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IndyCar should have arranged test on an oval before Texas race

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

 

You know, I am one of the most naïve people on the face of the earth. I mean, really.

For years, I – and many others – have been suggesting better protection for the drivers of open-wheel, open-cockpit racing cars. Once upon a time, from midgets to Formula One cars, there was none. The driver sat right out there and if the car happened to roll over, tough luck.

Then, in the early 1960s, roll bars (or roll-over hoops) were added and the number of fatalities declined but the drivers were still largely unprotected. In the late-Sixties and early 1970s, U.S. open-wheel classes went to the cages you see on sprint cars and midgets and that made things even safer but the Indy cars and formula cars didn’t evolve and the drivers suffered. Jeff Krosnoff, Greg Moore and Justin Wilson are just three top racers who died because they didn’t have better cockpit protection.

Formula One finally stepped up and installed what they call the halo device that now sits over all (or most) formula car cockpits. I don’t know why IndyCar didn’t follow immediately but there were suggestions the halo wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Now, IndyCar has its aeroscreen, which is like the F1 halo but has a wraparound windshield.

Saturday night at 8 p.m., on Sportsnet360 and WGR Buffalo (the NBC television station there), IndyCar will get its season going with a race on the high-speed oval at Texas Motor Speedway. This will be the first time the aeroscreen will have been used in competition.

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You would think everything possible would have been done to ensure this safety device would be ready for action. But except for three or four drivers who did some testing last year, none of the other drivers have driven a racing car in anger on a high-speed oval like Texas with the aeroscreen attached.

And some are worried about it. Graham Rahal for instance.

He told the AP that he – and I quote here – is a little leery about opening the IndyCar season at one of the series’ trickiest tracks — without testing, with limited practice time and revised tire rules. He also told the AP that he is also curious how IndyCar’s newest safety feature, the aesroscreen, will perform.

“This is going to be a first for us — the glare, the pitting, does it get beat up on an oval, just the visibility standpoint, the heat, all of these things on an oval,” Rahal said. “We just don’t have any answers for that.”

The AP story said that the clear wraparound screen is anchored to the cockpit with a titanium frame and includes an anti-fogging device. Twenty-seven drivers used it during a test at Circuit of the Americas road course in the spring before COVID-19 threw everybody and everything for a loop. Other than two or three test drivers (Scott Dixon, et al), no one has gone 200 miles an hour on an oval with it.

This is why I call myself naïve. I would have thought that the people who run IndyCar might have tried to rectify this before sending all those talented drivers out there in their millions of dollars of equipment. Such as: a day of practice at Texas before going racing. So that they might feel comfortable, perhaps. Apparently not.

The drivers, including four or five who have never driven an IndyCar on an oval at high speed before, will get to practice for about an hour and a half on Saturday, then qualify, then race. Knowing them all to be the warriors they are, however, I expect they all will be giving it all they’ve got.

The AP report continued: “It’s an incredible innovation from IndyCar,” said Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe of Oakville. “There are a lot of question marks still. We haven’t run it on an oval, we haven’t run it at night, so we’re all going to kind of be learning on the fly.”

Hopefully, they’ll all be fast learners.