IndyCar confronts safety as Wilson fights for life
With Justin Wilson fighting for his life in a Pennsylvania hospital, IndyCar faces yet another crisis as the series prepares to crown its champion.
Wilson remained in a coma and in critical condition Monday with a head injury. The 37-year-old father of two was struck by a large piece of debris from another driver's car following a single-car accident Sunday at Pocono Raceway.
A heavy piece of the nose from Sage Karam's car appeared to strike the British driver in the head before the debris ricocheted high into the air. Wilson did not appear to have control of his car as it veered left and directly into an interior wall.
The series heads to Sonoma, California, on Wednesday to begin preparing for the finale, in which six drivers remain eligible to win the title Sunday.
IndyCar has had its share of safety issues since the season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida, where debris from a car sailed over the grandstands and struck a fan in the concession area. The woman hit said in a lawsuit filed against IndyCar her skull was fractured. She contends she fell backward and hit her head after she was struck by debris.
IndyCar made a series of rule changes to fortify the many parts and pieces on its new aerodynamic body kits, but the nose that flew off of Karam's car is not a tethered part. The series was also forced into action during the buildup to the Indianapolis 500 after three cars went airborne during practices.
"Motor racing is never going to be 100 percent safe. If it was, there would be nobody in the grandstands," Mario Andretti told The Associated Press on Monday. "But we've come a very, very far way in terms of safety. Now this will be looked at it and addressed appropriately."
Andretti called this "a perfect storm, and the thing that every driver fears: getting caught up in somebody else's mistake."
Wilson was the 12th car to pass through Karam's crash scene. As he approached, the nose section appeared to bounce several times along the track. It came down in the open cockpit of Wilson's car, then shot straight back into the air.
The accident reignited the debate about the safety concerns of an open cockpit, which is hardly a new issue. A year ago, IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe was left with a concussion when he was hit in the head by debris. Formula One driver Jules Bianchi sustained a massive head injury in a crash last October and spent nine months in a coma before he died last month.
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed instantly when his head hit a pole in a fence during a 2011 wreck in which his car went airborne. Formula One driver Felipe Massa was hit in the helmet by a spring from another car in 2009, but returned to racing the next season.
Each time something like this happens conversation renews about ways to protect drivers. Wilson figured prominently in the talks as part of a three-driver council in IndyCar created to address safety concerns following Wheldon's death.
"We have open cockpits, we are exposed to what happened to Justin every single day we are in the car," Tony Kanaan, who leads the IndyCar driver council, told the Associated Press on Monday. "Until the entire world — FIA, IndyCar, Formula One — until they come together and find something to help that, this is the danger we face. It's the unfortunate risk of our product."
The most common suggestion to protect the drivers is the creation of a canopy over the cockpit similar to the one used in fighter jets. But the potential of using plastic covers on open-wheel cars is a polarizing topic.
Purists don't want to see such a radical change to the car, while others aren't sure that canopies would be a cure-all. Questions have been raised that canopies might hamper visibility and become a barrier to a quick escape from the car.
"We don't know, a canopy could create an entirely different mess that no one has predicted," Andretti said.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, winner of Sunday's race and a teammate this year with Wilson, believes the canopies should at least be explored.
"These cars are inherently dangerous with the open cockpit like that, head exposed," he said. "We've seen some concept renderings of something that resembles a canopy — not a full jet fighter canopy — but something that can give us a little protection but keep the tradition of the sport.
"There's been some renderings of almost like a boomerang-looking device in front of the driver that wouldn't block the vision but would deflect something like this."
The current Indy car debuted after Wheldon's death and was named the DW-12 in honor of all the development work he did during Dallara's design and rollout. The car has been lauded as safer than previous models, but the introduction of the aero kits this year brought new challenges.
It's never been revealed if the investigation into the airborne accidents at Indianapolis were because of a flaw in the aerokit designs. But changes were ordered both before the Indy 500 and again before IndyCar's race at Texas.
A day before Wilson's wreck, Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched on television as Charlie Kimball walked away with just a cut chin following an airborne crash. NASCAR's most popular driver intimated in a tweet that he'd never drive an Indy car, a sentiment shared by six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson has long desired to race the Indianapolis 500, but sticks to a promise made to his wife that he would not compete in cars with an open cockpit.
Hunter-Reay, father to two young boys, understands that IndyCar isn't for the faint of heart and even he gets rattled sometimes.
"I'm not going to act like I have no fear, no problem, I just put it all aside," he said. "The Indy car is much more dangerous than NASCAR, and I think that's something that is more on our minds than it is in NASCAR or sports car racing.
"There's fathers out there. There's husbands. There's brothers, sisters. It's something that absolutely we think about and we hope for the best with it."