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It's never too early to plan for the future for driver safety

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The 2012 DW12 IndyCar features several incremental cockpit safety advancements over its predecessor. ( Racing Photo).
The 2012 DW12 IndyCar features several incremental cockpit safety advancements over its predecessor. ( Racing Photo).

I have a confession to make. I usually like to do some research on whatever topic I blog about so I can avoid looking totally ignorant... and maybe fend off people who want to paint me as a basement-dwelling know-nothing.

In this blog post, however, I will confess right off the bat that I have virtually no in-person, first-hand experience with an IndyCar safety cell.

I have sat in show cars that lack the molded driver seat and shoulder collar. I have sat in (and in rare instances, driven) lesser open-wheel cars and sampled their cockpits. But I am almost entirely unfamiliar with the IndyCar cockpit in general, and the DW12 safety cell specifically, except from what I've seen in pictures and what I've read in descriptions.

With all that understood, I have to say from my very ignorant perspective that the DW12 safety cell, while an improvement over the IR03/05 spec it replaces, is far from being what it could - and should - be.

Before I go on, I recognize the many complicating factors in this issue, from the Split that derailed the natural evolution of IndyCar design to the evolutionary inertia that comes from sticking with a specific system or set of circumstances over a period of nearly a decade.

I also understand how compressed the timeframe was between Dallara's selection as the sole provider of safety cells for the 2012-2015 chassis cycle and the production of the first prototype. A development cycle that should have taken years was squeezed into months, even weeks.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I don't blame Dallara, INDYCAR, or the DW12 for the way it has turned out. And in fairness, there are certain improvements in the DW12 versus the IR03/05 - a wider cockpit that accommodates bigger drivers, a significant increase in foam for impact absorption, and so on.

But with all due respect to those involved in the process of developing IndyCars, improvements are not quite the same as evolution. For all intents and purposes, the driver area in a 2012-vintage IndyCar is virtually the same as it was over a decade ago.

I compare this to NASCAR, who in fairness dragged their feet in driver compartment evolution for decades before radically changing their approach after the tragic events of 2000 and 2001. Over their history, safety innovation came largely from competitors such as Ralph Moody, who introduced window nets and roll cages and flame-retardant driver suits in response to driver tragedies. NASCAR historically balked at allowing them because, bluntly, they believed that any competitor modification was a subtle performance advantage or cheat.

Following Dale Earnhardt's death, however, NASCAR had a culture change in how they approached safety. Their new R&D center went about developing the Car of Tomorrow over a span of years, researching and revising the driver compartment almost from the ground up to be more safe for the drivers. Intense research went into specific areas such as impact absorption in the doors, a seat position closer to the car's centerline, and - most critically - a cocoon-style driver seat to safeguard the occupant against impact forces.

The results of this extensive safety initiative are no better illustrated than in this harrowing video of Michael McDowell absolutely destroying his racecar at Texas Motor Speedway in an impact that, in the old-spec car, would have resulted in serious injury at best. McDowell not only walked away from this accident, he barely had a scratch on him. It was perhaps the most vivid validation possible of NASCAR's efforts.

That is the kind of evolution that needs to happen in IndyCar racing. And that is not what we have in the DW12. The DW12 is a safer racecar than ever before in IndyCar, but it is only incrementally so - at least from my perspective. The lost decades of the Split surely cost INDYCAR greatly in exposure and interest, but critically it also cost them twenty years of safety innovation and forward thinking in the design of their racecars.

That is why I hope that INDYCAR's safety teams are already hard at work designing the next generation safety cell for the series, ideally in conjunction with the brightest minds in engineering, medicine, and technology. Even though the DW12 has not yet turned a lap in anger, it is still not to early to plan for the next generation.

What are the next steps in evolution for IndyCar safety cells? Well, if I knew that, I could be earning a living as a racecar designer (and don't think I don't wish that I could!). Investigating closed cockpits is a good first step. I floated this idea after the 2011 Las Vegas race, but I am not the only one who has considered closing the roof over an open cockpit. Is it traditional? No. Evolution is rarely traditional, however.

Beyond that, driver position is a critical area to develop, as well as cockpit layout, safety cell integrity, and so forth. Smarter people than me will be charged with those innovations. However, I feel like it is certainly time to start innovating in this area as much as motorsports has innovated in the areas of aerodynamics and powerplants. It continually amazes me - and not positively - that racing engineers can develop an 18,000 RPM motor that can be carried by a single person, but that race drivers drive these exotic machines from a driver area that is only a step or two removed from a Malibu Grand Prix cockpit.

I'm sure the DW12 is as safe as we could expect given the context of its development. Certainly, the drivers should feel confident driving those machines this season. Still, if we are capable of making things safer, it is incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to do so.

Like I said in the beginning, I'm no expert on this stuff. But there are people out there who are, and it's past time that INDYCAR gets them on board to safeguard the well-being of the people upon whose shoulders the future of the sport rests.