Monday, October 17, 2011

More on risk

I've said before, either on this blog or on Google plus that I feel that mentally competent adults should have the right to take risks.

I feel that I should have the right to get on a horse without worrying about whether my health insurers will pay if I fall off...or worse, worrying that they might sue the horse's owner into bankruptcy if I do hurt myself.

I feel that people should have the right to choose whether they wear safety gear (although I would prefer that they did) unless, of course, they have agreed to waive that right by signing a contract. However, I am adamantly against any sporting body (NCHA, I'm looking at you) banning safety gear or campaigning against its use.

Yesterday, the final IndyCar race of the 2011 season went horribly wrong. During qualifying, more than one driver expressed concern about high qualifying speeds, with the pole position driver and several others hitting 222 miles per hour on the relatively tight 1.5 mile oval.

Ten laps into the race it happened. Even on slow replay, the cause of the crash was hard to determine, but all it took was for two cars to touch wheel to wheel to set off the 'Big One'. Problem is...these were not stock cars. Multiple cars spun and the car driven by Will Power was launched into the air.

Towards the back of the pack, Paul Tracy hit the brakes to try and avoid the carnage ahead of him. Driving close behind him was 33-year-old veteran Dan Wheldon, who had failed to get a full time ride for the 2011 season and was driving in only his second race.

He could not stop in time. His car hit the back of Tracy's, flipped and went airborne. Once an open wheel car is inverted, the technology designed to keep them gripping the track can send them even higher, and this was not the normal rapid end over end flip. Instead, the car slammed into the catch fence above the soft barrier, a device designed to prevent spectator deaths from flying debris or cars, and caught fire, spinning horizontally and finally coming to rest well down the track. At some point, the roll 'pod' designed to protect the driver from head and neck injuries came detached from the 'capsule' that houses the driver.

Dan Wheldon was airlifted to the nearest hospital, and pronounced dead two hours later.

The fourteen other drivers involved in the crash walked away. Three - Will Power, Pippa Mann and J. R. Hildebrandt were taken to the hospital. Power was released that night, although he has already said he will not be driving next week in Australia as planned. Mann and Hildebrandt were kept overnight for observation.

Ironically, Wheldon, left without a ride, spent most of 2011 test driving the 2012 chassis, which addresses many safety concerns. He spent the last year of his life trying to prevent accidents like the one that claimed it.

However, there are two key facts here. Very key.

1. Dan Wheldon knew the risk. So did his widow. Do I have every sympathy for him and his family? Absolutely. But he chose to be a race car driver. It was what he was good at, it was his gift and what he did well.

2. Fourteen drivers walked away. Including the other driver who's car went airborne, although Power did apparently suffer from minor injuries to his lower back and might well be buying his chiropractor's next new car. Had this accident happened fifteen or even ten years ago, we would be looking at probably at least two driver fatalities, if not more. Instead, we have one. A tragedy, yes. But not the tragedy it could have been. Heck, if this accident had happened twenty years ago, we would probably be looking at dead spectators.

There are people who are going to say 'open wheel racing is too dangerous'. To which I respond 'Yes, but those drivers know exactly what they are getting into'. Just as I know that when I get on a horse I face the risk of an unscheduled dismount and possible injury, so any race driver knows that when they climb into that cockpit, they face very real risks. Serious risks.

Can and should those risks be mitigated? Definitely. In fact, I will stick my neck out and say that had these drivers been driving the Safety Cell chassis that will be used for 2012, there is a very real chance this fatality would not have happened. The new chassis has a deeper cockpit with much better integration of the roll pod with the cockpit capsule (which might well have saved Wheldon), and the chassis encloses the front of the rear wheels. This should reduce the risk of a car going airborne and improve safety for both drivers and spectators.

On top of that, this happened on a new track which the drivers did not like...the drivers said it was too fast, and they were right. The drivers also said the field was too big, and they were right. Indy needs to apply something like the NASCAR restrictor plate system on these tight ovals so that the top speed is restricted. (NASCAR, generally, tries to avoid having cars go over 200 miles per hour and, in general, stock car racing is safer than open wheel). The promoter had a lot riding on this race, financially...and perhaps it should have been canceled. I hope that in the future the drivers are listened to.

But does this mean we should stop racing? Or stop racing on ovals? Heck no. I suspect that Dan Wheldon would be the first to chime in with that heck, no...closely followed by Dale Earnhardt, Ayrton Senna and the rest.

Risk is part of life and part of almost all sports. As somber as it is to reflect on tragedy, we must learn from it and move on. This could also be applied to any other field of human endeavor, such as, say, the space program.