Earlier this week, NTT IndyCar Series driver Scott Dixon took to the simulator at the Dallara factory in Speedway to test the latest developments with the Red Bull Advanced Technologies new Aeroscreen.
The Aeroscreen is comprised of a ballistic screen mounted on a titanium framework that surrounds the driver, and Dixon, the five-time and reigning series champion, took it on a tour of five different tracks, IMS, Texas, Iowa, Barber and Long Beach, and came away pleased with the progress.
Here’s what he had to say to IndyCar.com:
“I think the technology game moves very quickly in our sport, and I think INDYCAR has always been at the forefront of moving safety additions along. I’m very happy to try and help try to push this forward and be one of the drivers that can help define areas that may be tricky.
“Honestly, it’s been very well done from the get-go and the full process has been well covered in many different areas. So, it’s been pretty easy.”
The real-word test is expected to come at Indianapolis in September, and ultimately the Aeroscreen will find its way into competition sometime in the future.
I’m happy to see IndyCar taking this step, but I’m really surprised how mixed the reaction has been from the fanbase.
One side sees it as a necessary step in the continuing evolution of safety, and one that has already been implemented in other forms of racing, most notably the cockpit halo that is used in Formula 1 and throughout their development series ladder. The F3 Americas series has also been using the halo since the series premiered here in the United States in 2018.
The other side seems to believe that it ends open wheel, open cockpit racing for good, that enclosing the driver somehow makes it a completely different form of racing.
Me? I believe that its time has come and that this is just another step in the evolution of safety for IndyCar.
Over time, IndyCar and the series’ constructors have looked at driver injuries and have always tried to make the cars safer as a result. If you’ve followed the sport as long as I have, you probably remember a number of 1980s and 90s-era drivers shuffling around the paddock, the result of massive injuries suffered to their lower legs as the result of a frontal impact. Some, like Rick Mears, are still feeling the effects of those injuries some 30-plus years later.
Those kinds of injuries ultimately resulted in the cars being longer and the driver’s feet being moved well behind the front tires and suspension. Years later, after the deaths of several drivers as the result of a basilar skull fractures, including Dale Earnhardt, the HANS device became mandatory.
Later came the SAFER barrier, and after a piece of suspension pierced the cockpit and the leg of James Hinchcliffe’s car during practice for the 2015 Indy 500, the sides of the Dallara tub were made even stronger.
I could go on and on, but IndyCar — and frankly, all of the world’s sanctioning bodies — have looked at crashes and injuries and tried to close every loop they could to minimize the risk for the drivers, but up until the last couple of years the one loop open wheel racing had never been able to close is that of protecting the drivers’ heads.
Some could argue that helmets have come a long way too, and they have, but open cockpits still leave drivers vulnerable to being hit by debris and having a car come over the top of them, and in both situations, the effectiveness of the helmet is greatly reduced. Hinchcliffe suffered a concussion when hit by a piece of flying debris during the 2014 Indy GP, and a year later, as we all know, Justin Wilson lost his life at Pocono when his head came into contact from a large piece of debris coming off of the wrecked car of Sage Karam.
I think it is ridiculous to even think that if a piece of equipment exists to better protect the driver, that people don’t want to see it put on the car. Of course there are concerns, like if an accident results in a fire or an extreme injury that the Aeroscreen would prevent the ability of the driver to get out of the car or safety to get to them, and what happens if, say, a bunch of oil gets all over the screen for a driver at speed.
But those are issues that can, and have been worked through, so what is the resistance all about? Tradition? Perception? Whatever those are, they are invalidated by the fact that this is just the next step in the evolution of driver safety.
Of course, IndyCar is a bit of a different animal given the style of racing and the design of the cars, but if there is a safety feature that has been used in another series (like the halo in F1) which has been shown to greatly improve driver safety, it would negligent for IndyCar to fail to work on an innovation that can work on their cars, too.
Like any sanctioning body or professional sport, IndyCar has a duty to protect their competitors as much as possible. As a society we are past the point of shrugging our shoulders and saying “well, there are risks to driving race cars (or playing football, hockey, etc.) and they know what they are getting into when they sign up”.
Of course, the amount of risk involved will never be reduced to zero, and, sure, there is an amount of risk that must be accepted by anyone who plays any type of competitive sport. That doesn’t mean the people in charge of sanctioning the competition can stop working towards making it as safe as possible for the competitors.
In time, the Halo, or Aeroscreen will be looked upon as just another step in the evolution of safety. Remember people like Tony Stewart complaining about wearing the HANS device back in the day? How silly does that sound now? Today, there isn’t a driver in the world who would ever think about getting into a car without one. Years down the road, I think we will feel the same way about the Aeroscreen as well.
It’s time has come. I’ve never strapped myself into a race car, but Scott Dixon has, so if he is giving his blessing to this project, it’s good enough for me, too.
Pit Lane Parley
Hope you had a great Fourth of July weekend, but now that we’ve put the Fourth in the rearview, it’s time to get caught up with the world of IndyCar in this week’s episode of the Pit Lane Parley podcast. The Aeroscreen is a topic of conversation for Host Mike, Jess and Matt, as is Karam’s ride at Toronto with Carlin Racing. Check it out on all sorts of listening platforms, or check it out here on iTunes.
Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media