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Tuesday, October 14
Updated: October 22, 2:09 PM ET
Brack wreck was long time coming
By Robin Miller
Special to ESPN.com
When the Indy Racing League debuted in 1996 it needed an identity.
Following the first two races at Texas Motor Speedway in 1998 it had one:
Roller Ball on four wheels.
The combination of high downforce, reduced horsepower and high-banked 1½- and two-mile tracks created packs of cars stacked on top of each other -- separated by what looked like inches at 210-215 mph.
Tony George's all-oval series has made for exciting competition and fantastic finishes at places like Texas, Chicago, Michigan, Kansas City, Sparta, Ky. and Fontana, Calif.
But it's also been incredibly hazardous.
In 87 IRL races during the past eight years, an astounding 76 drivers have suffered concussions or fractures of the skull, neck, back, pelvis, legs, arms, wrists, ankles, feet, hip and shoulder. And that's not counting the four seriously injured drivers in the IRL Infiniti Pro series in 2002 and 2003.
By comparison, Championship Auto Racing Teams has staged 147 races during this same time frame and only 32 drivers suffered similar injuries. But Jeff Krosnoff, Gonzalo Rodriguez and Greg Moore were also killed in CART races, while wrecks at IRL events led to Scott Brayton losing his life at Indianapolis in '96 and Sam Schmidt being paralyzed in an IRL test in 2000.
This season, 13 IRL drivers saw sheet time, including major injuries to Airton Dare, Felipe Giaffone, Gil de Ferran and Kenny Brack, while CART's lone wounded warrior has been rookie Tiago Monteiro with a mild concussion.
Open wheel racing doesn't discriminate when it comes to fatalities (Krosnoff perished at a street circuit in Toronto and Rodriguez died at Laguna Seca's road course), but oval-track racing is inherently more dangerous than road racing.
Especially the IRL brand.
The fact Brack is alive, will get to see his first child's birth in two months and likely make a full recovery from his devastating accident Sunday at Texas is a credit to his physical fitness and his car's construction. But it was still more luck than anything else.
The fact Brack's car climbed the wheel of another's at 220 mph, catapulted into the fence and disintegrated was simply long overdue.
Because every time the IRL competes at Texas it elicits the same two emotions from everyone watching:
Titillation and trepidation.
It's riveting to watch in person or on television. But it's also plenty scary -- at least for the drivers and anyone who understands the dynamics.
"It's (bad) for the drivers but great for the fans," said Scott Dixon after capturing the 2003 IRL title with a second place finish.
Dixon is a smart young man who realizes that running wide open in such close proximity for two hours is a recipe for disaster.
"It's like Russian Roulette," said one veteran following Sunday's show. "Sooner or later your time is coming."
Especially when certain drivers interlock wheels at 215 mph like they've done consistently in the IRL. It's like they don't have any respect for the consequences and some of that is because they've never been hurt. Yet.
CART's aero package is also better for drivers at tracks like Michigan and Fontana because it promotes drafting and the ability to slingshot past the car in front of you instead of being stuck next to, or behind, a competitor for 40 laps because everyone is going the same speed.
It's amazing the IRL has never had a 20-car pileup, especially at Texas, with all the wheel banging and insane driving (Eddie Cheever's words after one night show at TMS) and one shudders to think how many spectators could have perished had Brack's crash taken place on the other side of the track. Several pieces of the car were launched into the empty grandstands on the backstretch after the fence caved in.
From video replays, it also appears the fencing at Texas is still backwards. In other words, there is a post (which pulverized Davey Hamilton's feet in 2001), a cable and then the fence. Just the opposite of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which has a fence/post/cable to support things (it kept Mario Andretti from sailing into the grandstands last April in his test flight at Indy).
But this isn't an indictment of Texas Motor Speedway. It's a first-class facility and it's provided Indy-car racing with a platform for performance since '98.
The bottom line is that oval-track racing has always been the staple of Indy cars, always been the most exciting form of motorsports and always been the most dangerous.
CART reached its zenith by mixing road courses, street circuits, short ovals and superspeedways to come up with the most challenging test of man and machine.
Tony George wanted his own niche and he's got it with an all-oval series.
And the safety measures taken by CART and IRL have thankfully made death a rarity instead of a certainty like it was in the '60s.
Ovals remain the best show for television, yet they are also the worst place to have an accident. The IRL has dodged a lot of big bullets since '96 but it needs to seriously address its aero package, speeds, cars and propensity for carnage on its action tracks. Maybe Humpy Wheeler is right. Maybe it's time for fenders.
While endlessly patting itself on the back for re-inventing racing, the IRL brass would probably just as soon we forget all of those drivers who've been maimed these past eight years. During his post-race interview Sunday on ESPN, George praised Dixon and thanked the fans but neglected to mention his hopes and prayers for the 1999 Indy winner, who lay broken and battered a few hundred yards away in the infield hospital.
It's no coincidence Michael Andretti retired before Texas this year. And Scott Dixon's agent wants to get him out of the IRL and into Formula One before he joins the "Orthopedic Surgery Club." Dario Franchitti wants to go back to CART but hasn't been able to secure a deal. When asked how much he'd enjoyed the three-car bump and grind to the photo finish at Chicago earlier this season, Bryan Herta replied: "That wasn't fun."
Brack, one of the truly good guys in all of motorsports who has won in both IRL and CART, mentioned a few days before Texas that open wheel had to get back under one roof with a mix of ovals, road courses and street circuits. The 37-year-old Swede wasn't complaining, just making sense.
Of course the PR spin is that all the drivers think the IRL is the greatest series in motorsports history. Under oath, the majority of them would admit they hate tempting fate 16 times a year in the asphalt jungle. These guys know the risks of open wheel and are as brave as almost any generation of racers, they just don't fancy being sacrificed for the good of the show.
That's why the only person happier than Gil de Ferran last Sunday night was Angela de Ferran. He'll never have to drive in the Kamikaze Circuit again and his wife will never again have to run to the emergency room.
Like Anita Brack, who is seven months pregnant and so very thankful she isn't a widow today.
Robin Miller covers open wheel racing for ESPN and ESPN.com.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories