The official Indycar report on Dan Wheldon’s death was released today. The conclusions: Wheldon died when his head/helmet hit a fencepost, but it took a combination of factors to bring about this awful tragedy. They also noted that it wouldn’t have made any difference if the fenceposts were on the inside of the fence or the outside of the fence. I pretty much said the same thing in my analysis of the incident. Indycar, much to their credit, has released the entire 49 page report to the public, which comes to you here via pressdog.
The obvious question is “what do we do now”?
When I last spoke with Dean Sicking (the inventor of the SAFER barrier), I asked him who the primary groups were in the world who are doing motorsports safety research in the area of track barriers and fences. There are a few, but most of them focus on human mechanics or medicine. If you want to be specific, there is exactly one group in the country doing intensive research into motorsports track safety and that’s at the University of Nebraska. Yes, I know that some sanctioning bodies have their own R&D divisions; however, they have limited staff and they also have the responsibility for doing things like certifying new products for use in their series.
Most research at Universities is funded by grants (usually from federal or state agencies, sometimes from private foundations) or contracts (usually from private industry and designed to accomplish a very specific objective, with deliverables.)
One of the primary issues with the catchfence is the vertical poles that support the wire mesh. Initial reports argued that, if the poles had been outside the mesh, there wouldn’t have been a fatal accident. This is not right. Inside or outside, hitting one at high speed is going to be fatal. I suggested before that a possible solution would be to somehow cantilever the fence so that the posts would be a few feet away from the mesh. You’d need quite the system of wires, but I know it’s possible.
Let’s give Sicking and his group a grant to design a better catchfence.
Do you have any idea how much money you would need to test such a catchfence? When designing the SAFER barriers, Sicking told me that getting a driverless car to hit the barrier at a precise speed and angle was actually the most technically challenging part of the research. Now we not only have to have a high-speed racecar hit the new catchfence, but we also have to have it in the air when it does so.
I suggest that the industry needs a Center for Motorsports Safety Research. It would be a non-profit center operating independently of any sanctioning body, but it would work with the sanctioning bodies to prioritize research needs. Representatives from the various sanctioning bodies, along with motorsports researchers, would form an advisory board that would try to anticipate safety issues, as opposed to how we deal with them now, which is reactively.
I think it’s important that this be an independent body and not beholden to NASCAR or IndyCar. There would be a small research staff, with room for visiting researchers who can contribute particular specialization to specific problems. I would (of course) put Dean Sicking in charge of it because he is one of the best engineers and most honorable persons I have even known. He’s shown his ability to design for two very different cars at the same track already. I’d also charge them with preparing educational materials for drivers at all levels to make them aware of state-of-the-art safety concerns and the equipment they need to be as safe as possible.
Who should fund this center? The sanctioning bodies, the media who make money from broadcasting motorsports, the track owners, and you and me: the race fans.
From Jayski’s track seating and attendance page, 3.6 million people attended NASCAR races last year. Let’s add a safety surcharge of $2.00 per ticket is added on — and frankly, if you begrudge paying less than the cost of a beer to facilitate your part of this research, you shouldn’t call yourself a race fan. That would be $7.2 million dollars right there for motorsports safety research. Add on contributions from the media partners who broadcast motorsports, the occasional generous driver, and you have the start of a center.
As I said in my previous article, motorsports will never be entirely safe. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything we can to try to ensure that we never lose another driver again.
Kudos, Indycar for your transparency and commitment to learn as much as you can from this tragedy.