The Perils Of Canopies On Indy Cars

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As this discussion continues to evolve, it may become a polarizing issue among IndyCar fans – that is the topic of one day having canopies covering the driver’s cockpit. It was even discussed at length on Trackside last night. Traditionally, the driver’s cockpit on any car that has run in the Indianapolis 500 has always been open and uncovered. The one exception that I can think of, was the Sumar Special in 1955, driven by Jimmy Daywalt.

1955 Sumar Spcl

That particular car was built to be a streamliner. It was originally a Kurtis-Offenhauser 500D. with body panels (aero-kits?) hung like fenders for streamlined aerodynamics, complete with a bubble canopy. Daywalt originally found himself very uncomfortable in the car. The first thing to go was the canopy, because it made him feel claustrophobic. Soon thereafter, he had the fenders stripped off because he felt uncomfortable not seeing his front wheels along the inside line of the track. Curiously enough, the more of the aerodynamic bodywork they stripped off the car, the faster it went.

No-fenders

Daywalt qualified the car in its less-attractive stripped down version. He started seventeenth and finished ninth in a race marred by the death of Bill Vukovich, but I digress.

Even before Dan Wheldon suffered fatal injuries at Las Vegas, there was a clamoring by some to place canopies on Indy cars. But after Wheldon’s crash, support for enclosed cockpits grew immensely. If you’ll recall, Wheldon’s car was turned sideways and he struck an exposed support post for the fence with the top of his head. Some propose that canopies should be instituted immediately, while others are bitterly opposed to their existence at all. I fall somewhere in between, but lean toward the latter.

Some will accuse me of opposing canopies for the sheer reason that I oppose any change from tradition. Let’s get one thing clear – I am all for tradition, but I am even more for driver’s safety. But I am also a realist. There are many factors that concern me about enclosed canopies that need to be examined very closely.

The first thought to run through my head is the possibility of fire with an enclosed cockpit in a damaged car. Can a driver’s escape be reasonably certain? At this stage of the game, probably not. We all remember the sight of Simona de Silvestro sitting helplessly in her burning car at Texas in 2010. How much more would a canopy have hindered the process? How about the following year, when Simona was upside-down during practice at Indianapolis – again with her car on fire. As it was, she had to unbuckle and crawl out from underneath her car. How would that happen with a canopy? These are not hypothetical situations – they are real.

But many hypothetical situations need to be examined, as well. What if a driver is knocked unconscious, while trapped within a burning car? Seconds matter. Would such a canopy then become a hindrance? That’s a strong possibility. What about the canopy shattering? What impact will that have on a driver?

Here is my disclaimer – I am not any type of engineer and don’t pretend to be one. However, I’m very lucky to have a close friend who was an engineer in the development of the F-16 in the late seventies. He was actually on the cockpit design team that tested and developed the canopy for the jet-fighter. He allowed me to pick his brain and he shared quite a bit with me on this topic. It also helps that he follows the Verizon IndyCar Series to some extent.

He has seen the frame-by-frame video of the Wheldon crash. According to him, a similar style canopy to that of an F-16 probably would have made no difference in Dan Wheldon’s fate, in that particular accident. He went on to explain why, while answering some of my questions.

The canopy on an F-16 is three-quarters of an inch and made of LEXAN®, the trade name for polycarbonate – the same material that most agree would be the most suitable for an Indy car canopy. My friend says that their research started out with five-eighths of an inch in thickness. They found that hitting a bird at 350 knots did not shatter the canopy. However, the canopy material deformed and caused the canopy to come into the pilot’s head with such a force that the pilot would not live – even with a crash helmet. Increasing the thickness to three-quarters of an inch, caused the canopy to deform, but barely missed the pilot’s head.

The downside to that was that the additional thickness added almost two-hundred pounds to the weight of the canopy. He estimates that at the slower speeds and a smaller canopy that an Indy car may be able to get by with half an inch of polycarbonate. Then again – the thinner canopy that would withstand hitting a bird at 230 mph, doesn’t mean that it would withstand hitting a tire.

But the fact that polycarbonate is pliable and does not shatter, means that the blow that Dan Wheldon suffered from the post may have been cushioned. But it still would have been an non-survivable impact, in his opinion.

My engineering friend then added this – polycarbonate is not flameproof. It will burn, but before it burns it tends to melt at 300° F. Plus, it is very heavy. By his estimate, a canopy appropriate for an Indy car would weigh well over fifty pounds. That may not sound like much, but when you are already in an awkward position and in panic mode – lifting such an apparatus by yourself is a tall order. Just imagine watching a driver trapped in a burning car, unable to get the 50-lb canopy open, and then the canopy begins to melt, dropping sticky flaming globs of molten plastic onto the driver.

He also went on to say that polycarbonate isn’t cheap – in fact it’s tremendously expensive, although he had no way of knowing the price in today’s market. But he estimated it would be a significant percentage of the total cost of the car. It sounds nice to say that cost should be no issue when it comes to driver’s safety, but in an era when teams are looking to cut costs, adding that much to the price of a chassis is not something that anyone is looking to do. It may drive more of the marginal teams to the sidelines.

Along with the actual cost of the materials, who is going to fund the research and development for such a project? When IMS led the way in the development of the SAFER barrier, it was something that could benefit all forms of racing. Other than IndyCar and Formula One, I’m not sure many other forms of racing could benefit from the time, effort and expense that it will take to bring a canopy from the drawing board to the race track.

My engineering friend also brought up the issue of heat inside the enclosed cockpit. Yes the engine is behind the driver, but there is quite a bit of heat coming from the radiators inside the sidepods. Combine that with the greenhouse effect from a bubble cockpit and you’ve got a very uncomfortable seat. How much will this effect a driver?

I’ve heard one driver say they are very concerned about lack of visibility. We’ve seen recently how restricted the view is from a sprint car. Do we really want to restrict the visibility of an IndyCar driver?

So let’s add it all up. There is a definite risk of a driver burning to death in a car inside a damaged cockpit or canopy. The material of choice for canopies does not shatter, but deforms to the point that it can strike the driver in the head with a lethal force. That material can also melt and eventually burn, creating further danger for the driver. It can create an extremely hot environment for the driver inside the cockpit and all of this can cost a fortune.

Each of these are substantial reasons to not enclose cockpits, without even touching on the tradition that Indy cars are supposed to be open-wheel and open-cockpit. That’s all for what might or might not happen. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years – there are no sure things when it comes to safety in auto racing. Last night, Curt Cavin mentioned the unintended consequences of canopies. That has to be taken into account when making such a decision.

Rest assured, the traditionalist in me wants to see IndyCar keep their cockpits uncovered. But if someone could show me that the technology is there to all but guarantee a driver’s safety in a crash, and that none of my concerns are real – I would be all for it. I don’t remember when drivers didn’t wear fire suits, but it wasn’t mandatory until after I was born. That was a no-brainer. I also remember the first closed-face helmet at Indianapolis. It was Dan Gurney in 1970 (I think). It was strange looking, but it didn’t take long to get used to it. I don’t care for the look, but I have almost gotten used to enclosed rear-wheels on open-wheel cars – a la the DW12. The point is, I may not care for the look – but if it is proven that it’ll save lives, then I’ll easily get used to it.

But proving it may take a while. Everything I’ve heard – including the opinion of my engineering friend – says that even if they come up with a design that works, it should not be incorporated on this current Dallara. The added weight and higher center of gravity would be too tough to deal with. If they are going to do something, it should be included with the design of the next generation car.

But when making this decision – even if they are able to come up with a suitable design – my hope is that the decision-makers will seriously listen to input from the drivers. They are the ones that have to deal with the dangers of getting out of a burning car, feelings of claustrophobia, the added heat and limited visibility. As much as I’m in favor of listening to the fans, this is a decision that should be decided by the drivers. They are the only ones that will ultimately deal with the consequences.

George Phillips

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18 Responses to “The Perils Of Canopies On Indy Cars”

  1. brianmckayfsu Says:

    Thanks for blogging, George. Enlightening.

  2. use them if they work.

  3. I’m going to guess canopy design has advanced since the 70’s and more advanced materials are used today which are stronger and lighter than Lexan.

    Have you seen the video the FIA put together of launching a tire into canopies for F1? The video is not that old

  4. Video here:
    Formula 1 Jet Canopy Test: http://youtu.be/e87HIlOIYFA

  5. Jack In Virginia Says:

    Good post, George.

    Since the rollbar that was supposed to protect the driver’s head on Weldon’s car was sheared off by the impact with the post, I’m not sure how a canopy would have helped. I think the negatives far outweigh any positive that adding a canopy would have.

  6. Safety issues related to racing have never evolved based on what fans think, nor should they, so I am not going to vote on this. Tradition has never prevented safety improvements.

    The main safety issue for most fans is making sure there is a clear path to the refrigerator during a yellow.

    Well done George.

  7. James T Suel Says:

    I do not want canopes on Indy cars or anyother open wheel race car.If we remove all risk then racing will die a faster death than it is now.open wheel ,open cockpit race cars are the highest form of our sport .go. race stock cars or sports cars if you want to be covered. Yes I am and old traditionlist . But thats about all thats left of the fan base.

  8. There is a really long discussion thread on having supermodified-style rollcages atop of IndyCar cockpits instead of canopies on this forum http://www.trackforum.com/forums/showthread.php/187982-IndyCar-NEEDS-supermodified-style-rollcages! My guess is most people on this blog may have seen the discussion back when it began.

    Your post, George, makes me wonder what your friend from the aero industry might think of this.

    If you ask me, these rollcages have a better chance of protecting a driver from an airborne tyre but it remains questionable if they have anything against a fence post.
    And how fast do the drivers of those supermodified racecars escape out of their cars after having flipped and landed on top?

    I’m glad your friend has pointed out in great detail that polycarbonate roofs on racing cars powered by combustion engines are not a good idea.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    While racing safety measures have too often been reactive rather than proactive, one of the things I do tend to trust Indycar management with these days is the implementation of safety features.

    Since we are pretty sure that canopies are being studied by the powers that be, I expect we will see them added to the 2018 car if they prove both safety-effective and cost-effective. Would I bet on canopies meeting both of those criteria within this decade? Probably not, but in this day and age, Indycar is not going to ignore safety features that can be proven and make obvious sense.

  10. Here’s a thought to mull over. Most, if not all, of the tradition-minded IndyCar fans think canopies are heresy based purely on aesthetics, and say that if you put canopies on the car the sport will die. I, on the other hand, printed out photos of the current IndyCar and one of the closed-cockpit open-wheel concept designs and showed them around to people who are not race fans.

    Want to guess which car made people say, “Wow, COOL!” the most?

    Aesthetics aside, I dislike two things about this current debate. First, that people against canopies always bring up Dan Wheldon, as if that’s the ONLY reason why canopies are in discussion. Why not bring up Ayrton Senna? A canopy almost certainly would have saved his life. But beyond that, canopies are important because of how the cars are constructed; razor-sharp shards of carbon fiber, suspension pieces, etc. flying around at speed in wrecks can do terrible damage to the human body. If the cars are eventually going to go 240mph+ at Indianapolis, these are considerations.

    The second is that it seems as though those against canopies feel as if engineers are not bright enough to plan for or solve issues that might be seen as drawbacks. Given that the next car is due in 2018, that gives us at least three years to do an integrated, sensible design with plenty of safeguards. Give the bright minds in the sport credit for being able to do this.

    But this is a good debate so long as it’s civil. And while I may not agree with George I always know he keeps it civil, which is why I keep reading his blogs. Thanks, George.

  11. I am in the camp that can’t see the canopy being that practical. I do see a canopy preventing the debris hitting Hench at the GP of Indy, however, maybe new technology in helmet design can be better. I do know that Ganassi and Bill Simpson together created a new football helmet that increases a players their protection against head injuries. Maybe that is where Open Wheel should look to.

    “A kid comes up to me in a white jacket, gives me a Ritz cracker and chopped liver, he says ‘Canapes,’ I say, ‘Can o’ peas my ass:! That’s a Ritz cracker and chopped liver.'”

  12. Racing is dangerous. Period. You can’t make it completely safe. In fact, you can’t really make anything completely safe.

    There has to be a balance between safety and cost/benefit. Nothing available today would have saved Dan Wheldon that is in any way practicable.

    To me, a canopy is as bad an idea as enclosed rear-wheels on open-wheel cars.

  13. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    If they can make safety cells with quick-release via driver operation for F1 hydroplane (400hp V6, 860 lbs, 160+mph, 5G-turning racers) surely Indycar can as well. I think the solution is 80% there already with the existing safety cell.

    I believe you’ll find cockpit intrusions/tub failures far more prevalent in the last 5 years than fires. Egress would obviously be the biggest perceived issue to overcome, but I doubt the difficulty given solutions that already exist in several other forms, both militarily and in sport.

  14. Could not write it better…this is a knee-jerk reaction! The canopy could be more of a problem than a solutions plus IndyCars are open cockpit and open wheels.

  15. Chris Lukens Says:

    Great Post, George !!

    It seems to me that the whole canopy ( and wheels inside the bodywork ) thing is mostly promoted by the road racers trying to turn Indy Cars into sports cars.

  16. As a history buff, the open cockpit combined with the high speeds which defy death remind me of WWI fighter pilots. I think of Eddie Rickenbacker, Max Immelmann, and Manfred von Richthofen every time I see a IndyCar or Formula One car on track. They were the bravest of the brave, which is how I analogize single seat racecars. Adding a canopy kills my romanticism of the sport which is all I need to say no to a canopy. The sport just wouldn’t be cool anymore.

  17. Perhaps a combination of retro-fitting may resolve the “accident” impact situation.

    Deformable (to some extent) poles which are currently rigid.

    As opposed to rigid wire fencing – Netting of a sort ( same principle) as used to catch disabled fighter jets landing on aircraft carriers.

    Continued helmet research.

    (Pop-up) roll cage which would be driver activated prior to or during an accident. On the principle of a fighter jet’s detacheable canopy when a pilot ejects…….. facetious but a realistic possibility.

    Alternatively, roll cage activated/deployed automatically (if driver is unconcsious) when onboard sensors detect race car is rolling over…….. similar to air bag deployment.

    Impossible?

    INDY Race cars are automatically lifted off the pavement for servicing the car by internal mechanisms (which would have been untinkable 40 years ago.

    Other alternatives …………………………… ?

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