IndyCar must change approach to ovals

BY foxsports • October 18, 2011

Adrian Fernandez, who quit open-wheel racing in 2004 when the Indy Racing League was all ovals because he felt it was “too dangerous” on the 1-1/2-mile tracks, was sitting on the pit wall Sunday afternoon while we waited on the inevitable news about Dan Wheldon.

“I have never seen drivers so on edge as they were this morning,” said Fernandez, who won oval races in CART and IRL during his 12-year career. “And I mean all of them I talked to were really concerned about the speeds and running three abreast.”

Unfortunately, their fears were well-founded. Wheldon died as a result of injuries sustained in a 15-car pileup on Lap 12 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

As tragic and shocking as it was to lose to the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, it really didn’t surprise a lot of us who have cringed for the past 15 years watching the madness of pack racing an Indy car at more than 210 mph.

The longtime IRL mantra of low horsepower and high downforce on banked tracks built for NASCAR was always a recipe for disaster because it forced the drivers to run wide open every lap or else lose 10 spots or get run over.

In the process, wheels were interlocked and tires rubbed and it was a ticking time bomb.

Kenny Brack was badly battered at Texas in 2003, Ryan Briscoe suffered serious injuries in a nasty 2004 accident at Chicagoland, and Dario Franchitti walked away from a frightening flip at Michigan in 2007.

I wrote a commentary after Brack’s wreck referring to this madness as Death Race 2000. Incredibly, the countless crashes on these tracks never resulted in a death.

Until Sunday afternoon.

“It’s not racing; it’s insanity,” said one veteran after the race was red-flagged and eventually canceled. “I wasn’t going back out there if they put a gun to my head.”

Russian roulette on four wheels always has made for exciting finishes, but pack racing in which cars are stuck together for long periods of time isn’t pure racing or even skillful.

“It’s nothing more than a big dyno test,” Will Power said before the season finale.

And, because Vegas had so much more grip than Kentucky, the speeds were 7-8 mph faster — cresting at 224 mph in traffic during practice.

It also allowed the cars to run three abreast in the corners, pure lunacy with open wheels.

Put some inexperienced drivers on an oval that’s easy to run flat out in 34 identical cars, and you are asking for disaster. Nobody can get away, and it’s a swarm.

CART figured out a way to run superspeedways with big fields in the late 1990s with an aero helper known as the Handford Device. It allowed the cars to slingshot and get separation, and there were more than 150 passes for the lead at Michigan one year.

“We were able to make it work, and the problem is fixable,” said Steve Horne, the longtime car owner who now assists Tony Kanaan. “We just need to tell the engineers and aerodynamicists to come up with something.

“Mark Handford wasn’t a racer. He was a wind-tunnel guy, but he gave us something that worked very well.”

What really would work well is to increase the horsepower to 900 and take away a healthy dose of downforce so drivers would have to brake for the corners on ovals. No more running wide open — anywhere. And that’s still a possibility with the new cars and engines for 2012.

Bringing back Phoenix, Milwaukee and Loudon would be perfect because those are short ovals that require a lot more driver skill than the 1.5-mile cookie cutters.

If you can’t bring back those old Indy-car bastions, the only way to keep running Texas, Kentucky, Fontana and Las Vegas is to get creative and do away with pack racing.

The pack mentality surfaced Sunday night as Randy Bernard got inundated with hate mail, people blaming him for Wheldon’s death in a gimmick race. The IndyCar CEO immediately began questioning himself on whether there were too many cars or if the series should have avoided places like Las Vegas.

Were 34 cars too many? Possibly, but who’s to say there wouldn’t have been a big crash with 24 cars. Las Vegas, Texas, Kentucky and Fontana all should go away unless something sensible is designed to create separation.

But Bernard certainly shouldn’t beat himself up for trying to inject new storylines and keep ovals on the schedule.

The series had a formula for what happened here Sunday a long time before Bernard was hired. He inherited this madness. So now he needs to have new car boss Tony Cotman, tech chief Will Phillips and some engineers figure out a way to make things racy while eliminating running in place at 220 mph side by side and flirting with calamity in every corner.

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