Verizon IndyCar Series

Hammack: Is It Time Yet To Close The Open Cockpits of Indy Cars?

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Race car drivers always know the worst can happen whenever they get behind the wheel, it goes with the job!

This week the worst happened once again in Indy Car racing.  We have lost another race car driver due to injuries suffered from the result of an “open cockpit”!

Justin Wilson was fatally injured by the carbon fiber nose cone that broke off and became airborne after Sage Karem’s car spun in turn 2 and impacted the outside retaining wall. Justin Wilson was a few cars behind Karem and was traveling at approximately 215 mph at the point of impact.  Wilson really never had a chance to try to avoid the flying debris, hit the nose cone full steam ahead and ultimately crashed into the inside retaining wall before the car came to a stop.  It was totally horrifying to witness this Indy Car crash.

Wilson’s accident has renewed the debate about introducing closed cockpits in top level single seaters, with work first having started seriously back in 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the crashes involving F1 drivers Felipe Massa and Henry Surtees.

Much like Wison’s crash Sunday, Massa suffered head injuries after being struck by a spring at the Hungarian Grand Prix, just one week after rising star Surtees was killed when he was hit by a loose wheel.

The FIA has conducted several tests over the years to evaluate the pros and cons of introducing closed cockpits – and has found hurdles along the way.

Initial tests of a fighter-jet style canopy highlighted two design problems – either the polycarbonate cover would shatter, or it would simply launch the debris high in to the air and potentially pose a danger to other drivers and/or spectators.

But of bigger concern to the FIA was potential difficulties in drivers getting out of the cockpit in the event of an accident – or delays in medical crews being able to attend to a driver because they had to waste time trying to remove a potentially damaged cover.

The downside of these scenarios was accepted to have been greater than the benefit offered by improved head protection.

In terms of F1, teams have also been resistant to any attempt to introduce canopies because open cockpits have always been viewed as an intrinsic part of the sport.

Concerns about the downside of a jet-fighter style canopy have prompted a push to look at ways of having a structure around the front of the cockpit that would still allow easy driver extraction.

The latest idea is for cars to be fitted with a series of different height vertical blades around the front of the cockpit, which will deflect debris but also not hinder a drivers’ escape from the cockpit.

Coincidentally, F1 technical chiefs discussed the matter with the FIA last week, before Wilson’s crash, and have approved the latest round of testing to take place next month.

There will also be an evaluation of an idea put forward by Mercedes for a halo-style concept that would be fitted around the cockpit.

It is time for the open wheel and open cockpit racing series, Formula One and Verizon Indy Car Series, to seriously re-visit the safety of the driver.  It is time to get away from the “men and their flying machines” mentality of machismo.  Since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.,  NASCAR has been a leading force in increasing the safety of the drivers. NASCAR was the driving force in SAFER barriers, as well as the HANS, head and neck restraining devices in racing.

Indy Car and F1 really needs to revisit the open cockpit of their race cars.  The driver’s heads and necks are exposed to flying debris, which puts those individuals lives in jeopardy, as was the case for Justin Wilson this past weekend.  Likewise, both Massa and Surtees from F1 died as the results of being struck by flying debris.  Those kinds of deaths are avoidable and totally unacceptable in racing.

I believe that it is incumbent upon the powers in both of these racing series to move forward with great gusto, and speed, to try to address and fix the problems that arise out of the open cockpit.  Have we not progressed past archaic view of “those magnificent men and their racing machines” of the early 20th century?

Granted safety in racing is a continuously moving target, and the work is never complete, but we are in the 21st century and surely we can make open wheel racing a little safer for these courageous race car drivers!  After all, we have made the race tracks safer for the spectators with crash walls and catchfences to keep the race car within the confines of the racing surface.

With all the safety improvements that have taken place in racing since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., surely we can make it safer for the drivers of these high speed, aerodynamically dependent, rocket-ship type racing machines in 2016.

That is my opinion, what do you think?

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About Leon Hammack

Leon Hammack is a retired airline pilot and avid race fan. Leon is a contributing writer and photographer for all three of NASCAR's touring series, as well as sprint car and midget racing. A native of Fresno, CA now wintering in Yuma, AZ., additionally, he spends the summer months near Coos Bay, OR. You may contact Leon on Twitter @captainblowdri

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1 Comment

  1. DNa

    August 28, 2015 at 7:12 am

    I’m sorry but you’re wrong about NASCAR leading the safety development of the SAFER barrier and the HANS device. Both were Indycar developments that NASCAR later adopted. If NASCAR truly was a leader in safety, they would be traveling with their own safety team like Indycar and the NHRA.

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