IndyCar’s open-cockpit conundrum
Historically speaking, it can be said that IndyCar, in all its various names and acronyms through the years, is the oldest continuous open-wheel and open-cockpit racing in the world. To a great extent, the concept of open-wheel and open-cockpit is what defines the genre. In fact, no race other than the Indy 500 can say that they have been been racing the same basic concept of cars for 100 years. That is why it is so surprising that an echo of support for some type of canopy is rolling into the rules makers of the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Political correctness, with all of its attending hypocrisy, is hard at work changing the looks and history of a true American original. The arguments against open-cockpits cannot easily be refuted. The moral high ground has already been staked out. If you support open-cockpits you are against safety, family, and life. Open-cockpit fans are dinosaurs who only come out to see wrecks and death. Open-cockpit fans are ghouls who revel in carnage. What hypocrisy. Everyone is thrilled by the risk. Everyone.
Fans come out to see racing for many reasons, but one reason is a powerful trump to the others. Fans like the thrill. To have thrills, there must be an element of danger, and in IndyCar that element of danger has always been the open-cockpit. And make no mistake, it is dangerous. The chance of intrusion by debris or fencing exists; that is truth. And debris and fencing will always be there. It is part and parcel of the racing that the drivers understand from the first time they sit in a real race car. Racing is dangerous. That danger is part of what draws fans and contestants to the track.
No doubt about it, the danger in racing should be mitigated. The real question is how much. Rear bumpers were a design feature on the current Dallara to keep cars from climbing on one another and getting airborne. The Dallara chassis was updated to help prevent yaw events and keep the cars grounded during side-impact accidents. The new aero kits will have debris fin options in front of the driver. Barriers against intrusion are being added to protect the drivers’ lower bodies. Even though many of the factors of risk have been lessened, the element of risk must still be there, or it is not really racing. No new fans are going to come to the track because someone says, “Let’s go watch IndyCar. It’s really safe!” We fool ourselves if we don’t think danger sells.
Open-cockpits in IndyCar are no less a tradition than 33 on the starting grid at Indy and a bottle of milk for the winner afterwards. They make the series unique and dangerous. And IndyCar needs those qualities as it builds the momentum and the fan base for 2015 and beyond. A canopy on an IndyCar is a regression to a sports car prototype. The series needs to sell what it has, speed and danger. In fact, speed and danger are what IndyCar racing has always had, and the open-cockpit is one of the reasons why. This is one time the fans need to say to IndyCar, “Please don’t change. We love you just the way you are.”
Way back when – when Sprint Cars were killing about a driver a week some imaginative person had the idea to add roll cages. Once they were mandated the carnage dropped preciptously. Cages were mandated over the objections of drivers, promoters and fans. Mario Andretti objected on the grounds that cages would give a sense of security and would encourage false bravery, thus diminishing his “courage” advantage. The smarter guys used the new cages to their advantage and engineered them to stiffen the chassis and eliminate the twist-snap the higher horsepower Chevy V-8s and wider tires caused. The cars got faster, better handling and safer. IndyCar can protect its open cockpit drivers with a similar cage intergated into the tub. The drivers would be protected and still be easily accessible to rescue teams. Proper aero design might actually increase available downforce. The cars are already ugly so appearance would not be an issue. Larger mirrors could be integrated into the cage to offset reduced visibility.
My concern is that at some point–likely not long after the next incident where a driver is killed or severely injured as a result of a cockpit intrusion–it will be the sponsors and insurers that are forcing the issue, regardless of what fans think.
I absolute love F1 and their open cockpits…but they do not race on ovals and the average speeds on road and street courses are much, much slower. If I ever see another Dan Weldon crash it will be way too soon. The argument that the cars are so much safer is probably lost of Dario Francitti or Mike Conway. Safer does not mean safe. I watch many forms of auto racing and Indy is hardly the most exciting. More protection for the drivers will not change that.
It’s easy for us to see the romanticism in the danger of an open cockpit when we’re not the ones who slide down into those cockpits and buckle in.
“Racing is dangerous. That danger is part of what draws fans and contestants to the track.” BING BONG!
A driver won’t tell you that it’s the danger but he’ll use the words ‘thrills’ and ‘rush’ and the fans will say ‘excitement’ so you’re spot on. Gordon Johncock and maybe Todd Gibson would be the only ones around that raced for just the money and no other reason.
I’ve had many supermodified, sprint car and midget racers tell me, “we know the risk, we accept it when we get into the car,” so where is it right for us as fans to spout off about making an open cockpit car not an open cockpit car?
I’m certainly NOT against trying to keep the drivers safe, for some of the reasons the other commenters have listed, as well as for my own selfish reasons of wanting to keep my friends around a little longer, but slapping technical rules and design changes on any form of racing without thoroughly researching, testing and doing cost and marketing analysis has probably done more damage than good over the years.
Thanks for writing another well thought out article and posting it for us to read!