start asking motorsport to answer tough questions, it’s now.

Max Chilton and Carlin Racing have declined to comment further.

Correction 6/5/19 11:15 P.M.: A previous version of this story included average speeds of the Indy 500 and incorrect information about the cancelled 2001 Texas Motor Speedway CART race, which have been deemed irrelevant to the post and removed. I have included IndyCar’s safety innovations to highlight what the series has done in recent years. The blog has also been edited for clarity.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Freelancer. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

Slow your roll, Blackstock.

There are a lot of factual errors in this one, one of which seems to forget about the whole IndyCar civil war that started in 1996 and lasted for a decade.

Starting from the first one that caught my eye:

“At the 2019 Indy 500, average race speed was 175.794 mph, while the qualifying was 229.992 mph. Twenty years ago, average race speed was 153.176 mph and qualifying was 225.179 mph.”

Ignoring the race’s average speed, as that is affected more by the number of yellow flags and for how many laps they lasted. Let’s just take a look at what speeds the cars are CAPABLE of.

Sure, 20 years ago, 1999, the crapwagons (as CART fans loved to call them) that the Indy Racing League (IRL) were running ran 225 in qualifying. You know what they ran when they still were using CART’s basic formula with 2.65L turbo V8s? 236. 11 MPH AVERAGE speed faster. That was 1996, the last time those cars ran, the first year for the IRL. They were literally using 1-4 year old CART cars at Indy that year since the chassis and engine allocations were already contracted to CART teams. For 1997, IRL came up with its own dumbed down formula. Completely different chassis construction, they ran ONLY on ovals and the engines were “stock block” based from Infiniti and Oldsmobile, they also tried to attract more American talent, which in retrospect seemed rather jingoistic, but I’m not gonna go there. They sounded more like a higher revving NASCAR engine than they did a traditional IndyCar thanks to having a cross plane crank and no turbo. The speeds dropped like a rock.

Know what also happened with the loss of speed but increase in drag and downforce with that formula? Pack racing. Cars that would literally get alongside eachother and then suddenly could not maintain the speed advantage and they’d get stuck side by side, almost restrictor plate NASCAR race like. That’s where fatalities starting increasing was when cars could not pass eachother as easily and the racing got closer. So, I could successfully argue that the racing became LESS safe when the cars got slower.

CART’s cars continued to get faster. On superspeedways (Michigan and Auto Club/Fontana Raceway in SoCal) by 1998, CART came up with an aero device to slow cars down. A 2 inch flap of carbon fiber that hangs below the rear wing to create drag. It slowed them down alright, and it also created massive slipstream battles. Get behind another car and you’d pick up 20 MPH and slingshot around them. Then the race would turn into drivers literally slingshotting past eachother for the whole race, which was pretty entertaining. Be doing 230-235 down the straights, get behind a car with one of these wings on, in their wake, suddenly you’re doing 250 and blasting past them. They had a couple races with more than 50 “official” lead changes, i.e. only counting leader at the start/finish line. Actual number of lead changes (since it would sometimes happen twice a lap) could get over 100. How’s that for exciting? But again, different race series. That was CART, not IRL. Both professional American open wheel racing series that used to be under the same umbrella before 1996.

Which brings me to my next beef. The CART Texas race that got cancelled.

The Indy Racing League had been racing at Texas every year since their (and TMS’) start. CART never raced there until the event that would wind up cancelled. They tested there. They ALREADY HAD THE HANFORD DEVICE IN 1998. They had the Hanford device on the cars at Texas. They were still more than 10 MPH average lap speed faster than IRL cars, which had no aero device ala Hanford device to slow them down. That’s how massive of a gulf of horsepower difference we are talking about. IRL cars were maybe around 650 hp at the time. CART? 900-1000 bhp. The Indy Racing League NEVER cancelled a Texas race. After CART cancelled their event, the IRL still went ahead and had their TWO races at the track later that same year, one in June, one in October to end their season. CART’s cancelled event was April.

The current IndyCars are STILL slower than the ol ChampCars (CART) were. And IndyCar has ABSOLUTELY done a fantastic job at being leaders in safety. THEY HELPED CREATE THE SAFER BARRIER. It is NOT a NASCAR invention, it is a University of Nebraska invention with some input from Indianapolis Motor Speedway and first implemented at Indy for the Indy 500. CART was also the first major series to MANDATE the use of the HANS device. And they mandated it before Dale Earnhardt died with injuries a HANS device would have prevented. To top it off, CART back in the day had the BEST medical team on the planet. Look up Dr. Steve Olvey and Dr. Terry Trammell. Those two are single handedly responsible for saving the lives of many heroes we look upto today, including one Alessandro Zanardi. If those two were not as quick and effective acting and knowing what to do with his horrific accident, we would not be talking about what an amazing comeback story he has. We would be talking about how he died September 15, 2001. They have also developed the most effective methods at saving lives at the race track over the years since they have seen some of the worst traumatic events the sporting world has to offer. They are leaders in that field.

If you’re going to criticize an entire sport, at least get your timeline and facts straight first. But since you couldn’t even do that much, I can’t take your arguments seriously.

Yes, I am an asshole. But in this case, I’m an asshole who’s right. American open wheel racing has been very near and dear to my heart since I was a kid in the 90s and I find the blatant misinformation in this article infuriating. I lived through this chapter of racing history and followed it closely.