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Thursday, November 6
Engineers agree on this: Change needed
By Robin Miller
Special to ESPN.com
Bill Pappas, who only got to engineer Tony Renna for a few laps, is concerned about Indy cars getting airborne. So is fellow Indy Racing League engineer Iain Watt, who wants to see more downforce and less speed.
Derrick Walker, who fields two cars in CART, is worried about American open-wheel racing on ovals in general. Kenny Brack, who somehow survived a devastating crash last month, would like to see Indy cars slowed by 30 mph. And Mauricio Gugelmin, who once ran a Champ Car more than 242 mph at California Speedway, believes his friend Gil de Ferran retired early because of the danger factor.
In the aftermath of Renna's death, Brack's frightening accident and Mario Andretti's aerial acrobatics, some of the participants are looking at the facts, physics and consequences of the events that have shaken Indy-car racing to the bone.
This isn't a witch hunt but rather a professional assessment of how to ground the cars, contain the carnage, slow the speeds, keep race fans safe and give the drivers a fighting chance.
"Obviously, we need to stop the cars from getting up in the fence," said Pappas, who had barely gotten to know Renna before the 26-year-old lost his life while testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Oct. 22.
"I've talked to Chip (Ganassi, his car owner) and Mike (Hull, managing director) about it and last Monday at Homestead I discussed it with Brian (Barnhart, IRL vice president of operations). I think the IRL is very safety-minded and a lot of us are going to give them some of our ideas."
"We must stop these cars from flying," said the graduate of Cranfield Institute of Technology in England. "Whether it was driver error or mechanical failure in Tony's wreck the consequences are too severe. He shouldn't have died.
"And it's up to all of us to slow these cars down and make the racing safer for drivers and fans alike."
Walker, who's run cars in IRL and CART during the past eight years, said it's simple physics.
"These cars are a big, flat surface and if you point them into the wind at the right angle they will take off," he said. "There's nothing new about this, it has happened in sports cars, NASCAR and we have seen more of it lately in open wheel racing.
"This is about lift and the shape and speed of the vehicle has a big influence. In the '60s, for example, you would have never seen Jimmy Clark's Lotus lifting off the way we've seen cars this year.
"There's a lot of engineers who understand how to minimize this effect and it's time to get them more involved in future car rules. It can be fixed, it just needs development to reduce the lift tendencies."
It's a given that oval-track racing is inherently dangerous and, since its inception in 1996, the IRL has seen 76 drivers suffer significant injuries. But a new problem surfaced this season.
This past April at Indy, Andretti ran over a very small piece of debris and literally lifted off like an airplane, doing a somersault and nearly sailing into the South Vista before thankfully landing rightside up and stepping out unharmed.
While battling for third place in the IRL finale at Texas last month, Brack touched wheels with Tomas Scheckter and catapulted into the fence. The 1999 Indy 500 winner broke his back, sternum, right leg and both ankles but is healing and vows to race again.
In his initial run with Ganassi's team, Renna ran into trouble in Turn 3 at the Speedway. His car turned backward, then vaulted the highly touted SAFER wall and impaled him on the catch fence where he died instantly.
The only common thread in all three accidents were the cars flying up into the fencing. They were all launched in different ways -- Mario head-on, Brack running over a wheel and Renna going backward after apparently spinning into the grass. Two of the cars were Dallaras, one a G-Force.
"What Mario ran over wasn't much and he went from generating downforce to generating lift," said Watt, who estimates that on a low-drag track like Indy an IRL car creates 1,000 pounds less downforce than a CART car. "We're always trying to trim the car out as much as possible at Indy to reduce the drag.
"That forces us to do unconventional things like running the nose up in the air to unwind the rear wing. Last May some guys were running minus eight degrees on their rear wings and that's like taking the wing off.
"The best way to stop the cars from flying is to increase the downforce."
Pappas offers this perspective.
"We're so limited in what you can take off the cars so on superspeedways we raise the car quite a bit to get the drag off. You do that and you start losing lots and lots of downforce.
"So maybe you could drop the throat angle of the leading edge of the underwing. At a certain angle it obviously produces lift so if you don't have such a steep angle, it will create less lift."
Gugelmin, who spent nine years in CART where he also was president of the Championship Drivers Association, told Autosport magazine it's a lethal compromise. "Clearly, in open-wheel racing, when you have an over-downforced car the easiest thing to do is to keep raising the ride height, especially the front end. That creates some lift, and they run negative degrees of front wing to make the front kind of 'hide' that big rear wing. You're basically pushing your luck -- you're running a lethal weapon at that stage.
"In ideal circumstances on your own, you'll probably get away with that. But, like an airplane accident, a racing crash usually doesn't happen unless there are a number of factors involved. Somebody takes their air or they drop a wheel on the grass, and there they go. The cars are too much on the edge."
To which Watt responds:
"If the driver is happy, you keep taking downforce away and gaining more speed. But, invariably, when it does go wrong you're done."
Of course the cornering speeds of IRL and CART cars on ovals are insane. In a recent test at Indy, two-time winner Helio Castroneves topped 230 mph and was reportedly clocked at 226 through the turns on that lap. There is no reaction time for a driver and no chance to just spin and miss the walls like back in the '60s and '70s.
Before his latest round of surgery on his spine, Brack talked about knocking 30 mph off the speeds.
"I want to see the IRL slow down the cars but I want to do it with less aerodynamics," said the 1998 IRL champion. "Increase the slip angle of the tires so the cars slide a little more and get rid of the wings. Give us more power so you've got to use the brakes getting into the corner and make it harder to drive.
"I want to keep the competitiveness of the IRL but I think we could still put on exciting races at 190-200 mph."
Thanks to Dr. Steve Olvey and Dr. Terry Trammell, GM's John Melvin, Dr. Robert Hubbard and Jim Downing (HANS Device), Wally Dallenbach (who started CART's safety team) and both sanctioning bodies, open wheel cars are safer than ever for drivers despite all the list of injuries.
It's the close contact combat of the IRL on 16 ovals that's unsafe. But while drivers understand the risk/reward, spectators have come into the line of fire. Despite denials to the contrary, debris did get into the grandstands in all three of these crashes. Brack tore down the fence at Texas, Andretti nearly made it into the South Vista and Renna's wreckage left marks on the walkway of the North Vista after snapping at least two of the support posts in the catch fence.
Thankfully, there were no fans in any of these sections.
But nobody wants to envision what would amount to Armageddon if a car ever made it through, or over, a catch fence and into the crowd during a race.
"We must figure out how to contain these cars for driver safety but, more importantly, for spectator safety," said Walker, who pointed out how long it took to get Le Mans back on its feet after 83 spectators died in 1955. "But this is not just an IRL problem. It's more of an oval issue and oval tracks are uniquely American.
"America should have some sort of committee or council to develop a proper safety system for oval tracks. They should all have the same kind of fencing, for instance, with standard posts, netting, etc. The tracks, teams and sanctioning bodies don't have the individual expertise but together they could.
"The bottom line is you can't scare away fans and sponsors."
Watt offers another scenario.
"What happens if Kenny's accident at Texas happens on the first lap? Come back in a day or two when we get the fence fixed? The current fences are not adequate."
Gugelmin feels like the specter of fear permeates the IRL paddock but many drivers won't voice their concerns.
"The saddest thing is that a lot of talented drivers were forced to go to a series where they have to hope and pray every time they go out on the track that they're not going to be the next one. I know that for a fact," said the Brazilian, who practiced at 242 mph at Fontana, Calif., in 1997.
"I hope some of the drivers have the courage to step up and say this is unacceptable. Gil de Ferran certainly didn't say those words but I'm pretty sure that's why he is stopping. He still loves to drive but it got to the point where you look at life and you look at the risks, which are tremendous in this case.
"He stood up and said, 'Look, I'm out of here.'"
The balance for IRL officials is a tenuous one. They need to make sure the cars quit flying but they want to keep their photo finishes.
"I'd like to see them mandate a horsepower level and put enough downforce on the cars to keep them around 220 mph at Indy and 210-220 everyplace else we run," said Pappas. "We have to control speeds and I think horsepower is the way."
Watt wants the opposite.
"The IRL needs more downforce, not less power," he said. "But any solution is going to cost money and the trick is not to bankrupt the series but keep the close racing."
IRL technical chief Phil Casey and assistant Les MacTaggart are in the process of gathering information.
"We've got a safety committee and right now we're talking to engineers and looking at all the data so we can see what we can come up with," said Casey, who was in Nebraska doing a crash test on the IMS SAFER walls.
Pappas feels like something constructive will be done.
"Brian and his staff are trying to understand each crash and what caused it. He's listening and he wants to make a decision in the right direction. The worst thing would be to come up with some sort of shotgun reaction.
"They've come to us and asked our opinion. They're not sitting back. They want to do the right thing."
Robin Miller covers open wheel racing for ESPN and ESPN.com.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories