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Safety is the greatest tradition that IndyCar can follow

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The Marmon Wasp, winner of the 1911 Indianapolis 500, sits on display with other historic IndyCars in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum (Photo: Nate Gruenholz/
The Marmon Wasp, winner of the 1911 Indianapolis 500, sits on display with other historic IndyCars in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum (Photo: Nate Gruenholz/

I occasionally ask myself why I love sports that are so beset by traditionalism and "old-school" fans that substantive change is virtually a forbidden topic.

Of course, there's baseball. The sport is almost as old as the United States itself, so naturally there is an enormous reticence to mess with its "purity" - which is why something as sensible as instant replay to judge whether a disputed on-field call is correct or not has met with such resistance.

Then there's ice hockey, which suffers not only from traditionalist politics but actual national politics to boot. Traditionalists in this sport are so stuck in their ways that they bray and bleat when anyone suggests such nightmarish scenarios as outlawing flying forearm shots to the head or doing away with staged "goon fights" - because, of course, getting one's bell rung (i.e., suffering a brain injury) is "an integral part of the game."

For both of these sports, there is the weight of over a century of history behind the traditionalists' positions, which is why change always comes reluctantly at best. Let's be honest - tradition is largely a good and attractive thing because it adds depth and resonance to the present by informing it with the past.

But although auto racing - especially IndyCar racing - also has that weight of historic tradition behind it, the traditionalist view is more problematical. There are many reasons for this, but the most important is that racing has always been a discipline where progress has been the key to success.

From the dawn of auto racing, the one constant has always been to push for newer, faster, better. Speed has been the holy grail, and if there is one truism that has persisted over the decades it is that the longer you stand in the way of progress, the slower you will be compared to everyone else.

The biggest hedge against safety innovation in racing historically came not from intransigence from the competitors or sanctions, but from the idea that safety measures did not make the car faster. Safety, really, was an afterthought, especially in the early years. Drivers and teams got around to caring for their own well-being only when they stopped thinking of milking as many miles-per-hour out of their cars as possible long enough to consider the topic. Serious injury and fatality were usually the only things that shook racers of the "old school" out of their focus long enough to get them to adopt safer conditions for racing.

There were innovators in racing safety, of course - Ralph Moody of the famed Holman-Moody Ford factory team is one who springs immediately to mind, who advocated roll cages, racing belts, fireproof racing suits, window nets, and more. But their efforts were looked at askance because - naturally - sanctions and rivals suspected that these innovations would result in an unfair advantage. Perversely, actual safety was often compromised in the pursuit of speed - acid-dipped sheet metal, Swiss-cheesed chassis members, and so forth were methods of shaving off critical tenths of a second per lap.

As speeds grew, naturally the race cars changed. Form follows function is the hoary engineering cliché - and traditionalists' woes about the changing face of the sport went unheeded as cars morphed in accordance with technological advances. In IndyCar's case, the sport underwent revolutions that totally changed the face of the sport - including perhaps the landmark of them all, the shift from front-engined roadsters to rear-engined formula cars.

Indeed, it is a supreme irony that modern-day IndyCar traditionalists - many of whom weren't born when the rear-engine revolution actually occurred - point to the open-cockpit, open-wheeled rear-engine formula car as the definitive look for IndyCar racing. Ironic, because they are sentimentally defending something that was looked upon in its time by their historic counterparts as the death knell of Indy racing.

Of course, it is now a given that racing is no longer pursuing speed records. Bobby Allison's flying racecar that nearly went into the grandstands in the ‘80s cured NASCAR of competing at speeds of over 200mph, and IndyCar racing ceased hearing the late Tom Carnegie's famous "It's a new track record!" calls the moment the Indy Racing League was born.

From that point forward, race car design ceased to evolve at the altar of speed and instead began to change based on safety. Unfortunately, this also had the side-effect of arresting significant change in favor of incremental modifications. In other words, like the effect of the printing press on language, the abandoning of pure speed fixed the aesthetics of racing cars into a particular mold.

Consequently, for nearly twenty years IndyCars have looked more or less the same and, thanks to the Split, have not appreciably moved forward in terms of technology or safety over that same time span. When something stays that static for that long, people tend to embrace that lack of change as some sort of twisted expression of tradition, when in fact it is simply inertia.

The saddest thing about this trend is that it takes a tragedy for people to revisit it. Prior to Dan Wheldon's death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the idea of introducing a new car to IndyCar racing was one that was only approved with much hand-wringing and angst from team owners who had to pay for them. Many elements within the sport were content to stick with a chassis that was nearly a decade old and, moreover, was proven to have issues with going airborne, causing significant driver injuries in certain types of accidents, and promulgating a form of pack racing that was a virtual invitation to multi-car accidents like the kind that killed Wheldon.

Don't get me wrong - the Dallara IR03 was one of the safest IndyCars ever built. That is both a good and bad thing. Good, because many drivers walked away from crashes that they would not have survived in older equipment. Bad, because there are significant technological and safety lessons that have been learned in the past twenty years that have not been implemented in IndyCar racing because of inertia.

The pursuit of the 2012 IndyCar design illustrates the direction of thinking within the sport. The Delta Wing concept was revolutionary, nearly as revolutionary as the move from front to rear engines. But it was roundly criticized and ultimately rejected because it didn't look like an IndyCar. The rear wheels were "nearly enclosed" and the front wheels (wheels, plural, only because Ben Bowlby didn't think he could get serious consideration for a tricycle-style setup) were too thin, the critics said. Aesthetically, it looked like everything from a pelican to a phallus - and that wasn't what the fans wanted to see.

The concepts delivered from the other manufacturers ranged from incremental to avant garde, but it bears mentioning that the concepts that got the most mileage, especially in traditionalist fan circles, were the ones that looked the most like current-spec IndyCars. Indeed, the eventual candidate for 2012 - the Dallara IR12 - hardly looks much different from the car it replaces... although if you ask the most die-hard traditionalists, it looks like an abomination compared to what they think IndyCars should look like.

It is no wonder, then, that the very idea of significant change to the IndyCar formula - enclosed wheels, closed cockpits, limiting or removing the wings, and so forth - is anathema. Even suggesting such things is tantamount to heresy to traditionalists because that's not how things are done in IndyCar. The cognitive dissonance that results from wanting more safety at 220mph-plus speeds without addressing two of the most glaring safety risks at those speeds - the exposed driver and exposed wheels - is noteworthy.

The new 2012 IndyCar - we're still awaiting its official designation after Dallara decided to rename it after Wheldon - does feature incremental safety improvements that, designers hope, will reduce the likelihood of interlocking wheels. It remains to be seen whether those alterations will be enough or whether a more extreme solution is necessary... but what we do know is that for some traditionalists, it's already too much.

The issue really boils down to one question: "What is an IndyCar?" Traditionalists say that a car with measures to prevent wheel interlock result in a car that is not purely open-wheel... and therefore is not an IndyCar. The same goes for the closed cockpit - after all, the cockpits have been open since 1911, and if you put a roof on, what do you have? A stock car, they say derisively.

The answer to the question, of course, is a simple one. An "IndyCar" is a car that has been approved to race at the Indianapolis 500. Period. It is why the rear-engined formula cars that showed up half a century ago at the Brickyard were IndyCars - even when the roadster crowd cried "Foul!" It is also why Andy Granatelli could field a doorstop on wheels with a turbine engine.

As INDYCAR goes forward to address safety within the sport, that is the overarching guiding principle that they should follow. It will free them to make necessary changes to protect the competitors without having to concede to misguided sentimentality.

Tradition has its very important place in our sport. But so does safety, and in the final analysis, the latter far outweighs the former.