Murto: How fast is too fast?

Craig Murto

Canadian driver Robert Wickens faces a long road to recovery following injuries suffered in IndyCar’s visit to Pocono (Pennsylvania) International raceway on Sunday.

Attempting an inside pass on Ryan Hunter-Reay in Turn 2 of the three-turn oval on Lap 6, Wickens’ right-front clipped the left-rear tire of Hunter-Reay’s car, sending both into the outside wall and catapulting Wickens’ car into the catch fence, which worked as a cheese grater and shredded parts off his car before sending him back onto the racing surface. Numerous cars were involved and the race was put under a red flag for two hours as repairs were made to the fence.

All of the drivers walked away except for Wickens, who although awake and responsive was carefully extricated before being flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital. Undergoing surgery on Monday, it was reported that the 29-year-old broke both legs, his right arm, as well as suffering injuries to his spine and lungs.

Pocono is a track that was made for IndyCars. Each turn is different, and replicates corners that were legendary on the IndyCar circuit. The first turn replicated the now-defunct track in Trenton, New Jersey, and Turn 3 replicates the old Milwaukee mile, another track they no longer use. Turn 2, where this accident occurred, replicates a corner at Indianapolis.

Although built for IndyCar racing, the cars weren’t pushing 225 mph when the track opened in 1971. And the severity of the accident on Sunday raises the question, “How fast is too fast?”

Racing is all about speed. And many fans of IndyCar racing will tell you that it is the sheer speed of these open-wheel cars that makes them attractive. But what if the field were slowed to 180 mph? Would they appear slow?

Wickens’ crash gave voice once again to those who want IndyCars off the high-speed ovals entirely, except Indianapolis. They say it is proof that IndyCars are just not safe on the ovals.

Or is it simply that they are not safe at 220-230 mph? And if you were going to slow the cars down, how would you do it?

Aerodynamics has been used in the past, but creating more drag to slow the cars down also created more drafting and a NASCAR-style pack racing, which is exciting to watch but puts drivers of open-wheel cars in even more peril. The current aerodynamic package takes away 1,000 pounds of downforce the cars once had, making the drivers work harder, but also making the cars edgy at 225 mph.

Maybe IndyCar can find a way to restrict horsepower to slow them down without costing teams a small fortune.

Fans of IndyCar racing who appreciate the speed forget that the faster a racecar goes, the smaller the room for error. The narrower the racing groove an any particular track becomes. The two-wide scenario that resulted in Wickens’ vicious accident at 220 mph may have easily been a competitive, thrilling two-wide battle for position through the corner at 180 mph.

If every car on the track is running about 180 mph, they’re all going to look fast relative to each other. Spectators will not be able to tell the difference. And if the slower speed increases the level of competition and allows for better racing as more of the track surface becomes useable, what’s the problem?

And there certainly should not be a problem with the fact that a crash at 180 mph is more survivable than crashing at 225 mph.

Yes, there are those who want the high-speed ovals to go away. But nobody’s going to take the Indy 500 off the circuit, and it would be a very odd schedule if Indianapolis were the only oval. IndyCar racing is traditionally an oval-track series; taking all the ovals off the calendar would change the series forever and risk losing a major part of its fan base.

Alexander Rossi won the 500-mile race at Pocono once they repaired the fence and got the event restarted. It was a good, clean race after that, with various teams utilizing differing strategies to try to catch Rossi. There was little celebration, however, as everyone’s thoughts were on Robert Wickens. And the chorus of critics demanding an end to IndyCars on high-speed ovals began.

But there is a way to make the high-speed ovals safer, and actually improve the quality of the racing on the track. It’s simple: Slow the cars down.