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Sports Business

Late-race Indy 500 crash sparks safety concerns

June 1, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

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.

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