Last weekend at Pocono, IndyCar driver Justin Wilson lost his life when he was struck by debris from a single car accident ahead of him on the track. To say it is a tragedy is an understatement. Could conditions have been altered in order to make racing safer so that we might avoid such anguish in the future?
That is what the powers that be will be looking at. Wilson’s death was not caused by a crash, contact with the wall, or a wild tumble. The 37-year-old father of two died when a piece of a car broke off after contact with the wall, sailed in the air and struck him while he was driving a fair distance behind the incident. Could the part that flew off, a portion of the nose cone, have been secured better or constructed in such a fashion that it did not become a deadly projectile? Could the driver have been better protected?
Even in the most dangerous occupations, never mind sports, one expects the participant to return home safe and sound. However, the reality is that some activities come with inherent risks. In 1989, champion bull rider Lane Frost lost his life in the arena when broken ribs punctured his heart. All competitors now wear a protective vest.
Duk Koo Kim lost his life in a championship fight with Ray Mancini in 1982. Shortly after, championship bouts were reduced in duration from 15 to 12 rounds. Bill Masterton of the Minnesota North Stars struck his head on the ice in an NHL game in 1968. Although it took more than a decade, rules were eventually brought in to make helmets mandatory for new players. It took more than 30 years for baseball to react following the death of Ray Chapman in 1920, finally introducing the batting helmet.
The host of changes NASCAR has introduced following the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt has without a doubt saved lives. Since the Cup series began in 1949, 28 drivers have lost their lives in the division, including a trio of Hall of Famers; Earnhardt, Fireball Roberts, and Joe Weatherly. The 14 years since the loss of the Intimidator marks the longest we have gone without a loss of life in the series. However, before we start to think NASCAR drivers have become invincible, five drivers in other related series have died in races since then. There is still work to be done with the cars and the venues they race on.
Open-wheel cars have their own dangers. In fact, it is a style that sees safety sacrificed for speed. The slightest amount of contact can send a car out of control into the fence or a competitor. The wheels are exposed and unprotected, sticking out from the chassis and easily clipped by a passing opponent. Then there are the open cockpits, where a driver sits vulnerable to a host of potential dangers, such as the one that took the life of Wilson. It brings to mind the haunting images from the 1977 South African Grand Prix. Tom Pryce struck a marshal who was darting across the track, with the fire extinguisher he was carrying, striking the exposed helmet of the driver, as both died in the accident.
Does the open-wheel concept also demand an open cockpit? Could a new design incorporating a canopy to protect the drivers in the case of such incidents be in the offing? Four years ago, after an injury, Wilson himself stated, “You’ve got to know the risks and work out if those risks are acceptable – to me, it’s acceptable.” That did not mean he stopped trying to improve safety, though “at the end of the day, it’s a race car” and “when it goes wrong, it can get messy.”
Race cars will never be totally safe. When you hit speeds at 200 mph and beyond, something bad can happen. NASCAR has done an amazing job to make their cars safer, more like their street counterparts where the preservation of its occupants today is as important as performance. Open-wheel divisions of motorsports have to decide if that is a path they wish to follow. It comes down to just how willing they might be to sacrificing some of their traditions in order to avoid sacrificing more of their participants.