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.

George Phillips


16 Responses to “Enclosed Cockpits Are Not The Answer”

  1. They’re not the answer … today. BUT I wouldn’t dismiss the idea entirely so as to discourage further research. A lot of things that could “never work” are working just fine today, thanks to the continued efforts of the science brains. I think most people who are in favor of canopies are really in favor of the smart people developing a canopy system that overcomes the barriers you mention. Sadly, that will require research, and not many people are into doing research for free, so that requires investment (as did development of the SAFER etc.) There was a lot of call for research into better fencing post-Las Vegas, but that seems to have faded, in part because nobody wants to pony up to fund said research.

  2. If an Indycar could be made safer, while not becoming prohibitively expensive or severely effecting performance, I’d say tradition has to take a back seat to safety. If it truly makes the drivers safer, is realistically possible and economically feasible, then add canopies or fenders or whatever needs to be done. But racing will never be completely safe, it is inherently dangerous and always will be.

  3. I hear and understand the concerns with fire in the cockpit, but I also see numerous other racing series with drivers fully enclosed, either by cockpit (NHRA) or within a standard type vehicle with doors/quasi-doors (sports car series, V8 Supercars, etc., etc.), or NASCAR, with a tiny window to crawl out. Have the cockpits added to NHRA cars affected the performance (real or perceived)? Personally, I think they look at 67-times more badass with the enclosed cockpit.

  4. Chronicle Says:

    Fire is nothing to sneeze at, for sure. But here’s what you’re not mentioning, George… the “crazies” on Twitter are not saying to slap a canopy on the cars RIGHT NOW (well I can’t vouch for the goobers on Trackforum)… they’re saying cockpit canopies should be researched and developed for eventual mandatory use like the SAFER and Hans device and things like that.

    The sad fact is that nearly every racing safety measure was made mandatory with a maximum of handwringing and whining from competitors and it only took a true tragedy to create the seismic shift necessary for them to happen. From seat belts to roll cages to nomex fire suits to closed helmets, all of them were seen as potentially hazardous compared to “the way things had always been done.” The only exception to this is if the safety measure was seen as some sort of competitive advantage, in which case they were adopted faster than you can say “Robin Miller loves Graham Rahal.”

    Canopies can be implemented so that fire and driver egress risks are accounted for and minimized. But I suspect that underneath those concerns is the simple feeling that hard core fans just don’t want the cars to change. Just like they didn’t want the cars to go rear-engined in the 60’s. But those people shouldn’t be listened to because within a decade of a significant change the people who make the loudest noise against it will no longer be the target audience and will be marginalized…. that is just the way things go.

    So whehter you grandstand on Twitter or on a blog it’s still just grandstanding. What matters is that at two hundred thirty miles an hour debris in the cockpit will result in serious injury at best and fatality at worst…. so Indycar is going to have to get with the times at some point soon.

  5. We already lost one set of open wheels. Now people want to put a roof on the car? Go race or watch the WEC.

  6. I do find it interesting that the comments are leaning toward cockpits. Yet no one addresses by far the biggest risk out there today. When the 500 runs in a little over a week, there will be a significant number of drivers who participate that will have precious little experience on ovals. We have had one driver who really understood this and now only drives on road courses. One could argue that this was the primary cause of that horrible wreck in Las Vegas. I also suspect its the reason ovals are declining. Not because of the “danger” , as we have seen in the last year just how dangerous road courses can be. But because of the reliance on drivers without an oval racing background. I wish that Indy still had minimum experience requirements for drivers. Imagine how that would bring interest to the feeder series as new drivers got up to speed where they were weaker, either on ovals or road courses. A win-win situation.

    Look at the history of racing and try to determine if a cockpit of the kind they would make for an indy car would have made much difference over time. I suspect very little. The sport is what it is. Make safety changes where it makes sense, but not if it changes the sport. Drivers know the risks, just as we do when we take a plane or drive a car. You can’t make racing danger free. Unless its a video game.

    • I’ve asked you this in blog comments before, Bob F., but I’m not sure you’ve ever answered me, so I guess I’ll ask again: is there anybody specific you’d like to call out here? Minus Huertas and Aleshin (both of whom have never started an oval race before, to be sure), every driver I see on the entry list has either A) years of experience in IndyCar, along with 10+ IndyCar oval starts, B) one or more previous Indy 500 start, C) at least one year of experience in Indy Lights (which would include at least 5-6 ovals, and also a start at Indy), or D) some combination of the above. I remember you blaming “drivers with no oval experience” being what was responsible for Dan Wheldon’s death, but all of the drivers in the field at Las Vegas fit the above description as well (the two drivers who touched off the wreck, James Hinchcliffe and Wade Cunningham had, respectively, 12 and 36 Indy Lights oval starts; this also ignores the fact that the well experienced Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan almost touched off a similar wreck 3-4 laps before the fateful Lap 11 wreck). I just don’t see how you can definitively say that the drivers would be safer with a field full of Clausons, Jonses, Hineses, Blisses and Larsons (most making what I would assume be their first starts in a rear-engined car, so they would have their own issues going on as well) than they would in the current field full of people with tons of open wheeled, rear engined experience. You may or may not be right, but that is complete speculation.

  7. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    I would like to see the possibilities examined, tried, fixed, tried again, and made optional to the teams in the near future with the possibility of making them mandatory if proven successful. I see three primary benefits that could come from it.

    1. Protection from intrusion into the cockpit.
    2. More optimal aerodynamics.
    3. Protection from fire.

    I think a reasonable argument could be made for an enclosed cockpit actually protecting more drivers from fire. Recent accounts of fires show the drivers attempting to protect themselves from fire from the outside, not inside of the cockpit. Mears, Meira, and Kanaan, and many other recent pit fires, for example, were the result of fueling spills which ignited from outside the cockpit.

    The negatives of weight (I would hard-pressed to believe a solution for the DW12 would weight 200 lbs, but let’s assume it does) I think performance changes would be overcome rather easily as the DW12 was rear-heavy initially, and the balance of the cars might be better, less resistant aero, and increased revs/HP (50-100HP) would offset the decreases of the changes.

    I’m certainly not here to ignite a conflagration of arguments, but I personally think we all need to have open minds, without prejudice to an outcome, when examining possible changes in the interest of safety.

  8. IndyCar racing is dangerous and all the competitors know it and compete anyway, because they want to.
    It is also the safest form of auto racing. Drivers are safer in IndyCars than they were in their mother’s wombs.
    As technology, time, and other factors have evolved, race cars of all kinds have changed, some more than others.
    IndyCars are open wheeled, open cockpit cars.
    The first Indianapolis 500 was actually, with one exception, was a modified stock car race.
    Stock cars will be able to run on the oval at IMS for years after anything resembling today’s IndyCars, because stock cars are slower.
    I have believed for years that there is a speed limit at the Speedway, and any other closed oval course.
    Nothing is forever and that includes IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500.
    We should enjoy it for what it is, continue to offer our thoughts and suggestions, because that is how most of us participate, and remember that there is more to life than any one particular pursuit or interest.

  9. Mark, I too believe that there is a speed limit at IMS and they are teetering on it 230. As for the closed cockpit, well open wheel and open cockpits are how the game is played. As a matter of fact, AJ Foyt said something like “you are in front of God and everybody when you are in those cars,” so I don’t think you’d find him in a closed cockpit at the Indianapolis 500.

  10. I’m in favor of adopting canopies as soon as the technology is ready, i.e. after a bunch more research and proving out. I’m personally not hung up on IndyCars remaining open cockpit. Times change. So do cars.

  11. Savage Henry Says:

    I agree with the majority of the points that you make, George, especially the point about Simona’s crash. Additionally, I don’t look forward to the day when the Indy 500 is run with closed-cockpit cars. However, I am aware that the vast majority of open-wheel fatalities in the last 20 years (Senna, Krosnoff, Renna, Henri Surtees, and Wheldon come to mind) have been the result of an impact to the head. Many others (including, off the top of my head, Massa, Hinchcliffe, Franchitti, and Conway) should consider themselves lucky to have escaped with their lives. It is the driver’s biggest vulnerability in the car.

    As such, I think that funding should be made available for research on improving protection of the driver’s head. If a practical solution can be found, it should be implemented. Why not focus on reducing the biggest risk? Maybe there’s a creative solution that doesn’t involve fully enclosing the cockpit.

  12. Ron Ford Says:

    I am one of those about to be “marginalized” as Chronicle suggests. Cars that drive themselves are now a reality. The ultimate solution.

  13. James T Suel [ J.T.] Says:

    Its open wheel, open cockpit racing cars!! They are the highest form of auto racing! Make them as safe as possible ,but leave the wheels and cockpit open. otherwise its sports car racing!! If you fear don’t go near it.

  14. Travis Oliver Says:

    You make an exceptional point. The canopy could jam. Just as much as a window net in a stock car’s opening mechanism could jam. That’s why NASCAR car’s carry enough extinguisher to allow a driver enough time to get out if something goes wrong. The problem though, is that the D12 would need a re-design to offer enough space for this.

    It is a far off solution.

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