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Thursday, October 20, 2011
Updated: October 21, 11:48 AM ET
Closed cockpits part of the answer?

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

Members of an unlimited hydroplane boat series, along with SAFER barrier engineer Dr. Dean Sicking, believe it's time for the IndyCar Series to consider enclosed cockpits.

"I'm an outsider, but I think it's something [IndyCar] should take a long hard look at," said Sam Cole, the chairman of the H1 Unlimited Air National Guard Series. "It has been a godsend for us, a very positive thing for our sport. We've had very few serious injuries since the change. We lost a lot of drivers before doing it."

The unlimited hydroplanes, which are capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph on the water, first went to an enclosed cockpit in 1985. It became mandatory in 1989.

Dave Villwock
Dave Villwock said he believes the IndyCar Series could quickly adapt to closed cockpits. It was controversial when first adopted in his sport, unlimited hydroplane boat racing.

In 34 years of open cockpits for the hydroplanes, 14 drivers were killed. In the 26 years since enclosed canopies were added, only one driver has lost his life in a hydroplane event (George Stratton in San Diego 11 years ago).

Dan Wheldon's death in the 15-car accident Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has brought many questions about how to improve safety in open-wheel racing.

An enclosed cockpit would be a radical change, and something many traditional fans and competitors would oppose. But others see the Wheldon tragedy as an opportunity to make major changes, including enclosed cockpits.

"It think it's time they do something like this," said Dave Villwock, a 10-time champion who has more victories than any hydroplane racer in history. "I'm a big fan of IndyCar racing, but it's something they should consider. Going to a fully enclosed capsule probably is the optimum move for them."

The cause of Wheldon's death was listed as blunt trauma to the head. His car became airborne and slammed into the catch fence above the outside wall on Turn 2.

Sicking, the University of Nebraska engineer who was instrumental in the development and implementation of the SAFER barrier, also believes an enclosed cockpit might have made a difference. He thinks adding it is worth considering.

"It is feasible, but it's not something you could do overnight," Sicking said. "It certainly would have a chance of reducing fatalities. And it's something the NHRA should do as well [for Top Fuel dragsters]."

But many longtime IndyCar fans might consider such an idea sacrilege, going against the entire history of open-wheel, open-cockpit cars.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was contacted to comment, but did not return phone calls.

Sarah Fisher, now an IndyCar team owner who raced in the series for eight seasons, has mixed feelings about the idea.

"Enclosing the cockpit isn't something I would like," Fisher said. "It doesn't really go along with what we are. But if we feel it's necessary for safety, then I wouldn't throw it out just because it isn't traditional."

IndyCar is going to a very different look next season, with a sleek new car design that is expected to be much safer, but the design still has an open cockpit.

"As far as that goes, the new IndyCar next year is not traditional," said Larry Foyt, a former driver and now the team director for his legendary father's operation at A.J. Foyt Racing. "It has a much different look with all the body work around the rear tires.

"So I wouldn't be opposed to looking at the enclosed cockpit. I just don't know. There are so many ideas being thrown out there right now."

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage was on the committee that selected the new car design. He said an enclosed cockpit was discussed in those meetings.

"It's something we briefly looked at in the committee, but didn't give it much serious consideration," Gossage said. "We really didn't have enough detailed information about it to take a hard look at it."

But Gossage believes it's time to look at the idea again: "It should be included in every safety-related conversation from here on out. There will be plenty of naysayers, but I know before the hydroplanes did this, there were a lot of naysayers, also."

Villwock said many people involved in hydroplane racing thought it wasn't a viable option.

Sarah Fisher
Team owner Sarah Fisher hopes that the IndyCar Series takes its time to thoroughly analyze the crash that led to the death of Dan Wheldon.

"Believe me, we heard all the same things before we did this," he said "'It's too big, it's heavy, it costs too much, we won't be able to see, it's not us.' We've shown all that isn't true. I think it could be an easy fit for an IndyCar.

"And we made a lot of improvements on it over the years. You have to make the capsule big enough for head clearance -- about five inches on each side -- to keep the head from banging on anything in an accident. This is one change the NHRA had made recently with its roll cage."

The hydroplane canopy is similar to what is used in an F-16 fighter jet. Stephen Moczary, an instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, doesn't think the canopy would work.

"Unfortunately, an aircraft canopy would most likely not withstand that level of impact force," Moczary told Autoweek.com. "In [Wheldon's] case, I doubt it would have made a difference."

Villwock and Cole tend to disagree, saying the enclosure on the hydroplanes has been enhanced and strengthened over the years.

"Believe me, you turn over one of these boats at 200 mph and water is just like concrete," Cole said.

The hydroplane drivers wear oxygen masks, just like fighter pilots. But they also wear open-face helmets, which no one does now in auto racing.

"You can do it either way," Villwock said. "But I think it's better with a mask on an open-face helmet and a visor. Your face is still covered. The helmet I use is basically the same as the one used by a fighter pilot. In this case, there is no advantage to a full-face helmet. And the oxygen is just compressed air."

Fire is another concern for IndyCar, but Cole doesn't see that as a problem.

"The canopies have a hatch that easily lets someone in or out," Cole said. "In case of a fire, you just hit a switch to douse a fire."

Going to an enclosed cockpit would be a big move, but tragic events often lead to major changes. Many people were opposed to the idea of a collapsible barrier on the concrete walls at racetracks, but we were willing to consider it after Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001. Now all major race tracks have the SAFER barrier.

"Something like this makes everyone stop and think, just as the Earnhardt tragedy did in NASCAR," Larry Foyt said. "My first NASCAR race was the Busch Series race [now the Nationwide Series] the day before Dale was killed. I can remember when I first went to the HANS [head and neck support] device how much I hated it. Now no one can imagine racing without it."

Fisher is concerned that too much Monday-morning quarterbacking is going on right now and people are having kneejerk reactions to Wheldon's death. Some have suggested eliminating high-speed ovals from the IndyCar Series.

"I completely disagree with that," Fisher said. "Dan made a name for himself on those tracks [10 of his 16 career victories came on 1.5-mile ovals]. He loved racing on them. So maybe we should ask 'What would Dan say?'"

Even Sicking, who has devoted his life to making racing safer, thinks it's wrong to consider abandoning high-speed ovals.

"It shortsighted and shooting from the hip," he said.

F-16 fighter
TBD by Editorial

The IndyCar races at Texas Motor Speedway -- a 1.5 -mile track -- are IndyCar's best-attended oval events outside of the Indianapolis 500.

"If we are seriously going to have this discussion [about leaving high-speed ovals], then Indianapolis Motor Speedway should be included as well," Gossage said. "No one would consider that, of course. But more drivers have been killed at Indy than any other racetrack in the world."

More races have been run at Indy than any other track in the world, dating back to 1911. And the Indy-car purists would argue that IMS is not a high-banked oval. It's a 2.5-mile rectangle that is comparatively flat. But cars reach speeds in excess of 230 mph on the long straightaways at Indy.

"This type of racing was born on ovals, and it's the Super Bowl of our series," Foyt said. "I think the biggest thing for us is to try to keep these cars on the ground. These catastrophic incidents happen when the cars get airborne."

The new car will help keep the cars on the ground. Wheldon's car launched into the air when it ran up on the rear wheels of a car in front of him. The new car has a bumper and body work around the rear wheels, making it less likely that a car would hit the rear wheels from behind.

Sicking said it isn't enough. He said the rear wing on the car needs changes to add drag.

"The wing now acts in reverse from an airplane wing to force the car down," Sicking said. "But it only takes these cars to get a couple of inches off the ground and the wing angle changes to send the car upward into the air.

"If you change the attack angle of the wing to add drag, it won't matter the angle of the car, it won't cause it to lift. All it would take is different mounting of the foil. And it also would slow the cars down."

Sicking also said people are wrong to blame the wired catch fencing for causing Wheldon's death.

"The problem isn't the catch fencing," Sicking said. "It's the support posts. That can be fixed pretty easily by moving the beams back from the fencing."

Fisher said everything should be considered, including enclosed cockpits, but everyone needs to give it some time.

"There is a lot of emotional talk right now," Fisher said. "Honestly, it will take a while to evaluate all of this. We'll study it and see what the cars need to make them safer.

"You know, there were 14 other drivers in that accident Sunday that came out without a serious injury. We have done so many things to make these cars safer, but freak accidents happen and they can happen on a road course or street race, as well. We try to learn from each one and make the sport better."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.