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Sports Business

Fatal IndyCar crash creates difficult decisions for Hulman CEO

August 26, 2015
KEYWORDS Sports Business

It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction in the wake of a tragedy like the Aug. 23 accident at Pocono that killed IndyCar Series driver Justin Wilson.

It’s natural to contemplate change in the aftermath of such a horrible accident.

The fact that Wilson was such a universally liked person among IndyCar insiders, including the media members that cover the sport, make it more so.

But is it right to make those changes? Is it smart to jerk the knee without first giving it some serious thought?

Should IndyCars absolutely, positively have covered cockpits like George Jetson’s hovercraft? Would that have saved Wilson from the piece of flying nosecone that struck him in the head, put him in a coma, and ultimately led to his death on Monday?

One thing is certain. Racing open-wheel, open-cockpit cars is no more—or less dangerous—than it was a week or a month ago. And no one was screaming for closed cockpit IndyCars then.

Racing an open-cockpit IndyCar is certainly no more dangerous than racing motorcycles, and I don’t hear anyone screaming for an end to that. Truth be told, racing an IndyCar is probably a lot safer than riding a motorcycle on an Indiana interstate without a helmet. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Closing the cockpits on IndyCars should be considered—carefully. Fastening parts to race cars more securely also should be considered—carefully. And so should about a thousand other factors that go into racing cars at 200 miles an hour.

No one is arguing that racing cars of any type shouldn’t be made as safe as possible. No one is trying to downplay the significance of an event that took a driver’s life.

But if Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles is thinking about enclosing the cockpit or even putting a canopy over it, he might as well start seriously consider putting fenders around the wheels. After that, you might as well consider scrapping IndyCar racing all together and race sports cars at the Indianapolis 500.

I’m not an authority on racing safety. But central Indiana resident Bill Simpson is. In my—and a lot of other people’s—estimation, he’s the foremost authority on the subject. Scads of safety equipment used at all levels of motorsports nationwide can be traced to Simpson or one of the companies he founded.

Here’s what Simpson had to say about enclosing the cockpit on IndyCars.

“Do that and they won’t be IndyCars,” Simpson told IBJ on Tuesday.

“Automobile racing is dangerous,” he added. “Otherwise you wouldn’t put all the safety stuff on before you get in the car: the helmet, the head and neck restraint, the fire suit and all that other stuff.

“It ain’t never going to be safe. I don’t know why when something like this happens … everyone always has to go off and have this knee-jerk reaction.”

The accident that killed Wilson was “one in a million,” Simpson said. That’s not exactly true. At least three IndyCar Series drivers have been hit in the head by flying debris in the last year.

James Hinchcliffe suffered a concussion in May 2014 when debris from an accident struck his helmet during the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The injury caused Hinchcliffe to miss several days of practice. During the same race, debris grazed Takuma Sato’s helmet and punched a hole in his headrest.

Miles has a difficult task ahead of him. Despite modest growth in television ratings this year, the IndyCar Series has some big problems. Two team owners recently told IBJ that three-fourths of all IndyCar teams are in serious financial trouble. One of the series’ biggest teams, Andretti Autosport—as was made clear in a recent lawsuit—is one of those teams in financial difficulty.

Sponsors are still too few, and the fan following of the sport isn’t exactly growing at Indy 500 speeds.

IndyCar can’t afford to lose any more fans, which is exactly what will happen if the cockpit is enclosed, Simpson said.

“IndyCar has enough problems,” Simpson said. “Put a canopy over it like it’s a jet plane and see how the fans would like it. I can tell you, they won’t like it. They need to sit back and look at it before they go off half-cocked.”

It’s a heck of a thing to weigh a man’s safety—even his very life—against the merits of tradition, entertainment value of a sport and the profitability of a company.

This week, that’s exactly where Miles finds himself. The very future of the IndyCar Series—and its drivers—hinge on his decision.

I don’t envy him.

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