Is it acceptable to risk drivers’ lives to build an audience?

There's been plenty written about Saturday's IndyCar race at Fontana, but what about the big ethical question over increasing the risk for a sport's competitors to increase the ratings?

Is it acceptable to risk drivers’ lives to build an audience?
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda and Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda in huge crash
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in huge crash
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in huge crash
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda and Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport Honda in huge crash
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in huge crash
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda in huge crash
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, Helio Castroneves, Team Penske Chevrolet and Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske Chevrolet
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet leads the start
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske Chevrolet leads the start
Ryan Briscoe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda
Takuma Sato, A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda and Will Power, Team Penske Chevrolet crash
Dan Wheldon Memorial and Victory Circle unveiling ceremony: Dan Wheldon Memorial detail
Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport Honda
Sage Karam, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet and Helio Castroneves, Team Penske Chevrolet

There’s a surreal video that somewhat bizarrely sums up Saturday’s IndyCar race at Fontana. It doesn’t involve flying cars, insanely-close pack racing, or drivers sounding off about the risky situation they felt they were placed in. Instead, it involves a man lying down in a big hole in the turf...

 

 

“Live to fight another day,” chirps Ryan Briscoe – who somersaulted out of the 500-miler at Auto Club Speedway after being a frontrunner all day – before literally burying himself in the hole created by his somersaulting Dallara DW12.

Of course, it could have been his own grave he was lying in, especially when you think of the great Greg Moore’s tragic demise here in 1999 when his car dug-in to the grass and rolled with far more devastating consequences.

Briscoe's vid was a fittingly odd book-end to a crazy day, when pack racing ­– or at least a mutation of it – returned to IndyCar. Sure, it was exhilarating to watch – that’s pack racing’s raison d’etre – but doesn’t a sanctioning body have a duty of care to avoid putting its drivers in harm’s way?

Those first 15 laps or so on fresh tyres meant the leading cars too often became like a cork in a bottle. With those behind able to slipstream up to them but have nowhere to go unless they hit the front, and then they stall-out too because of all that extra downforce they’d been laden with.

To add insult to (potential) injury, all this wheel-to-wheel thrillfest was taking place in front of about 5,000 fans and tens of thousands of empty seats. Back in the ’90s, IndyCar at Fontana could draw a huge crowd of 75,000, but ‘the split’ and a subsequent bonkers scheduling strategy that has seen track after track fall from its calendar has fragmented its strength and fanbase to a fraction of what it was.

The challenge in recent years has been to rebuild that audience, and what better way to do that than with amazing, close competition?

Comparisons to Vegas 2011

I don’t wish to roll this out like some grisly badge of honour, but I was there at Las Vegas in 2011 when Dan Wheldon was killed – the last time we saw true pack racing in IndyCar – and it was truly horrific. I’ve never had such a please-make-it-stop feeling from the drop of the green flag.

I’ve had the unpleasant task of reporting from the scene of fatal racing accidents on three occasions, and dealing with the grief of the people close to those involved is by far the hardest part of this job.

What made it even worse was the fact that the circumstances around it in the post-race investigation were summed up by that catch-all throwaway phrase “a perfect storm”. Well, if you flatly ignore hurricane warnings, you’re going to get flattened eventually.

“What are we doing?” asked Power incredulously after crashing out on Saturday – recall that he broke his back during the Wheldon crash. “We went in there and told them it would be pack racing, and that was a Vegas situation right there.

"You have to take massive risks to gain track position. That's crazy racing.”

The ‘crazy’ racing on Saturday was undoubtedly mesmeric from a fan’s perspective, however. It was a bit like watching a slasher horror flick in the movies; you can’t tear your eyes away from the action even though you know something bad is likely to happen any minute.

So what’s the answer to the question?

It’s often said that the reason death was originally acceptable in motor racing was the proximity to the World Wars. The general public was accustomed to fatality, and the racers were the fighter pilots of the post-war generation. Modern-day gladiators, if you will.

With the increases in car safety, and the advent of the HANS device, death is much less likely today than it ever was – even with those cheese-grater debris fences and metal fenceposts still in place (by the way, is anyone actually doing anything to solve that problem?).

Sure, the World Wars are a distant memory these days, but with extremist terrorism on our screens what feels like almost every day, along with violent video games, school massacres and blockbusting feature films showing Armageddon-like scenes that appear more real than ever, maybe it’s not so unacceptable to see someone die in a motor race these days?

But surely the optimal outcome is not to put them in harm’s way in the first place. How about Chevrolet and Honda getting together, re-evaluating their aero kits to run less downforce and running a proper multi-car, pre-season test at Fontana next year to see how it pans out? Strike a balance, you know, for the good of the sport and its competitors?

If IndyCar can find that sweetspot between pack racing and dull processions on big ovals, then surely that’s the best answer anyone can give to the question. Then the risk is reduced back to acceptable levels, and that audience might just begin to grow by itself again.

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IndyCar Fontana: Should we be outraged or amazed?

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