Redistributing the risk
Open-wheel drivers, officials banking on space-age tethers
Posted: Sunday May 30, 1999 12:28 PM
INDIANAPOLIS (CNN/SI) -- On July 26, 1998, Adrian Fernandez crashed in Turn 4 at Michigan Speedway, sending debris into the stands at CART's U.S. 500. Three spectators were killed. Six others were injured.
Less than a year later, on May 1, 1999 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., Stan Wattles' car hit a wall during the IRL's VisionAire 500. A loose wheel was sent flying into the crowd by John Paul Jr.'s trailing car -- even though track safety officials, reacting to the incident at Michigan, had fortified safety fences.
Debris hit spectators from the first seven rows, killing three and injuring eight, including a 9-year old girl who remains in a coma, and the combined specter of these recent incidents looms over the traditional festivities of open-wheel racing's showcase event, Sunday's 83rd Indianapolis 500.
"It's tragic what happened at Charlotte," Paul said. "The whole series is mentally down because of it."
"What happened at Charlotte has been on everybody's minds because you feel so helpless," said Arie Luyendyk, Sunday's pole-sitter and two-time Indy 500 champion. "You just get that empty feeling. What happened there and what happened in Michigan -- everybody is devastated."
Clearly, the greatest risks in open-wheel racing are faced by the drivers, who careen around concrete courses at speeds commonly exceeding 200 miles an hour.
Yet the people who pay for the privilege of being at the track are also at risk. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 10 spectators and bystanders have perished since the track opened in 1909, the most recent coming in 1987, when a tire struck a fan in the 80th row.
Now, with two tragedies involving fans at speedways in the past year, open-wheel drivers, owners and officials know that they have more than a public relations problem, and have looked for ways to insure such tragedies won't happen again.
In fact, the technology in IRL is actually less than it used to be, because IRL has been trying to slow down the cars.
"Everybody's got an idea," said John Menard, owner of Team Menard. "The trouble is to not have an idea that makes things worse. It's probably the biggest issue facing motor sports right now."
Everything has been considered -- from restricting the performance of the cars to altering the high-banked turns on oval tracks. The agreed-upon remedy among open-wheel racing officials, though, has been much simpler: To attach the potentially-lethal wheels to the car bodies.
Formula One started using such wheel tethers at the start of this season. Earlier this month, CART decreed that it would follow suit, beginning with Saturday's Motorola 300. And last Monday, IRL officials announced they would begin requiring the use of a wheel tethering system at this week's event.
"The more we can keep attached to the car, the better off the driver as well as the fan's gonna be," said IRL executive director Leo Mehl.
Since open-wheel cars are designed to disintegrate on impact to minimize the force on a driver strapped inside the cockpit, there are potential dangers even with this latest safety measure. One is that wheel tethers could cause car parts to snap back at drivers in their open cockpits, creating further hazards.
"Some of the drivers are thinking about the wheels getting back to the drivers," said Steve Knapp, the 1998 Indy 500 rookie of the year. "My feeling on that is that we're here as race car drivers. We're taking the risk. And I would much rather have the risk on me then on a fan for sure."
Another risk factor is that the tethers could cause a slingshot effect, whipping wreckage into the stands.
"I don't think any of us can be sure what's gonna happen when you hit [at] 85 Gs," Mehl said. "It's not-- I think it's gonna be much better. I think we're gonna have less suspensions, less wheels running around the middle of the track that can be run into. I think anybody'd be crazy to say that this system's gonna retain every wheel at 210 miles per hour."
Drivers generally agree, though, that the benefits of wheel tethers outweigh the liabilities.
"We don't want anybody to get hurt," Luyendyk said. "If somebody gets hurt, it should be a driver, because the driver gets in the car and knows the risks."
The only protection for fans at track-side are catch fences, which range from 14 to 17 feet high at most CART and IRL speedways. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 20-foot high fence is reinforced with steel cables.
Some have called for the fences to be raised to 25 feet at all tracks. Ironically though, fans seem the least concerned of all.
"Same thing could've happened 10 years ago as it could now," one young fan said. "I don't know why everybody's concerned about it now."
"We were here sitting in Turn 3 and 4 in '87 when the guy got killed by a tire," said an older, unidentified male fan. "You kind of think about it but really ... He was in the top row. There's really nothing they could've done to protect him. Because when the car hit, the tire was so high. And the worst thing was he was talking and the tire hit. So it's kind of like the lottery, personally."
Other than conducting the races inside an enclosed tube, or abandoning high speed oval tracks altogether, there are no sweeping answers. The paradox is that what makes this super-charged sport dangerous to everyone at the track is the very same element that makes it exciting.
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