A common belief is that IndyCar is inherently more dangerous than other forms of racing. Backing that up are several high-profile deaths since 2000 that have led some to believe that, while NASCAR and F1 have gotten safer, IndyCar has remained extremely dangerous.
IndyCar is very dangerous, but it is tough to argue from 1970 through 1999 that it was more dangerous than NASCAR or F1. What can be argued is that since 2000, NASCAR seems to have become safer while the other two have remained the same. There are several reasons for that, particularly for IndyCar.
It is undeniable that since 2001 and Dale Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR has made a big effort to safeguard its drivers. With IndyCar and F1, several factors have created what appears to be a more dangerous environment. The following is a summary of why IndyCar seems more dangerous than ever.
Is IndyCar Dangerous?
IndyCar is dangerous, just as any other form of racing is dangerous. In addition to fatalities, as horrible as they are, drivers have sustained concussions, broken bones, torn muscles, and loss of body parts during IndyCar crashes, but the sport is now safer than it ever was.
Fatalities By The Numbers
Since 1970, the total number of fatalities for IndyCar, NASCAR, and Formula 1 are:
- IndyCar: 15
- NASCAR: 14
- Formula 1: 24
The deadliest decades for each racing series were:
- IndyCar: 5 fatalities in the 1990s
- NASCAR: 5 fatalities in the 1980s
- Formula 1: 12 fatalities in the 1970s
Since 1999, there have been the following number of deaths in each sport (during races):
- IndyCar: 3
- NASCAR: 0
- Formula 1: 1
NASCAR would be loath to admit it, but the reason they have had so few fatal crashes since 1999 was the passing of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Earnhardt was larger than life and transcended racing. He was an icon that was recognizable to racing fans and just about everyone else.
When he died at the Daytona 500 in 2001, it stunned the sports world and shook NASCAR to its core. It also spurred 2 major safety changes: the adoption of the Hans Device and the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barrier (SAFER).
The former is a head restraint and prevents the head from snapping forward in a crash. That avoids severely injuring the neck. Earnhardt was killed by a basilar skull fracture, which was partly due to his neck snapping forward violently in the collision that killed him.
The latter provided a shock absorber on solid points along the wall of a racetrack. The SAFER barrier slows the momentum of a vehicle and greatly reduces the impact, even when hit head-on. Earnhardt’s collision was a head-on crash into the wall.
IndyCar has implemented multiple safety measures over the last 20 years. Here are a few of them.
Implementation Of The Aeroscreen
Similar to the Halo in F1, IndyCar has implemented a windscreen designed to protect the driver from crash debris as well as withstand incredible amounts of weight and impact. In the years that it has been in place, the windscreen has protected drivers and has widespread driver support.
Stronger, Harder Helmets
IndyCar has implemented Kevlar-infused helmets for greater head protection. Additionally, the helmet design has been modified to help reduce impact.
The HANS device has been a standard part of IndyCar for several decades now. It also features in many other motorsports.
Better Protective Clothing
Drivers now wear a one-piece fire suit, fire-resistant gloves, and a fire-resistant head sock (also called a balaclava), fire resistant shoes and socks.
IndyCar played a key role in the safety and development of this life-saving measure, which now features in many places around tracks, especially on ovals.
Reduction Of Oval Courses On The Circuit
IndyCar has gradually reduced the number of oval races on the calendar, which many series observers feel has reduced injury and death due to wrecks. There are a few reasons for this.
First, road and street courses reduce overall racing speed compared to ovals, as they feature shorter straights and more corners. Reducing speed may not reduce the number of wrecks, but by reducing the speed, the violence of the wrecks is usually reduced.
Second, violent, multi-wrecks are usually avoided. A multi-wreck can happen on any course, but does not happen at the speed or frequency that they do on an oval. Because drivers tend to be more spread out on a road course, there are fewer massive wrecks.
Reduction In Engine Sizes
As a result of driver Tony Renna’s death in October 2003 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during testing, IndyCar vehicle top speeds were reduced through reduction in engine size, reduction in horsepower, and aerodynamic changes.
Why Is IndyCar So Dangerous?
IndyCar is so dangerous because all forms of racing is very dangerous, for drivers, pit crew staff, and spectators. In addition, IndyCar has unique characteristics that make it a dangerous sport, with the open wheel nature of the cars and the high top speeds being tow main factors.
Limited Run-Off Areas
Run-off areas let drivers reduce speed when running at open throttle if there is a disruption to the flow of the race or when slowing down for corners. When a vehicle hits a run-off area, its speed reduces almost instantly, because of the materials used in run-off zones. A mix of gravel and sand provides a cushion and creates friction to take away momentum.
Oval tracks can produce great racing and amazing speeds. The racing on an oval track, particularly on restarts and in the final laps, is one of a kind and highly entertaining. Ovals have several downsides though, particularly for IndyCar.
No Time To React
To start, cars go so fast that avoiding a wreck when one happens in front of a driver is almost impossible. In a crowded field, a driver has tiny amount of time to make decisions to avoid a wreck. Even some of the most skilled racers can get collected in an unavoidable collision.
The “Big One,” or multi-car wreck, is also a huge risk. When a multi-car wreck happens in IndyCar, the impact is violent, debris flies everywhere, and secondary crashes are always likely. Even with safety improvements, a multi-car wreck is so chaotic that anything could happen to very exposed drivers.
This can result in car parts flying and bouncing everywhere and occasionally, as happened with Justin Wilson in 2015, that can be deadly. Wilson was hit with debris as he was avoiding another crash during the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Wilson died from his injuries due to massive head trauma.
Does IndyCar Have Safety Cars?
All IndyCar races have a pace or safety car that slows vehicles down, indicates cautions and red flagged events (when the racing is halted), and holds drivers in place during restarts. The IndyCar safety car is a Chevrolet Corvette Z06, capable of a top speed of around 190 mph.
IndyCar is dangerous. There is no getting around that. It is no more dangerous, however, than NASCAR, and both bodies have made safety a priority. There will never be a time when IndyCar is not dangerous because of the open cockpit concept, but steps are always being taken to make it safer.