Justin Wilson, my friend, my colleague, the man with whom I first stood on top of an IndyCar podium, is dead. His death last month was preventable. We in the racing industry had the technology and ability to prevent his death and we chose not to.
In the 1950s, our engineering capabilities were such that racing cars would destruct on impact. They became cages of flaming death. The cars had no seatbelts and open cockpits, since a driver’s best hope for survival in a crash was a prayer to be thrown clear of the wreckage.
We now have carbon fiber safety cells that cradle the driver. We have Zylon anti-intrusion panels that prevent other cars from spearing through the side in a T-bone. We have fireproof suits. We have six-point safety harnesses and head and neck restraint devices. Many of our professional drivers will now complete their careers walking away from crashes with no more than bruised ribs and wounded egos, the same as in any other professional sport.
But we still have fatalities. Justin Wilson’s death was not a freak accident that no one could have predicted. It was not a perfect storm of circumstances. He was hit in the head by a piece of debris on the track at an event at the Pocono Raceway in late August. He raced an IndyCar in a series that uses open cockpits with no protection for the driver’s head other than a helmet, and he died.
These incidents, and too many other serious injuries, could have been mitigated — or even prevented — with a canopy or other protection for the driver over the cockpit.
We have the technology. We just don’t use it. So why do we let our racing heroes travel at speeds triple what they used to, over 230 m.p.h., with their heads exposed to the open?
For many, it comes down to the romance and tradition of it all. I remember a childhood spent watching Ayrton Senna’s yellow and green helmet flash by on TV, open to the elements. It created an imprint of what open wheel racecars should look like. But romance and tradition are not valid excuses for the death of our friends.
I have heard many technical arguments against closed cockpits, every single one of which has been overcome in other racing series.
The arguments include: Closed cockpits get too hot; windscreens distort the view with their curvature; dirt can build up on the screen; drivers could be trapped in a fire.
These are serious concerns. But the International Automobile Federation, or F.I.A., which sanctions Formula One, has resolved these issues in the World Endurance Championship, or W.E.C., which it also sanctions. There the top cars operate at similar speeds and on the same tracks as Formula One and yet have closed cockpits.
W.E.C. cars have “cool suits,” which run cold water around the driver’s body, or “helmet blowers,” which blow cool air over their heads. These cars have had curved windscreens for years and successfully operate at the same speeds as Formula One. They wipe their screens at each pit stop, or have windshield wipers. The cars have emergency releases from both inside and outside for canopies and doors; regulations require that the driver be able to exit in seven seconds.
Racing teams spend millions each year perfecting their vehicles. They have staffs of hundreds of designers. They calculate down to the thousandth of an inch, the fraction of a millimeter. As a sport, we are fully capable of making this safety improvement, and we have been already for a decade.
Many on the senior staff of IndyCar and the F.I.A., the decision makers, were competing in the dangerous world of racing in the 1960s and ’70s. In order for them to choose this career path, they made peace with the risks, the danger and the frequent death. That’s what they had to do to follow their unyielding drive to race.
I, too, have that same passion, but I refuse to make peace with the death of my colleagues, because now we do have an option. The risk of having an open cockpit is too great, and it is also unnecessary.
IndyCar and the F.I.A. have mandated many, many safety improvements over the years, to prevent crashes and flips, and to make the ones that do happen significantly safer. The F.I.A. is reportedly now testing closed cockpits.
It is time to mandate closed cockpit cars. They will not bring Justin Wilson back, but they will save the lives of many generations of racers to come.
Ethan Bregman was Justin Wilson’s lead engine technician for the 2012 IndyCar season.