Enclosed Cockpits Are Not The Answer
When James Hinchcliffe was hit in the head by flying debris in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on Saturday; it didn’t take long for many on Twitter to start beating the predictable drum for enclosed cockpits in IndyCar. When I offered up an argument against that stance in less than 140 characters, I was shot down and told to stop holding on to something that was extremely unsafe just for tradition’s sake. I chose to bow out of the Twitter argument quickly; mainly because I had a wrap-up post to write and did not have time to carefully craft my words to fit into a Twitter box. Plus, I kept hearing the words of our friend Pressdog ringing in my ear – “Never engage the crazies”.
So now that I have ample time and space to write, I’ll present my argument without being interrupted. If you disagree with me – feel free to say so and why in the comment section.
Tradition was not on my mind when I initially shot down the idea of enclosed cockpits on IndyCars. I was all in favor of the SAFER barrier the first time I heard of it. Same for the HANS device. No, the first thing that came to my mind was fire. If you went through the paddock and asked each driver what his or her greatest fear was – my guess is the majority wouldn’t say hitting the wall at 225 mph. I’m thinking they would probably say fire. It was AJ Foyt’s biggest fear – Jim Hurtubise also. Ironically both had their fears realized early in their respective driving careers.
Hurtubise was so badly burned at Milwaukee in 1964, he was not expected to live. He did, but had to have his hands permanently formed in the shape of a steering wheel so that he could still drive. Jerry Unser and Swede Savage both eventually died from burns they received in accidents at The Speedway. Salt Walther had his life changed dramatically from burns he received at the start of the 1973 Indianapolis 500. If you see Rick Mears, take a look at his nose. That was the result of a fire in the pits during the 1981 race.
If you watch a driver crawl in or out of a cockpit, it’s already a time-consuming process. It’s a very tight squeeze – especially with a HANS device. Then the crew fastens a protective collar around a driver before finally fastening the steering wheel. Getting out of the car under duress is painstaking, at best.
Under ideal circumstances, a cockpit would pop open quickly and the driver would hop right out. The problem with most crashes, they tend to compromise the car and there are few ideal circumstances. It’s hard to imagine a scenario much worse than an ethanol fire with a ruptured fuel cell directly behind the driver, and a plastic or Lexan® canopy that is jammed and won’t open.
Do you remember the crash that Simona de Silvestro had in practice for the 2011 Indianapolis 500? She ended up upside down and on fire. The Holmatro Safety Team had to contort themselves, as well as Simona in order to get her out quickly. As it was, Simona’s hands were so severely burned that she had to qualify wearing gloves to cover her bandaged hands. Imagine the outcome had they been forced to deal with a canopy held shut by the weight of a car.
Then there’s the question of how protective a canopy would be. The Lexan® canopy of an F-16 is supposedly bullet-proof – but it reportedly weighs in at over two-hundred pounds. I don’t think the DW12 with full tanks would like that much extra weight. If you lighten the canopy, is it unbreakable? Will it stay intact if struck by a tire at over 200mph? Yes, it could soften the blow of a tire, but what if it shatters? I’m not sure I would want to deal with a sharp, jagged piece of plastic at that speed.
James Hinchcliffe is very lucky. He probably will not be allowed to qualify his car this weekend. He may not even drive in this year’s Indianapolis 500. Concussions are scary and should not be taken lightly. But he will recover and race again sometime soon. But his injury could have been so much worse. To write it off as a fluke injury would be irresponsible. All reasonable precautions should be taken, but the key word is reasonable. Motorsports are very dangerous. They always will be. If a driver or fan wants to have their safety guaranteed, they need to find another sport. Bad things can and will happen.
When Dan Wheldon lost his life in the season finale at Las Vegas in 2011, some fans were calling for fencing at tracks similar to what is seen in hockey rinks. It’s healthy to at least have reasonable discussions about possible changes for safety. But as you’ll recall – those conversations didn’t last long. Common sense came into play. It became obvious that there was no cost-effective solution involving a Plexiglas-like material that would protect fans and drivers.
It’s the same with enclosed cockpits. While it’s noble to say we should look at possible changes, the unintended consequences of those changes must be taken into account. But to claim that the time has come for IndyCar to implement mandatory canopies is an irresponsible statement. Writing off anyone who disagrees with such a reactionary, knee-jerk statement, as simply holding onto tradition – is also irresponsible. Fortunately, those that actually make these tough calls don’t do their grandstanding on Twitter.