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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.