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IndyCar puts safety at top of priority list entering 2016

INDIANAPOLIS -- IndyCar officials are trying to make racing safer and more appealing in 2016.

After spending a busy offseason trying to stop cars from flipping and limiting the dangers of flying debris, Mark Miles spent Tuesday explaining how rules changes could help.

The most notable difference this season will be the addition of rear beam wing flaps, something similar to what NASCAR has been using on the roofs of its cars and that is designed to keep the lighter IndyCars from going airborne when they are rolling backward.

"I'm told ours are more heavy-duty and professionally engineered and cooler (than NASCAR's) and will be effective," joked Miles, the CEO of IndyCar's parent company, Hulman & Co. "But time will tell."

Inside series headquarters, this is serious business.

Last season was marred by a series of problems: expansive debris fields on race day, upside-down cars and the tragic accident that claimed the life of Justin Wilson one day after he was hit in the head by debris from another car at Pocono.

Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe, who was seriously injured during Indy 500 practice and missed the rest of the season even though his car stayed on the ground, said he believes protective canopies could be on the cars within three years. That's two years sooner than he expected last summer.

"Anything that adds protection to the head is good," Hinchcliffe said before noting the new addition to Formula One cars wouldn't work as well on the high-banked ovals at IndyCar venues. "It's easy to throw a canopy on a car, but there's a hundred other things that you have to look at."

When asked if the timeline had been pushed up, Miles acknowledged the series has been working extensively with an unidentified international company. He said there are still significant details to work out, including how strong the materials must be, how much weight a canopy would add to the car, how it would affect visibility and whether it would be a complete enclosure.

"It's not going to happen this year, for sure, and it's still too soon to say whether they'd be ready for 2017 or 2018," Miles said. "But we're pretty confident that it can be developed."

Until then, Miles and his executive team, including new competition and operations president Jay Frye, are taking more immediate measures to protect drivers.

In November, the series announced it would use tethers on the rear beam wing and rear wing guards at all races while the nose and front wing main plate on the three superspeedways the series uses. On Tuesday, Miles said an improved fuel probe sensor will prevent drivers from pulling out of the pits while the probe is still attached to the car. That's what happened to Graham Rahal at Fontana last season.

And unlike last season, when there were no oval races before the Indianapolis 500 and no testing of the new aero kits at IMS, the series has scheduled an April 6 test at Indy to make sure the new equipment works properly.

The other obligation, of course, is to expand the fan base.

Miles expects television ratings will continue to increase, thanks in part to a creative schedule that eliminates some of the overlap with NASCAR races and NFL games. He also remains confident that the Sept. 4 race on Boston's street course will be held on time.

Some residents have complained about the "disruption" caused by that race, but Miles said the promoters and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh are still on board. The promoters even announced Tuesday that Coors Light has signed on as a sponsor.

Former series champ Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 winner, said he can't wait.

"Boston is the perfect market to be in. The track is amazing," he said. "The site and where I saw it, how it's going to be, the plans for it, massive potential. I hope it's one of our cornerstone events."