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Safety Emphasis -- Circuits or Cars

Zanardi says, "Make the tracks safer." But is that really where the safety emphasis should be? Lisa Davidson and Russell Jaslow take up opposing views.


When Alex Zanardi was asked about making cars safer during CART's Sneak Preview last month, I was expecting a somewhat politically correct answer from the charming Italian. Silly me! Alex said that, no he didn't think the cars were a problem -- he thinks that CART's cars are the safest of all the open wheel cars. Zanardi says, in essence, make the tracks safer.

Alex is right. I watched Greg Moore die at California Speedway a little over a year ago. For whatever reasons, a concrete wall was placed in the infield perpendicular to the track. Moore hit that wall, and it helped to end his life. To my way of thinking, it was a death that didn't need to happen, and I can't imagine why the track designers elected to put that wall into their final product. It simply makes no sense.

Unfortunately, to make tracks safer will involve spending more money than promoters will likely want to pay. Too bad. In my not so humble opinion, the loss of life of healthy young men for entertainment purposes is unacceptable. So, it's up to journalists, drivers, fans, and yes, CART itself to insist that all of CART's venues be improved to be as safe as possible. And, if that means less profit, we can only hope that all concerned can take a more longterm view and not just focus on what's earned in one year.

CART's differing course types make this even more imperative. Speedways need to continue to investigate soft wall technology. Road courses need to look into more sophisticated means of slowing down off course vehicles than kitty litter and tire barriers. Street courses need to be laid out in the safest manner possible, and if they cannot be made safe, the races moved to venues that are safe.

What we can't do is cop out and say that racing is simply dangerous and risky. I don't deny it is. So is driving any car under certain conditions. I'm also not advocating that efforts to make the cars safer be abandoned. Nor am I saying that driver safety advances, such as the HANS device, not be considered. What I am saying is that all of these efforts may be less than effective if we don't take a good hard look at our courses and insist on making them safer.


At this year's CART Sneak Preview, Alex Zanardi made reference to the idea that the emphasis on safety should now be on the circuits. I would never argue that any kind of safety should be anything but an emphasis. However, I feel that if there were an emphasis, it should remain with the safety of the cars and the driver compartment.

Here's why. No matter how safe one makes a race track, there will always be something hard to hit. Sand traps, tire walls, and far away walls have been all the rage in Formula One, the leaders in track safety. Yet, Michael Schumacher still found a hard enough wall to break his leg in 1999.

After the Gonzalo Rodriguez tragedy at Laguna Seca in 1999, an effort was made to move some walls back and add some sand traps. Yet, it was one of those sand traps and moved walls that helped propel Patrick Carpentier up and over the wall, catch fencing, and down the other side for a very hard landing.

Soft walls, especially on ovals, may prove to be one of the greatest safety devices ever invented. However, pavement is still, and always will be, hard. And race cars sometimes fly, especially open wheel cars. And when they fly, they eventually have to land. And unless the car and the driver compartment are properly designed, the results can be catastrophic.

Then there are the car to car crashes. No track safety feature will ever be able to do anything for these situations. Jacques Villeneuve slicing Hiro Matsushita's car in half at Phoenix in 1994 is a perfect example.

We don't want to pooh-pooh want Zanardi is saying. There are huge advances that can be made in track safety. However, like the old saying goes, you have to take care of yourself first, and for racing that's making sure that if there needs to be an emphasis on safety, that emphasis continues to be placed on the cars and driver compartment.

The HANS device is the most logical item. Others include preventing objects from penetrating the driver cell, lighter and stronger helmets, advances in cushioning materials around the driver, and energy dissipation within the chassis.

Copyright © 2001 by Lisa Davidson, Russell Jaslow, and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

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