Can We Stop Flying Cars?

INDIANAPOLIS, November 12, 2003&#151

Over the past few weeks, there’s been an immense hue and cry in the media over the lack of safety in the current range of Indy Racing League IndyCar Series chassis.

The flight of Mario Andretti’s Dallara/Honda in April when the living legend was testing in place of Andretti Green Racing driver Tony Kanaan at Indianapolis Motor Speedway made news around the world, primarily due to the veracity of the driver and his status as, well, a living legend (should I have capitalized that?). Mario stepped out of the car, the aerobatics judges gave him a perfect score of “6” and he walked away.

It was a close one. At least the accident reminded Mario Andretti that he’s much more prized and comfortable being alive. If Andretti’s driven a race car in anger since that time, nobody’s talking. My belief? He should do whatever he likes; it’s Mario’s life, after all.

The IRL’s safety during the racing season has been pretty darn good, all things considered. When you have 19-22 cars running side by side by side at speeds upwards of 200mph for 200 or more miles, anything can happen. Sure, there have been accidents over the 2003 IndyCar Series season, but until the grand finale at Texas Motor Speedway last month, they’ve been, for the most part walk-aways.

Then Kenny Brack happened. Trying to do the same thing he accomplished in the CART season finale at Mexico City in 2002, Brack was attempting to come from nowhere and salvage his season. Kenny hasn’t looked much like the IRL 1998 champion or the 1999 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner this year. Some of the difficulties can be summed up by mechanical teething problems, getting to know the new team and discipline.

Kenny didn’t walk away after his flying stint in Texas. He’s still anticipating surgery to repair ankle, femur, pelvis and lumbar problems. Fortunately, his sense of humor doesn’t fail the Swede and he’s been positive about the whole thing. He knew the job was dangerous when he took it.

Some drivers never get the opportunity to drive for a front-line team. Tony Renna has bounced around the open wheel motorsports arena for nearly ten years looking for the right ride. The closest the Florida resident got, until late this year, was with Kelley Racing, who utilized his skills as a supreme tester and fill-in for Al Unser Jr. when that legendary shoe was dealing with his own demons in 2002.

Renna rewarded Kelley with a superb drive in the 2003 Indy 500, starting eighth and finishing seventh in a Cure Autism Now-sponsored Dallara/Toyota. That made Chip Ganassi and Mike Hull stand up and take notice and they duly signed Renna to partner new champion Scott Dixon for the 2004 IRL campaign in a #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota.

In his first test on the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval, Renna either made a mistake or something broke. I won’t pretend to know why Tony’s gone, but he is. And immediately, the crows started cawing about the lack of safety in Indy Racing League Dallara and Panoz G Force chassis.

If anyone should be blamed, though, it’s not the designers of these chassis or even the rulesmakers at the Indy Racing League. Blame the spirited competition, folks. Now that the IRL is populated with manufacturers like Honda, Toyota and Chevrolet-Cosworth, speeds are bound to increase and injury is more likely to happen.

Even if the fabulously fair Brian Barnhart does decide to make changes to the IRL machinery, I am sure the speeds will creep back up. It’s just too damn competitive here. And this scenario reminds me of CART just a few years ago, when Honda, Toyota and Ford-Cosworth were in deep, dark battle to win at all cost.

Of course CART squandered those partners and thereby lost its financial edge, as agreements between engine makers and sanctioning bodies normally includes marketing and promotions pacts that help support a money-slurping racing economy.

Pundits around the country are now calling for the Indy Racing League to increase downforce and decrease engine power. It could happen, but it just won’t last. Trust me. Dallara and Panoz G Force will find a way to make their cars better; Honda, Toyota and Chevrolet-Cosworth will find a way to make their powerplants better. The prizes for winners always beat the prizes for losers and nobody likes a loser, right?

When Marlboro Team Penske first entered the Indy Racing League in 2001 to take on the Indianapolis 500, their pit boys were struck by the simplicity and their drivers were amazed by the amount of downforce in the IRL cars. Compared to their CART Champ Car mounts, the machinery was easier to drive (particularly in traffic) and work on.

Things have sure changed. While there have been minimal DNFs due to mechanical reasons over the IndyCar Series season, the record will show the 2003 cars increased in speed and finding that last thousandth of a second has become ever more difficult. But are the cars unsafe at any speed? Did Gil de Ferran walk away from the most desired drive in all of American motorsports because he feared for his life?

If so, this gives an edge to CART, which is as the Indy Racing League formerly was, nominally a spec series. In this season of racing, no Champ Car driver went to hospital for a length of time; no engines imploded&#151yes, one Ford-Cosworth XFE met its maker in a race, but that was one in 342 starts&#151and aside from the usual bitching about officiating, there was very little whining about cars and engines. Those who had Lolas prospered; Reynard drivers won only a single race at Surfers Paradise, Australia. With a little help from Chris Kneifel and his band of merry men in “race control”.

It’s not time to call for wholesale changes in the way the Indy Racing League does business, but it’s easy to look back at its first and second iterations as, yes, a more simple time when drivers didn’t take off into grandstands or catch-fencing. I’m sure Brian Barnhart will examine his options very, very carefully and make wise decisions on how to control the flight of the Indy car.

In the meantime, let’s say a prayer of thanks for good people like Tony Renna who die too soon, like Kenny Brack who will recover from injuries, Mario Andretti and, yes, Gil de Ferran who walk away.

And let’s praise the immense progress of folks like Scott Dixon and his new stablemate Darren Manning, who brings a sense of elation to everything he does in racing. At this point in time, Team Target sure needs his joyful, positive attitude. And so does the Indy Racing League.

&#151Anne Proffit

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