Late-race Indy 500 crash sparks safety concerns

June 1, 2010
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The late-race accident at the Indianapolis 500 involving Mike Conway and Ryan Hunter-Reay is sure to spark debate over the safety of IndyCars.

There has long been a faction of series followers (and some race team officials) that has howled that these eight-year-old IndyCar models are ripe for flight—and not in a good way. Some even predict that it’s only a matter of time before one flies into the stands.

Well, that didn’t happen at Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. But for some, seeing Conway’s Dad’s Root Beer car flying through the air was a little too close for comfort.

Debris certainly sprayed into the crowd. Luckily, only two spectator injuries were reported. Both were cut in the forehead by flying debris. One required stitches at the track’s infield medical center.

Brian Barnhart, IndyCar president of competition and racing operations, and Kevin Forbes, director of engineering at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, took a close look at the IMS catch fence where the accident happened.

Speedway spokesman Eric Powell said the duo was “very pleased” with how the catch fence performed. Powell added that the accident will be under review “for quite some time.”

Each track custom designs and produces its own catch fence. Most, including the one at the IMS, is made of steel wire fencing with each post stuck in two feet or more of its own concrete foundation. They're very sturdy.  But they won't catch every piece of debris, and there's nothing that says debris can't fly higher than the fence reaches toward the sky.

Debris from race car accidents flying into the stands and injuring or even killing spectators is nothing new. That doesn't mean it isn't a serious concern. And for a race series trying to re-make its image, this type of issue is nothing to take lightly. A major accident involving fan casualties would have devastating effects.

The car, well, it was designed to break apart. And while IndyCar officials are never pleased with driver injuries, those that saw Sunday's crash close up know it could have been much worse.

IndyCar Series spokeswoman Amy Konrath pointed out that Sunday's crash involving Conway was the first time an IndyCar has gone airborne since Dario Franchitti took flight at Kentucky in 2007. Still, some will say two times in just over three years is two times too many, especially for fans who don't count on taking it in the kisser while watching a sporting event.

Since these cars don’t have fenders, wheels touching is a constant danger. So when Conway’s right front touched Hunter-Reay’s left rear, an accident was imminent. But the ensuing flight is sure to grab the attention of new IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard and the advisory panel he’s formed to study new chassis formulas for 2012.

"This isn’t something that’s unique to Indy car racing," Konrath said, "and it is a phenomenon that we are working hard to reduce the probability of happening during our events.

"In fact, in the search for a new car, we are looking to reduce the interaction between wheels to reduce the chance of cars becoming airborne and further strengthen the integrity of the chassis," Konrath added.

After the race, Hunter-Reay expressed concern about the possibility of debris or even an entire car hitting one of the drivers in the head, noting the helmeted noggins in an open-wheel cockpit are largely exposed.

I’m not sure what can be done about that, but I’m sure it’s another element for Bernard’s advisory panel to examine.

Bernard calls the panel he formed in March the ICONIC Advisory Committee. ICONIC stands for Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective.

After Sunday’s race, Bernard may want to shoe-horn the word safety in there somewhere.

  • The cars behaved as they were designed to. By definition, open wheel cars will take flight when tires touch. Short of adding fenders there is nothing that can be done to prevent it. The fact that in crashes not involving tires touching, no cars went airborne is a factor of how safe these cars are.

    The fact that the driver was able to survive with relatively minor injuries from such a dramatic crash at over 220 mph shows how well designed these cars are. 10 years ago, the injuries would have been much worse.

    As far as protecting the drivers head, short of enclosing the cockpit, what can you do? Any kind of protective bars would impair the drivers vision and make removing a driver more difficult. They make racing as safe as possible, but it is not designed to be risk free, or everyone would do it.

    As far as the catch fence, there is no way to make them impervious to debris coming through. And with Indy Cars designed to break apart on impact to lessen driver injuries, there is a greater risk to spectators. I would hazzard to guess pucks and baseballs into crowds injure more specatators than racing debris.

    So unless the next generation of cars has fenders and closed cockpits these same issues will keep popping up.
  • driver safety
    Isn't it interesting how new ideas to make cars faster are always a priority compared to a drivers safety. A new wing or a engine tweek will be considered before creating a new devise preventing a drivers head from getting ripped off by another car. Racing is a macho world and drivers live in a world of denial. As do fighter pilots. They don't want to think of getting killed because it will cause them to lose confidence. So waiting till 2012 to come up with a new device to prevent a driver from dying is the status quo. But, up until they finally come up with a new device to keep a drivers head from getting squished they will keep their head in the sand and keep saying "well we hope no one gets killed". I wonder which driver wants to pick the short straw and be the one who is remembered each year after they die, any volunteers? How did it work out for Dale? He refused to wear a HANS Device, now you can't find a driver who won't wear one. Well, better start a drivers memorial fund for the family, when it finally happens. Talk is cheap, and i guess replacement drivers are too.
  • That's not the POINT
    The point IS the current Dallara chassis has been virtually unchanged since it's inception back in 2003. It has ALWAYS shown a propensity for flight which has ALWAYS been denied by the SPEEDWAY and IRL officials.

    This Conway dude that got busted up in a "crapwagon" (as the 2003 Dallara always has been referenced) is just another victim of the SPEEDWAY's poor management of AOW.

    The IRL and the Dallara already have the world record for most flights and worst injury record EVER. What's it gonna take, another death, for change to occur in the IRL?

  • what a joke
    these are OPEN WHEEL cars! that's what happens when wheels touch. maybe we could just take the sport out of the whole thing and put fenders on the cars. then it would be nascar. or put rails around the wheels like they do at your local go cart track. or training wheels so a three year old could drive it and ring her little bell when she wants to pass. please!
  • That is my point as well. Open wheel cars will come off the ground when they touch tires, look at Sprint and midgets cars. the only difference is they do not have the aero shape to stay aloft. When was the last time an IRL car launced without being catapulted by a tire?
  • Flying Crapwagons
    Nothing new. It will take a re-make of the Charlotte incident to get this bunch to do anything about these flying crapwagons.
  • Dallara, Eagle, Vollstedt, doesn't matter
    They will all fly when one runs over another's tire. What's next dear Safety committee? Some nerf bars? Maybe Ryan's team shouldn't have tried to go another 3+ miles on fumes. That was the real cause.

    Maybe the Dallara does have the ability to "fly longer / farther" but that wreck was no different than Stan Fox's lap 1 wreck in 1995 and he wasn't in a Dallara, he was in a Reynard.
  • There was a difference, Stan fox suffered massive injuries that nearly killed him.

    Conway had relatively minor injuries.
  • Run Off areas needed
    It comes down to SPACE for reduced impact gs. There has to be a minimum 75-100 foot run off area as in F-1 or WSC. Ovals need run off areas. They can take the first 30 rows of seats out and then surround the old track with a continuous proper gravel run off and tire barriers... that will minimize the risk...
  • C'mon Guys, Safety has Improved!
    Suspect the naysayers fail to recognize the improvements that have been made relative to safety over the last 50 years. It will never be perfect, but the safety improvements in place today are really incredible compared to what was in place in the 50's and 60's, when so many drivers were not only injured, but killed (e.g. numbers of open wheel drivers killed in the 20 year period of the 50's/60's alone are at least 57% more than were killed over the 40 year period of the 70's through 2010, and the speeds at the 500 increased from the 130's to the 220's since that period.) Still more can be done, as always, but let's be thankful for the excellent work that has been accomplished in improving safety, including the fuel bladders, the reduction of the amount of fuel on board, the car design and materials, the positioning of the roll bars and the foot boxes, wall cushions, etc. As a footnote, it will never be 100% safe, as this sport will always have an element of danger.
  • a gravel run off area on an oval probably would be more dangerous. Imagine a car going 220+ mph hitting a gravel bed? it would cartwheel and tear itself apart very possibly creating a fatal accident out of one that may not be so. The only two oval accidents that are serious are the rare times a car hits a wall at near 90 degrees at speed or getting airborne. Most oval wrecks are like Andrettis or Junquerias where the car hits the wall at a shallow angle and with the SAFER barrier, scrubs off speed. Near 90 and airborne crashes are rare in the IRL.
  • OPEN
    Come on, stop complaining about Open wheel racing. OPEN Wheel means just that OPEN. If R.H-R. is afraid of something hittin him in the head don't drive an open cockpit car. If you fear for driver safety don't watch open wheel racing. IT IS DANGEROUS, that is why we love racing. Remember the human body is only designed to go as fast as a run, anything faster is dangerous.
  • fuel
    The accident was caused by RHR running out of fuel. How about a light of some kind that shows a car traveling at reduced speed to warn drivers coming up from the rear?
  • conway crash luck was on his side
    tony renna did same thing and died on same car design that crash only prayer can safe you the cars are safe there just going too fast speed is indycar game indy is too cheap they need raise the fence on the gulf course like the rest of the fence old fence need to go it like that at darlington talladega daytona all road track and street track fence are too low for fence problem they can use silicone air bed fence and use steel as support it absorb and strong thing will allway fly in stand and kill some one and it never hurt motorsport history has show that on open cockpit is for open wheel car because they high end proformance car high g force part of it too and no fender its a wast of weight
  • The flight of the wounded crapwagon
    ""This isnâ??t something thatâ??s unique to Indy car racing," Konrath said,"

    Well, sort of, Amy. Are you new? The added aero lift properties of the crapwagon when disturbed are in fact very unique to the 'league', and the design has been criticized since crapwagon V1 for design flaws that would induce a flight event.

    This incident was, however, a basic momentum launch. It can and has happened with pretty much any open wheel car.

    It's really unfortunate that it happened at the end, and not like at lap 50, cause it made a biggie hole in that fence, and took out 2 posts. Would've been a long repair delay.

    Doesn't matter though, if they are dumb enough to enclose the wheels, that will drive away even more of the very few fans of this garbage pretending to be racing.

    That is if the aero lift properties inherent in the crapwagon don't expose themselves yet again before the design change. They may have an entire vehicle in the stands yet, and that would likely put a halt to the 'league' rather abruptly. Then again, the stands are mostly empty, so it might not be a problem. It'll be like catching a foul ball at minor league baseball game.

    code = 6rr5m
  • Close them wheels
    To be honest, I follow all forms of motorsports, but I would not mind seeing fenders and closed cockpits put on ALL open wheel racers.

    I can't really see why it's so important for the wheels of single seater racing cars to be so extremely exposed.

    You could design a closed wheeled single seater design that looks more sleek, reduces drag and also allows good air cooling on the brakes.

    I have witnessed far too many open wheel races where a driver has 'accidentally' or 'strategically' taken out another driver's rear wing from the most gentle of collisions. All open wheelers, including the all-carbonfibre designs are too fragile. This means it's far too easy to ruin another driver's race or see reduced overtaking on narrow tracks due to the risks involved in overtaking.

    In fact, all of the world's most exciting competitive and close racing, from the Australian V8 Supercar Series to Sportscar racing types such as the new FIA GT1 World Championship seem to have closed wheels.

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