A Rational Voice On IndyCar Canopies

If you happened to catch Trackside a week ago on Dec 8, you heard TV racing analyst and former driver Derek Daly giving his opinion on the controversial subject of putting canopies onto open-wheel cars such as Indy cars and Formula One cars. I have stated my opinion on the touchy subject many times, but it was good to hear the opinion of someone other than a blogger or former blogger. Not only is Daly a former driver in CART and Formula One, but he has a vested interest in the current form of IndyCar racing being the safest it can possibly be – his son, Conor, will be a full-time driver next season in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Daly had a very rational response when asked what his take on the subject was. While stopping just short of saying he was completely and totally opposed to canopies on open-wheel cars, he let it be known that doing so would be going down an extremely slippery slope. The unintended consequences presented by doing this offered up more problems than answers, Daly surmised.

He cringed when he mentioned the possibility of a driver not being able to get out of a car that was upside down and on fire. He didn’t mention the incident on the air, but I couldn’t get the thought of Simona de Silvestro in 2011, out of my mind. If you’ll recall, Simona had a practice crash at Indianapolis and ended up upside down and on fire. I happened to be watching the crash online at the time. It was frightening to see her work frantically, with the aid of the Holmatro Safety Team, to climb out of an inverted car that was aflame. You wondered how long it would be before gravity took effect with the raw ethanol in the fuel cell. She got out quick enough, but not without third-degree burns on both hands. I hate to think about the outcome had she been forced to deal with a sealed cockpit.

Daly also mentioned the possibility of smoke inhalation as another unintended consequence of having a canopy covering an open-wheel cockpit. Electrical fires are not uncommon in racing. What is usually a minor occurrence in a race, could suddenly have devastating consequences.

During his discourse, Daly mentioned the one item that is sure to draw the ire of the pro-canopy crowd – the tradition of the sport. The former driver and TV analyst stated that open-wheel cars traditionally have open cockpits. He went on to explain that when you enclose the cockpit of an open-wheel car, it becomes a sports car. He added that there’s nothing wrong with sports car racing, but that it is not open-wheel racing. I agree.

Then Daly discussed the mindset of the race driver – another angle that those in favor of canopies will bristle at. He stated that racing drivers are drawn to the sport because of the danger involved and that there is a very select few that can or will do it due to the risks involved. If all elements of danger are removed, then the sport is no longer enticing to them. Having never been a driver, I cannot say for certain that that is the case. But from everything I’ve read nor heard about the mentality of drivers, it sounds like Daly is dead-on accurate.

After listing his many reasons for not wanting canopies, I thought Daly made the most salient point of the whole discussion. He said that while he applauds improving safety measures in racing, any decisions pertaining to safety need to be made based strictly on facts and be completely devoid of emotion. He cautioned that when emotions rule thinking, things are not properly thought through. He also pointed out that the Justin Wilson incident was so freakish in nature, that to make a rash decision based strictly on that one occurrence would be foolish and short-sighted.

Derek Daly pretty well echoed what I’ve been thinking, but he articulated his opinions so much better than I ever could that I found his thoughts worth repeating. If you haven’t heard last week’s Trackside, you can listen to it here. The Derek Daly interview was so informative and entertaining, it’s worth listening to the whole podcast just for his part.

This is one of those topics that has very little middle ground. The pro-canopy supporters are very vocal in their dismay that not everyone agrees with them. Likewise, those opposed to canopies on open-wheel cars, wonder how on earth anyone could possibly want them. They tend to think that if you don’t like the sport the way it is, go find another one – like sports car racing, for instance.

While I don’t take the “like it or lump it” stance, I have to say that I’m fairly entrenched in the camp that opposes canopies. Yes, I prefer the aesthetics of the traditional open-wheel car. I would be lying if I said otherwise. But I’d be willing to give that up if there was a fool-proof design that offered the driver full protection from debris, without compromising their safety in other areas. Unfortunately, no one has presented any fool-proof designs that aren’t inherently flawed with respect to other concerns.

Even the staunch advocates of canopies agree that there is nothing that can be done with the current car. The first time a canopy could be utilized would be on a newly designed car. Weight distribution and the center of gravity would be significantly altered with the DW12, not to mention that it lacks a proper way to mount it and incorporate it into the current design.

So if designers of the next generation IndyCar can come up with a revolutionary design that guarantees driver safety and addresses every single possible scenario that finds a canopy to be more of a hindrance than a help – I’m all for it. Otherwise, I’m for leaving the car the way it is and avoiding the unintended consequences. Drivers know what they are getting into. If the drivers can deal with it, so should the fans.

Derek Daly and his son, Conor, also know the risks. Knowing what they know, we should let them make the choice; rather than take the approach of saving them from themselves. If fans can’t handle that, then they also have the ability to make a choice.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “A Rational Voice On IndyCar Canopies”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Next, the pro-canopy crowd will want zero-zero capable Martin-Baker ejection seats installed…

  2. Nick (@thespeedwaygay) Says:

    I think many in pro-open cockpit camp are just as guilty as letting emotions guide their thinking. You say there is no middle ground? That’s because both sides are so stuck on how they feel they can’t see the valid points on the other side. Are canopies the answer? Maybe not. But if anyone has any idea on how to improve safety, the idea should be be discussed, designed, and tested; not shouted down (not accusing you George – you have been very fair). Who knows what the designers discover as they go through the process. They might find the answers to make a canopy work, or find a middle ground solution that keeps it open, but reduces the risk of debris strikes that have injured MANY drivers.

  3. Racecar drivers do not need to be saved from themselves. I’ve always enjoyed listening to Derek Daly and his perspectives. He has a way of canvassing the whole canopy debate in a very rational, articulate and sensible, way . He also, in addition to being a driver, has a passion for IndyCar racing, you can hear it in his voice . Did anyone catch the interview on “60 minutes” on Sunday night with Lewis Hamilton ? To paraphrase- he basically said the lure of the sport for him as a race car driver is the danger. That ends the argument IMO from the naysayers.

  4. Thanks for the heads up. I will listen to that on the Internet.

    Pretty fired up. Just bought my tickets for the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing!

  5. Being too old to ever race again except in my dreams, I have nothing at stake in any discussion about canopys. I will simply say that I do agree with the arguments against them that Derek Daly makes. More than anything, my opinion is influenced by having seen a driver die in a burning race car at Milwaukee. I have never been able to lose that image. So-like many other fans-I was terrified to see Simona struggling to get out of her burning car at Indy. There is simply no fool-proof way to guarantee that a canopy could be quickly removed once a car has crashed.

  6. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’m wearing my helmet and firesuit today so I’m ready to write an opposing viewpoint. I do hope that I can write in such a way that one flatly entrenched against new and significantly increased head protection (canopies, et. al), might pause to consider those ideas. Perhaps my firesuit has still left my optimism exposed.

    Those of you who know me know where I stand on this issue.

    Those who don’t should know that I’m in favor of not flatly rejecting the idea of increased head protection which includes, but isn’t limited to, canopies (based on unproven theories of failure, a “re-classification” of the vehicle, or for the weakest of all arguments against it – tradition) and exploring ideas to increase the safety of the last remaining major vulnerability of the current Indycar driver – head protection – and as quickly as possible.

    I think the argument that it must be fool-proof or nothing goes against the process of developing every other existing safety device before it. Unless we’re assured it is perfect out of the box, then it isn’t worth trying? We’d never had an human atop a rocket, or in orbit, let alone landed on the moon and returned safely with that mentality. I understand this thinking to mean that the losses we’ve experienced on a fairly regular basis are considered ‘acceptable’ for the sake of tradition and category of racing.

    The element of danger is a tricky thing.

    Drivers says they’d do it regardless of the danger. It without question is a dangerous sport, and one the requires an intense desire to do it to make it to the top level, but I’ve yet to see one in this day and age NOT don a Nomex balaclava, gloves, suit, shoes, and helmet, ignore the benefits of the HANS device, have the crew remove the rubber fuel cell, or refuse to click and cinch the harness tightly, or not thank the SAFER barrier when employed. Not that they have a choice, but because those things were mandated to participate. And why were they mandated? If danger is so appealing, why have those items been required for use by all drivers?

    Is it because at some point, no matter the dangers a willing driver faces, the danger must still be mitigated to a degree. Why? Is it possibly because without it, the illusion of reasonable safety is gone and people will lose a taste in this form of racing?

    I’ve noted before that the current essence of Indycar is that it is a sport, designed for the entertainment of the viewer. I personally don’t find death and maiming on a regular basis entertaining, which is why I want to see it improve in all aspects, including driver safety.

    As a person who immensely enjoyed the arc Indycar during the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, it’s difficult enough to enjoy Indycar in it’s cost-controlled, power-neutered, and status quo condition, let alone seeing people I’ve met, some I know, and all I admire, get maimed or actually die from it, some leaving behind spouses and children who are forced to press on in life without them.

    I can’t appreciate the attitude that what we have is acceptable on many fronts.

    I can’t appreciate that the daredevils – the drivers of the early days, ‘golden era’, and even today would appreciate that the deaths of many of their compatriots would lead to no improvement. To simply not try is unacceptable to me.

    I really hope that the ‘love it or leave it’ crowd can understand that my desire to see improvement comes from a fundamental view that I personally prefer to look forward to a better future, while not shackling ourselves to the limitations of the past.

    Please remember to consider that expressing my opinion is meant only to consider another’s viewpoint, hopefully provoke thought, and to not argue. I respect the generally civil discourse here and is a big reason why I come here.

    I especially appreciate George and his ongoing willingness to allow us this forum to discuss a sport we all are passionate about.

    • I agree with most of what you write here except that in the case of a canopy I think it should be fool-proof or nothing in the event of a crash. While better engineering minds than mine have put men on the moon and brought them back, other men and women have ridden a rocket into the ocean.

      I think that race car drivers will always take advantage of new safety devices and equipment. I also think that they will race whether those devices and equipment appear or don’t appear. An image of Tony Bettenhausen Sr. racing in a short sleeved tee-shirt comes to mind. He was later killed at Indy in much safer gear in a much safer car when a small part broke. He raced whatever was available to race and I think it will always be that way. But I think he and countless other drivers who have raced over the years counted to some degree on being able to quickly get out of a car on their own or to be quickly extricated from a car by others, especially in the case of a fire. I am just not convinced that could ever be guaranteed with a cockpit completely enclosed by a canopy.

  7. Anti canopy guy here. I do wonder if they could leave the cockpit open but completely submerge the driver’s head in the car. For example, take a look at Unser’s Johnny Lightning and raise the transparent glass above the threshold of the helmet.

    The problems of course are the material used in the glass, raising the roll bar, and general balancing issues. Possible? Either way, the new tethering system that will be used this year seems to be a better way to go. It may not stop Massa’s spring, but that didn’t kill him either.

  8. The day they bring in canopies is probably the day I completely walk out….

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