MILLER: Catch fencing is the best we've got – for now

Fence repairs at Pocono, 2018. Image by Levitt/LAT

MILLER: Catch fencing is the best we've got – for now

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MILLER: Catch fencing is the best we've got – for now

Right now we’re all very concerned for Robert Wickens. We don’t know how bad his injuries are, but hearing news of surgery for a thoracic spine fracture without knowing the severity is frightening.

I’ve heard from legendary drivers, retired racers and a couple of current ones in the past 48 hours, as they all wanted to know – like most of you fans – if this talented kid from Canada is going to be able to race again. We’re all hoping we see Robbie shuffle out of the hospital with a walker in a couple of months to resume his normal life.

The racing family always comes together in moments like this, and that’s why it’s a special group. And whenever there’s a tragedy or serious incident, there’s a demand for action, and usually a response.

Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald perished in 1964 at Indy, and that was the end of gasoline and beginning of fuel cells. Merle Bettenhausen’s accident at Michigan in 1972 instantly brought improvements to helmet visors and the phasing out of Armco guardrails on ovals. Pancho Carter’s violent crash at Phoenix in 1977 was the last we saw of fence posts and guardrails together on an oval. Danny Ongais, Rick Mears and Derek Daly went through agony but finally got the driver moved back from the front of the car in the 1980s.

Jovy Marcello’s fatality in 1992 at Indy sparked mandatory advancements in the driver’s seat for Indy cars. Scott Brayton’s death in 1996 and the myriad of fatalities and ghastly injuries through the years at Indianapolis led Tony George to come up with the greatest advancement in oval-track safety ever in 1998 – the SAFER Barrier. Fans being killed by flying wheels at Charlotte and MIS in IRL and CART led to tethers. The Zylon side panels were added to protect drivers from intrusion a few years ago. After James Hinchliffe’s nearly fatal wreck in 2015, IndyCar made suspension changes to reduce the chances of that kind of injury from happening again.

IndyCar in most of its forms – USAC, CART, IRL, Champ Car and IndyCar – has always been active in responding to the need for safety improvements, and IndyCar racing has never been safer. So let’s relax a bit and take a pragmatic look at things.

Wickens’ accident at Pocono was violent but a lot of “good” things, if that’s the proper word, happened. His car remained upright when it was sliding down the SAFER barrier, his head never made contact anything when it smashed into the pole, the fence didn’t grab his car and shred it, he got spat back onto the track right-side up, and thankfully Scott Dixon was paying attention and missed him by a foot. The sudden stop and violent g-forces were what likely hurt him.

Yet by all accounts, the fence did its job because it contained the car, and Dallara’s tub held up impressively. And, most importantly, Robbie is badly battered, but alive.

Since Sunday there’s been an outcry from fans and so-called experts to replace today’s fences with Plexiglas or different materials; raise the SAFER barriers, raise all the walls, get rid of fences or simply quit oval-track racing.

Scott Dixon’s airborne crash at the 2017 Indy 500. Image by Abbott/LAT

Fences used to be known as debris fences to contain parts and pieces during an accident, and over time, the debris got larger and flung faster like shrapnel from an explosion. When it became obvious those debris fences were now catch fences to try and contain a 1,600-pound IndyCar going 200mph, a lot of tracks made improvements accordingly.

Tony Cotman has been a mechanic, team manager, chief steward and track designer with a seat on the FIA Circuits Commission and has worked on construction of race tracks. So he was asked by RACER for his opinion on the state of today’s fences.

“In this situation, the fence did its job because it contained the car,” said Cotman. “Imagine if he’d gone through the fence and hit a building or tree, or catapulted for 200 yards at that speed? Anytime you have an impact that violent, it’s very likely the car goes into a rotation.”

Cotman has heard the cries to ban the fence posts. “The poles support the entire structure fence, while the cables and mesh help keep the vehicle in the field of play,” he says. “They all work in unison. If you were to remove the poles, what’s going to hold the cables? If you get rid of the cables, what are you going to use? As of today there is no proven, better solution.

“Containing a 1,600-pound catapult going 200mph… well there aren’t many components designed to do that.”

As for the suggestions to raise the SAFER barriers four feet or make the walls 10 feet high, does anyone recall the altitude from Dixie’s crash in 2017 at Indy? He would have cleared both those dimensions with ease.

“Any time an open-wheel car is launched, bad things happen,” continued Cotman. “But there’s going to be a better system some day as data gathered from these types of incidents is used in a search for the next solution of enhancement. But some things take longer than others

“And it’s not that something is ‘wrong’ but is there potentially a better solution? Every time there’s an incident, it heightens people’s awareness. There are lots of smart people out there working on this along with other safety enhancements. I’m confident there will be an alternative solution, but what that is, today I simply don’t know.”

Racetrack fences come in various sizes and styles, and for my money there’s none finer than the one around IMS. For example, that extra bit that’s kinked at the top of the fence in front of the grandstands is what prevented Mario from sailing into the South Vista when he took flight in 2003. But the Speedway needs to heed the warning signs on the front straightaway. That’s what has always worried me the most. Do you know how lucky we’ve been all these years that there’s never been a catastrophe on the front straightaway? Indy has been so lucky that Dixon’s aerial act or Mike Conway running over Ryan Hunter-Reay didn’t happen on the front stretch towards the pits, or that the flying cars of Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden weren’t launched coming off Turn 4 on the inside of the front straight. Can you imagine the carnage if two IndyCars rubbed wheels like last Sunday and catapulted over that tiny pit wall and into the Tower Terrace seats? Or hit the pylon tower?

IMS installed a containment fence all along the pit wall for the MotoGP, but incredibly, has never used it for the Indianapolis 500. The drivers who go into Turn 1 at Indy at 233mph are plenty brave and signed up for a dangerous job, but the fans shouldn’t be in harm’s way or at risk of becoming collateral damage. IMS has become pretty damn greedy these past few years but has never slighted on safety, so it needs to do the right thing and construct a big, strong, containment fence all along the pit wall — before next May.

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