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Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

Posted on: October 18, 2011 2:57 pm
Edited on: October 18, 2011 5:57 pm
By Pete Pistone

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(Jimmie Johnson's suggestion that all oval tracks come off the Indy Car schedule takes things too far.)

The sad part of Sunday’s horrific IZOD IndyCar Series accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is that it wasn’t the first time.

The shear volume of the 15-car crash that subsequently took the life of Dan Wheldon may have been the largest number of cars involved in one of these high speed melees, but unfortunately the series has a long history of spectacular accidents when racing at intermediate-sized ovals.

Jimmie Johnson for one has seen enough.

"I wouldn't run them on ovals," Johnson said. “Those cars are fantastic for street circuits and road courses.” 

While the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion's assessment might be a bit too drastic, he may at least have a point in terms of the mid-sized tracks that quite honestly were built for stock cars and not open-wheel racing. 

Since the birth of the Indy Racing League after the split from CART in the mid-1990s, IndyCar racing migrated to a schedule heavily weighted to high-banked oval tracks. From the outset it was clear the racing product was among the most sensational in all of motorsports featuring breath taking three and four wide competition as well as a string of photo finishes. 

But it also was one of the most dangerous forms of racing on the planet.

While Wheldon’s death was the first in the series since Paul Dana’s practice crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006, the violent wreck was the latest in a long line of accidents that have marred the sport’s legacy. 

Kenny Brack somehow survived one of the scariest moments in racing history when he became airborne at Texas Motor Speedway in a 2003 IRL race. Brack’s car literally disintegrated after flying into the track’s backstretch catch fence before coming to rest in a pile of smoldering parts and pieces. 

“I really don’t remember too much except that feeling of helplessness when the car went up in the air,” said Brack, who returned to the sport after recovering from his injuries before finally retiring. “Once a race car becomes airborne it’s really just in the hands of a higher being.” 

Current Penske Racing driver Ryan Briscoe shared a Brack-like moment at Chicagoland Speedway in 2005. 

Briscoe touched wheels with Alex Gurney as they raced through turns three and four at the 1.5-mile oval and his car was launched into the SAFER Barrier wall breaking into two and then catching fire.

Briscoe’s injuries included two broken collarbones, a bruised lung, concussion and cuts to his legs and arms. 

“I remember the initial contact with Alex and thought that we might just get away with not hitting the wall, but suddenly I was airborne and the rest is a little fuzzy," Briscoe said. 

By far the worst example of how dangerous racing open wheel cars on high banked oval tracks came in 1998 and 1999 when debris from on track crashes went into the grandstands and took the lives of spectators. 

Adrian Fernandez hit the wall in a July of 1998 CART race at Michigan International Speedway sending a tire and part of his car’s suspension into the stands killing three spectators. 

The following year an IRL crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway involving John Paul Sr., Stan Wattles and Scott Harrington sent debris over the front stretch catch fence and into stands also taking the lives of three spectators. 

But despite the tragedies and potentially dangerous situations, Indy cars continue to race on tracks like Las Vegas. 

However the time may have finally come to disband the idea altogether. 

I’m conflicted in even writing that line. Less than two weeks ago I proposed the league add more oval track races and pursue an alignment with additional NASCAR weekends to generate more exposure. The scintillating action at the race before Vegas in Kentucky was among the most thrilling I’ve seen in recent years. 

There is no arguing the IndyCar product on intermediate ovals is tremendous. Sadly we now realize too late the risk outweighs the reward.

Racecar drivers are a unique breed of people, somehow able to put tragedy in the rear view mirror and continue to go about their business.

“I’m ready to go to work,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said at Monday’s fuel injection test in Charlotte. “There are things we’ve got to accomplish today, and we’ll try to see what we can get done. … I drive race cars for a living. That’s what I’m here to do. 

“Racing is just a dangerous sport. It’s a dangerous thing to do. It can never be safe enough, but I like my chances.” 

But in some cases those chances might be able to be improved. The IndyCar Series now faces that decision. 

In reality that is the direction the series has been heading. Next year’s schedule, although not officially released, includes only five ovals with the Indianapolis 500 the cornerstone as well as stops in Fontana, Texas, Iowa and Las Vegas.

But completely eradicating ovals from the circuit is too much of a knee jerk reaction. The series can put on entertaining and competitive races at venues that don’t generate as much speed or danger like Las Vegas or similar mid-size tracks. 

Flat and shorter ovals like Milwaukee, New Hampshire, Gateway or Richmond -– all places the series has run many times –- provide great opportunities for close competition while maintaining a more solid oval presence on the schedule. 

But every one of those facilities have been taken off the schedule for one reason -– poor attendance. Despite a compelling product, oval track operators for the most part have not been able to make an IndyCar race profitable given the embarrassing fan turnout in most cases. 

I think IndyCar officials need to keep oval track racing at the core of the series. After all its biggest race -- in fact the biggest race in the world -- is held on the famed Brickyard oval every May.  

Maybe more promotional efforts and marketing support like what was poured into the Las Vegas event will help build the audience for races in Milwaukee or Gateway or New Hampshire.  But with money and the economy still dictating the sport's direction, the opportunity to focus more resources on those events most likely isn't there.

So like it or not, the IndyCar Series with its next generation race cars set to debut next season is more than likely headed down a path of having the Indy 500 anchor a schedule of grand prix racing, with road courses and street circuits comprising the bulk of the calendar. 

That may be a lot safer but whether or not it’s a success is going to be a major question.

For more NASCAR news, rumors and analysis, follow @ppistone on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. 

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Since: Jan 13, 2007
Posted on: October 19, 2011 9:24 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

How many times have we heard Cup Drivers talk about the Big One and how someone is going to get hurt at plate tracks,but yet they all strap their helmets on and race,same goes with Indy cars,if there was no chance of crashes and no danger in racing nobody would be interested in it,that sounds awful but I believe it to be the truth.The thrill  of being on the edge is what makes racing fun and exciting for the fans and the drivers,considering all the crashes in all forms of racing and what few driver actually get hurt is a testament to how far safety efforts have paid off in the sport of Auto racing.

Since: Sep 24, 2007
Posted on: October 19, 2011 7:52 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

I have attended the Indianapolis 500 for 38 years; I have watched the IndyCar series evolve through the glory days of Andretti, Unser, Foyt, and the like through the split and now the modern era.

One of the elements of open wheel racing has always been the danger; the edge-of-the-seat element of pushing the limits of man and machine.

Part of what has always made all forms of racing great has been the feeling that racers are a special breed. . .down to the Mel Kenyons, Steve Kinsers, Mark Donahues and Scott Braytons who raced whatever, whenever, and whereever.

The sadness gripping the sport and the resulting outrage of losing a great and charismatic champion such as Dan Wheldon must, by its nature, cause reflection on what racing is and how racinf should be.

For those who love it as drivers, owners and fans, we should not lose sight of the tremendous advancements in safety over the years and the dedication to the safety and drivers alike that permeates the sport, from SAFER barriers, to HANS devices, to the tethers holding the wheels to the chassis.  Racing IS safer, but it not safe.

The finest racing in the world is on the ovals of the IndyCar series.  The speed, the strategy and the sheer bravado we have seen in Joliet, Texas and Indianapolis is unlike anything NASCAR or F1 can produce.  To religate the drivers to the street courses is to take the heart of of what makes these races great and the champions greater.  It is the reason that Foyt, Sachs, Andretti, Rutherford and so many more are immortals.  It is the reason that Cale Yarborough, Donnie Allison and Graham Hill felt the pull of racing in the Indianapolis 500.

The passing of Dan Wheldon puts the IndyCar Series under fire and at a crossroads; the lifeblood of the series is the racing on the ovals that made the series great and should continue, with all that can be learned from the tragic events at Las Vegas put to use to make, yet again, the drivers safer as they show us waht nerves of steel really are.

You can tell me that IndyCar should abandon ovals; that the speeds are simply too high and should be examined.  But if you tell me that Dan Wheldon would have wanted his death to cause the demise of open wheel racing as we know it, I don't believe you.

Since: Mar 24, 2010
Posted on: October 19, 2011 5:52 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

Although I have to fight back the urge to vomit, I agree with Jimmie Johnson. Indy cars are made for road courses. They may be exciting on mid-size ovals (F1 cars would be too), but the risks outweigh the fun. The long ovals such as Indy are ok and, of course, the 500 is one of the most exciting races in the world. Go back to road racing (except for the Indy 500 and a warm-up race in Milwaukee) and leave the "drive fast and turn left"  races to the hillbillies of NASCAR.

Since: Sep 19, 2011
Posted on: October 19, 2011 5:49 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

Heard Jay Howard rip Jimmie on Indy radio this morning.  Its not his series and not his place.  People like AJ and Mario have also said so.  Lets the people involved in the series make these states.  To paraphrase Jay, keep your nose out of it.  Can't really say what else Jay said because it was a bit inappropriate.
I felt that Jay Howard over reacted to someone opinion, Jimmy Johnson don't race in the series but he felt that he race cars that he give his opinion. Since Johnson has never race Indy cars his opinion don't carry much weight

Since: Feb 17, 2008
Posted on: October 19, 2011 5:13 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

Heard Jay Howard rip Jimmie on Indy radio this morning.  Its not his series and not his place.  People like AJ and Mario have also said so.  Lets the people involved in the series make these states.  To paraphrase Jay, keep your nose out of it.  Can't really say what else Jay said because it was a bit inappropriate.

Since: Sep 29, 2006
Posted on: October 19, 2011 3:26 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

I absolutely aggre with you, FORDGT.  I even have no issues with using the longer track banked ovals (Michigan) with a 26-28 car field.  But having more than 22-24 cars on a 1.5 mile banked oval is nuts, especially if some of the drivers are minimally qualified to run that type of race.  That being said, the closed cockpit and 2012 design changes would (should) help as well.

Since: Sep 12, 2007
Posted on: October 19, 2011 3:25 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

Dan Wheldon dying was indeed a tragedy...he was one of my favorite drivers.  But, everyone is overreacting.  Who decided to "allow" 34 cars on the track at Vegas?  34 drivers did.  And 34 car owners.  I've heard/read all the comments about the drivers/owners telling 'them' it was unsafe and a recipe for disaster...and still 34 drivers took to the track and 34 owners let them.
And, who the heck it Jimmie Johnson to declare Indy cars shouldn't run on ovals?  He's never driving an Indy car.  He obviously is clueless that Indy car sprang from ovals.  Jimmie's a great NASCAR driver...he should keep his nose there.  Or is he next going to tell them how to run F-1?

Since: Mar 13, 2009
Posted on: October 19, 2011 12:45 pm

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

KingofCats - being an ex-racer I personally love the Super Speedways. It doesn't take 34 cars with 12 of them not belonging on the race track to cause this type accident. Open Wheel cars do it all the time as you know, it just takes two to tangle leading to the very same results at times. I believe Davey Hamilton’s wreck at Texas years back was just a three car accident and we almost lost him.

It’s really going to take some forward thinking engineering regarding the race tracks themselves in order to provide a safer facility. There is knowledge to construct and install a “Smooth Wall” without structured post exposed. I think this can be done with a cross blend of Lexan and Carbon Fiber. The race track facing portion would be smooth and actually be able to be used for signage and advertising while the back side or unexposed side of the fence providing the all important structural support. This portion of the safety fence would be installed in areas where the race fans are not trying to see through. In the area’s that are between the track and fans a clearer resign can be used, similar to that of an aircraft windscreen. Most of those windscreens can absorb a 500 mph impact. This is all possible and doable from the Engineering side but what race track is going to spend the money? We’re at a crossroads here and time for some changes if we’re going to continue to race on Super Speedways.

If the racing industry would incorporate a Smooth Wall along with a closed cockpit concept there would be little changes needed on the new 2012 Indy Car. This would vastly improve safety for the drivers, crews, safety workers and fans alike.

Since: Feb 13, 2007
Posted on: October 19, 2011 9:36 am

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

azmohave I still believe pulling them off the superspeedways is a bad idea, it's just solving the problem temporaily by avoidance. Everything else though I agree with you completely.

Since: Mar 13, 2009
Posted on: October 19, 2011 9:14 am

Idle Thoughts: IndyCar doesn't need to lose ovals

Sorry Jimmie 5 Time, I have to disagree with you. Indy Car racing came from the old AAA days and then in to USAC where the old Indy Car was front engine which is now basically the Dirt Champ Car. That race car use to go from the 1/4, 1/2 and 1 mile dirt tracks right to Indy in May until the Brits changed it all with their rear engine specials. At that time USAC ran nothing but ovals and they need to stay a part of todays Indy car series.

However - I would say it's time to bring them off the High Banked Super Speedways. A mile and half would still work but as mentioned in other post here, the race tracks need to be flater. Indy Car needs tracks like Phoenix back on the schedule in order to make things work but if the fans aren't going it's tough to schedule a race. Then again if NASCAR's sister company would market the races like they do when NASCAR comes to town they may sell a few seats.

The only other option that I can see is a closed cockpit along with the new Indy Car design that Dan Weldon was working so hard on. It also didn't help that there were so many inexperienced drivers on the race track, That "BAD" is on Indy Car.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or