Justin Wilson’s radical idea for oval racing

The MAVTV 500 on Saturday, June 27 was filled with close pack racing at speeds upwards of 200 mph in front of a small crowd.

Gregg Ellman

Oval races, at least in the Verizon IndyCar Series, are a dying breed, and far too many of us – myself included, I’m ashamed to say – lived in denial about this fact for too long. In 2014, when Auto Club Speedway hosted the championship season finale, the crowds were embarrassingly low. Members of the pre-race parachute display team must have been wondering if they’d come to the wrong venue… or the right venue but a day late. Yet Fontana’s spectator figures, apparently at rock bottom last year, found a way to fall another 75 percent this year. We can and have pointed fingers of blame regarding why this year’s MAVTV 500 had less atmosphere than Mars; we can and have debated the quality of the race – a gift to the mindless and mediocre or, alternatively, the perfect example of how magnificent IndyCar racing can be.

But there was a further specter raised by that race, then thrust under the spotlight by last Sunday’s NASCAR Coke Zero 400: the risk of injury to spectators from flying cars/car parts. Obviously in Auto Club Speedway’s recent instance, even if Ryan Briscoe had crashed along the fence in the frightening manner he had at Chicagoland 10 years earlier, it would have taken extraordinary bad luck for debris to strike anyone in the grandstands – similar odds to an airliner evacuating its lavatories 33,000 feet over the Atlantic and sending a frozen blue block through the deck of a trawler. But Austin Dillon’s crash at Daytona last Sunday should leave us all relieved for now yet worried for the future. Whatever the warning on the ticket stubs about racing being dangerous and attendees doing so at their own risk, tracks and race series have to and do take safety measures to protect the fans.

“You think IndyCar altered the aero package in qualifying at Indy because they were worried about driver safety?” muttered one cynical ex-driver a couple weeks ago. “Uh-uh. These cars are pretty strong and safe. The changes were because they couldn’t risk cars in grandstands and huge insurance payouts. IMS is probably the one track that could afford to pay but if something bad happens on race day at one of these smaller venues, that’s them done. And the insurance premiums will shoot up at every oval track. Well if you’re only pulling in 12,000 fans or whatever, what track owner is going to think that’s worth it?”

Obviously the dwindling popularity of the IndyCar Series’ oval events has little or nothing to do with the public’s concerns for self-preservation. Instead, I’d go along with the majority and blame (according to the venue) a lack of support races, a track in the middle of nowhere, a dependency on favorable weather, a lack of effort by the promoter or the public’s lack of appreciation of the difficulty of oval racing.

So what if there was a radical rethink of oval racing – something that improved spectator and driver safety but also increased the challenge for the drivers in a blatantly obvious manner, thus luring back the fans?

Austin Dillon walks away after frightening last-lap crash at Daytona

Justin Wilson, a part-time IndyCar driver for Andretti Autosport this season, may have come up with it. See what you think…

“First of all I’ve got to admit, I’m not sure it’s original,” says Wilson in his typically self-effacing way, “although I don’t think I’ve read it anywhere else. But IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway led the way with the SAFER barriers, which have saved a lot of oval racers, and certainly stopped a lot of minor injuries becoming major ones. Now, I think it’s time to take the next step.  

“Well, maybe I’ve just had too much time on my hands this year, but I’ve been thinking about the oval races a lot. I remember after Las Vegas in 2011, Paul Tracy suggested as an alternative to catch fences, maybe you could have a really thick reinforced version of the Perspex you get around hockey arenas. It was a good idea that would stop this shredding effect that happens whenever an IndyCar or even a NASCAR hits the fence at high speed. Plus you wouldn’t get a component digging into the fence and spinning the car harder. But the downsides are how thick would that plastic glass have to be to withstand a hit from a 3500lb stock car at 190mph or a 1600lb open-wheel car at 230? And how soon before it became so damaged or yellow or pitted from debris that you needed to replace it because fans couldn’t see through it?

“Anyway, I thought about it some more – I still couldn’t get past this idea of finding something to replace catch-fencing around the edge of the track. The velocities are incredible, but at the same time, you can’t slow the cars down. I hate hearing those kind of ideas, because 1) they’d look boring to the fans, 2) they’d be boring for the drivers and 3) they’d be so easy to drive that anyone could drive them so they’d all run together – which increases the chances of an accident. You don’t want to see a NASCAR Cup car having restrictor plates even on its 150mph tracks, and you don’t want to see IndyCars only doing 200 down the straight at somewhere like Pocono.

“So this idea – and I know it will be expensive – is to move the grandstands to the inside of the track. On the outside you’d have giant thick metal sheets on top of the walls where they currently have fencing and these would overlap in the right direction so they were like the plates on a baggage carousel – a car couldn’t get turned by an exposed edge, and it would present a flat surface to whatever part of the car hit it. All the support posts would be the other side of the metal, obviously, and you could group them together as close or far apart as you liked.

“You could leave those high-up suites like at Texas Motor Speedway where they are. But the majority of the spectators would be on the inside, and they’d be so much safer there that I think you could take them as close to the track as the front rows of the grandstands are now, because physics generally takes a spinning and crashing car to the outside edge of the track. That’s why smart rally fans stand on the inside of a corner, at the apex, and the stupid ones stand on the outside where an out-of-control car is going to go about 95 percent of the time.”

If you’re struggling to see the flaws – beside cost – in Wilson’s vision, that’s because there may be only one – sightlines. For a lot of fans, being able to see the whole track, is one of the big attractions of ovals.

The Big Hoss TV sits on the backstretch at Texas Motor Speedway.

“Yes,” agrees Justin, “but I bet a lot of fans would trade that to be so close to the cars that they can see the drivers really working. One of the big problems about ovals is that the general public think we’re just sitting there driving in circles so it’s really easy. If you get down low, look at the cars at regular eye-level, it’s fantastic because you can see all this movement and physics going on. I mean, I’m still impressed with it, and I actually drive these things for a living. So I think fans would like that. If you then put giant HD TV screens like the one in Texas above and behind the metal plates lining the track, then the fans have got the best of both worlds – they can see everything going on around the course, but they can also smell and ‘feel’ the cars really close as they go by.”

Good point. Already if you stand on the inside of Turn 3 at Milwaukee or Turn 1 at Iowa, you can see the drivers wrestling the steering, dealing with bumps, and taking a variety of lines. Whereas if you’re high enough in the current grandstands to see the whole track, you lose that immediacy… and what you’re able to see on the opposite side of the course is no better than seeing it on TV anyway.

There is still the thorny issue of the fact that some accidents do end up toward the center of the track. What then, if that’s where the fans are?

“To be honest, by the time they get there, they’re normally going pretty slow and they’re not up in the air,” observes Wilson, “so catch-fencing is fine. If you look at the two Ryans’ colliding at Fontana, that only became so big because Briscoe’s car actually had room to take off. If where the edge of the grass is at [Auto Club Speedway] had been a big wall – maybe the pit-wall, if we’re going to rearrange the inside of these tracks – with regular catch-fencing on top, the pair of them would have just been grinding along the concrete like in most cases rather than skimming over the grass and I doubt Briscoe would have taken off at all.”

With the public’s exposure to the dangers heavily reduced, IndyCar and NASCAR could start becoming a lot braver with their tech specs, increasing power and reducing downforce to significantly increase the difference between terminal speed on straights and apex speeds, thus increasing the driving challenge for the drivers. Heck, qualifying sessions on ovals – which, let’s face it, are either dull to watch (IndyCar) or crazily gimmick-laden (NASCAR) – could become a treat once more. I’ve often written that races are guaranteed to be entertaining whenever a series’ formula is so good that one car running solo makes a thrilling spectacle. Well, here would be that chance. Just imagine being able to get up close to Scott Dixon as he went down two gears and slid his Dallara through Turn 2 at Texas Motor Speedway, or watching Tony Stewart dirt-tracking his way around a track as fast as Chicagoland in the same way he does at Martinsville or Bristol.

The elephant in the infield, of course, is how the hell would such a radical change be funded?

“Yeah, the investment needed to move and rebuild grandstands would be massive,” agrees Justin, “but those metal plates don’t have to be blank. I think a lot of the reconstruction of these ovals’ facilities could be offset against money from investors and sponsors, as well as NASCAR and IndyCar. Remember how Twin-Ring Motegi used to do it with those ‘walls’ of advertising at Turns 3 and 4? Imagine a FedEx or a Coca-Cola buying up a whole corner’s worth or a whole straight’s worth of advertising on those boards, which could be made taller. In fact, I probably would suggest they were a bit taller. That would look spectacular and would be instantly identifiable.”

British artist Julian Beever (C) works on a pavement drawing in a shopping center in Colombia in 2013.

Certainly sponsors would get way more out of those kinds of visuals than the big logos that look like cowboys’ belt buckles painted on grass alongside the front straights. In fact, some of the brainiacs in a company’s marketing division could probably create some really smart visuals on these giant advertising hoardings, or even optical illusions that would attract all the TV and photo cameras. In fact, if one wanted to take a nod at how the tracks once were, you could even use these vast blank ‘canvases’ to paint 3-D grandstands, fully occupied… For the kind of folks able to do spectacular sidewalk art, that would be easy.

Traditionalists would balk of course – and I must say, so do I when I think of something so drastic happening at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But what ‘traditional’ vision are we trying to cling onto? Probably, selfishly, the vision of IMS as we as individuals first recall seeing it. Or do we really want it paved in bricks once more?

“Hmmm…yeah, I’d hate to change Indy,” sighs Wilson. "I hadn’t even thought of it till you asked. Maybe this idea is only for the 0.9-2-mile ovals. Indy is unique, and to be honest, the infield at Indy couldn’t cope with the Indy 500 crowd, even if you moved the Pagoda and media center and other things to the outside of the track.

“Look, I’m not saying I have all the answers for all the tracks or all the circumstances. But I do think something properly radical has to be done if we want to keep ovals on the IndyCar schedule, and I think NASCAR has to be thinking about it, too: Austin Dillon’s accident happened on a straight and I think the series as well as the fans got very lucky that night.

“For the last however many years, the changes being made for safety reasons have just been tweaks and adjustments, usually to the cars, usually to protect the drivers and usually interfering with the racing. Well, I think we need to stop reducing the velocities involved – we want to go faster, not slower! – and instead we’ve got to and contain the effect of those velocities when things go wrong, and do a better job of protecting the people who have paid quite a lot of money to come and see us.

"This idea about metal plates instead of fences and posts will also reduce the risk of severe injury to the drivers, but I hope those fans who say racers aren’t brave enough anymore can also understand that a radical change like moving the fans out of the firing line, reducing their risk, will allow series to get braver with their rules. We can make the cars faster and therefore increase the challenge for the drivers. I think if you see a pack of IndyCars screaming down a straight at 250mph and drifting through a corner at 190, that could be entertaining enough to start bringing the crowds back… but to the center of the circuit, of course…”

Sounds good to me. Sounds expensive too, as Wilson admits, but surely a significant preventive measure is far better – in financial and humanitarian terms – than the need to make a significant compensation payment.

“That’s the thing,” says Wilson. “American racing’s roots are ovals and it’s up to the track owners and NASCAR and IndyCar to preserve that heritage and keep it economically viable. Well you’re only going to do that if the crowd is safely able to watch a real spectacle that keeps drawing them back each year. And to do that, I think we’ve got to do something different from what we’ve been doing – radically different – and I think we’ve got to do it in a way that benefits everyone, ultimately.”

Article originally on RACER.com.