Friday, August 23, 2019

Time for Motorsports to Advance On Its Catchfence Issue

So here we are again motorsports… yet again we’re back at it for, what most people don’t realize is, our decades long debate about the danger of motorsports, specifically cars getting into catchfencing above the walls, what a danger it poses and how we can or can’t fix this.

In case you haven’t noticed, the insanity definition applies here, everyone keeps talking about what they think is the problem, how they think it can be fixed, and then nothing really gets done, or tried; then another accident happens and we start all over.

We talk about what is at fault:

  • Bad drivers
  • Bad tracks
  • Bad safety standards
  • Bad car specs/technology
  • Motorsports itself

What can be done about it:

  • Get rid of oval tracks
  • Get rid of superspeedways
  • Invent clear plexi-walls strong enough to hold cars in
  • Invent post-less catch fencing
  • Close the cockpits
  • End open wheel racing outright
  • This is a 1 solution endgame
    • there is a limit to how many advancements can be done
  • Nothing can be done, people should just accept this is the way things will be
    • Catchfencing is working as intended

First let’s start by saying that Pocono is just the latest track to take the brunt of this debate.
The track itself, the layout does not cause what happened, in fact this most recent incident started on a straightaway. How Pocono goes about repairing or maintaining their catchfence might be a topic for another day, but not entirely irrelevant. Frankly I’d hate to see Pocono removed from schedules, as a parent who lives in the northeast it’s easily THE best track to go to for a race weekend with the family because it’s surrounded by indoor waterpark resorts and is generally a lovely area with good food to visit and within a reasonable driving distance, plus it’s a cool and unique track (not a cookie cutter D-oval).

Having listened to people debate this topic yet again, what I think comes so starkly here are a few points that it appears are not registering.

Much of the above problems and solutions are often built on one or more flawed logics:

  1. Assumptions that all motorsports accidents can be pinpointed to a similar common denominator/cause
    1. Don’t account for the vast variety of incidents we’ve seen
  2. No concept of Level of Effort or Level of Impact/Benefit
    1. Things aren’t tested or feasible either technologically or financially
  3. Operate under the false assumption that only a perfect solution is a viable solution, this is all or nothing, small progress is unacceptable
  4. This MUST be a complex issue and thus require a complex solution
    1. Something extraordinary must be done
  5. Failure to do much (if any) research

That last point is really the big one for me here because I feel like if people really stopped to look at some data points it could help drive a better conversation and also point out that a potential advancement/solution that could account for the majority of incidents may not only already exist, but it may have existed for over 20 years at a racetrack both used by IndyCar and NASCAR before.

Though my background is in the tech industry, I’ve worked in operations, procedures, training and fixing problems/solving puzzles for almost 2 decades now. My experience is that often times when there are continual problems that plague process/results, that its human education, motivation and change management that tends to be the largest contributor/component and I believe the same applies here. Everything above is easy to say and walk away, it takes time to solve a problem…

So let’s take the operational approach. To tackle any problem the first thing you have to do is define the problem and then collect historical data on it.


Define the problem scope: 

Many get stuck defining the problem, instead looking at what motivates drivers, causes them to be aggressive, causes cars to go airborne etc. and while much of that is tangible and related elements to the story, I don’t think they composite what is the problem that overarches those things.

If you use the broadest definition I think we can all agree that the thing that worries us so much and want something done about is this:

  • What happens when racecars get above a retaining wall: be it SAFER, Armco or concrete.  
    • Sub-problem now being, what happens when a racecar comes into contact with catch fencing and/or support poles.

Many tend to point at cars getting airborne as the only solvable problem, but I think we can all agree that basic physics says if objects are travelling at high speeds that when impacts are added to the equation, that upward deflection via Newton's 3rd law is a very real possibility and one that can’t be eliminated.

The real problem is how we have been dealing with this fact. There was a time when tracks had nothing above the wall and cars just exited the track, we’ve lost countless drivers and spectators due to that fact  (and this even still mind-bogglingly happens at some local levels) but these days most/if not all major league tracks have catch fencing installed, but catch fencing as many will often say “is performing as intended.” And you have to remember that catch fencing was invented to keep cars and car parts inside the track and nothing else; it was not designed to keep drivers safe, or to reduce impact Gs, simply to keep stuff in the track.

What is the data set?

There are actually a vast number of incidents in question where a racecar has gotten above a wall, this isn’t just an IndyCar issue, or oval issue, or superspeedway issue. I am sure I may have missed an accident in my research, let me know if I need to update but by my count:

Starting in 2000 with Geoff Bodine’s insane incident at Daytona, between the NASCAR and IndyCar sanctioning bodies, we’ve had a car during an accident get above the retaining wall 26 times (or 1.4 times a year). This is not a rare enough occurrence to call it a fluke, but also keep in mind 1500+ races took place from those sanctioning bodies in that time, this is not an epidemic that demands a draconian solution.

IndyCar sanctioning accounts for 17 (16 IndyCar, 1 Indy Lights) and NASCAR the other 9 (Cup 5, Trucks 3, 1 the mid level tier whatever we call it these days).

In those 26 accidents:

  • 23 were on ovals 
    • 18 of the 23 oval accidents happened on super speedways
  • 3 on permanent road courses 
  • 1 on a temporary street course

Within the track itself where on track did the accidents take place?

  • 15 within a turn
  • 2 in a short kink/dogleg
  • 6 on a D-oval’s front “straight”
  • 3 on straight

So eliminating ovals won’t solve everything, eliminating open-wheels doesn’t solve everything, and eliminating super speedways doesn’t quite solve everything… not to mention, are any of those solutions really feasible; are we really going to eliminate Indy, TMS, Daytona and Talledega from motorsports?

Some track’s must be more inherently dangerous than others right? Well yes and no. While some tracks account for more incidents, those 26 incidents span 14 different tracks:

Count of Incidents Above the Wall Since 2000:
5 - Daytona
5 - IMS
4 - Pocono
2 - TMS
1 - Homestead-Miami
1 - Gateway
1 - Las Vegas
1 - Houston Street Course
1 - Road America
1 - Talledega
1 - Watkins Glen
1 - Chicagoland
1 - Fontana
1 - Kentucky

So this moment is where I expect folks to point and say “See Superspeedways/ovals are clearly the issue,” and the data shows that tendency, but again keep in mind that’s 26 incidents over 1600+ races… Solving an issue that has impacted 1% of the races run in the last 19 years by eliminating 35% of the races doesn’t make sense. Not to mention it involves getting rid of 2 motorsports most iconic races/venues, it’s not exactly feasible. Especially when something else all these incidents have in common could allow for a better, cheaper advancement that allows fans and drivers who like that sort of racing to continue.

Different cars/series, different aero configurations, track shapes, temperatures… so what do the incidents all have in common? Every incident had cars travelling at fast speeds getting into accidents… and every incident had a 3-4 foot retaining wall. All but 1 had a catch fence installed on top of it…   The 1 incident that didn’t fit that bill was actually Kasey Kahne at Pocono in 2010 (pictured above) when there still wasn’t fencing or anything above the wall at all on the back stretch… but Pocono has a fence there now, so all the major tracks at present have a 3-4 foot wall with a catch fence on top… and that has been the norm for all major tracks on the schedules… except one to my knowledge...

Going back to catchfences, one of the most common phrases from track operators and officials is that catchfences operate as designed. The problem is that their purpose/design comes at an obvious cost of danger to the driver/car. One could even make a case that that catchfences actually DON’T work as fully intended as there are several incidents where the fence failed to keep all the pieces/parts of the car inside the track and many where the incident resulted in injury to spectators and workers. Now could they have been worse without a catch fence? Absolutely.  Catchfences are certainly better than nothing in so many regards.

But more to the point on the pros/cons of catchfences, the obvious con when reviewing the incidents is that catchfences make things drastically worse for a driver/car. In every single incident in the dataset, accidents got drastically worse for the driver once the car came into contact with the catch fence adding G-forces and additional impacts to the accident. So can that be improved upon, and can we even improve on the fact that catch fences don’t always do their job of keeping parts inside the track?


So what advancement am I proposing? Well I’m not taking credit at all because it’s not my idea, my “advancement” is to expand someone else’s advancement… something already done, just not replicated at any other tracks for some odd reason… and unlike many of the proposals brought up in debate, it DOES apply to 100% of the incidents.

Proposed Advancement: Make walls higher 

Justin Wilson back in 2015 talked about this very idea with Fox Sports; his total vision was a bit more radical (included enclosing all the fans within the track) but it was, at heart, the same premise to raise the walls.

Sam Schmidt actually got into the idea of raising walls as well after Mikhail Aleshin and Robert Wicken’s incidents, and nothing really came of it… in fact his premise is more on track where I’m going to go:
“what I've asked for since then is that in the turns where there is no grandstand so no spectator sight-lines are affected, they should go double-high with the SAFER barrier.” 
"If you looked at a replay of Mikhail's accident, at Robbie's accident, and others - including NASCAR - another three feet of SAFER barrier would have contained the car within the track without this cheese-grater effect that catchfencing has."
"I don't know if that's a long-term fix, I don't know the level of investment required, but certainly on turns where spectator viewing isn't an issue, the oval tracks need to do something like that."

Felix Rosenqvist mentions the idea of taller walls just this last week after he was the most recent driver to come into contact with a catch fence:

But what is more interesting is that this idea, taller walls, isn’t even a hypothetical advancement, we can’t say its not feasible because its already been done before...

For those who may not know/remember, Twin Ring Motegi in Japan is dual track facility: a road course and an oval that run within each other. The 1.5 mile oval track first appeared on the major racing scene in 1998 starting in the CART schedule until 2002 and then moving to the IRL/merged IndyCar schedule from 2003 until 2010. It also hosted a NASCAR race in 1998, (actually the first race Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. raced in together).

IndyCar fans probably most remember Twin Ring Motegi for being unique in that it was egg-shaped (cue Jack Arute holding up an egg), meaning turns 1&2 were different turn angles/banking than 3&4. There is something else that differentiates turns 1&2 from 3&4 that was mostly unnoticed. Turns 1&2 have catchfencing but turns 3&4 do not.

What turns 3&4 have instead are massive tall gap-less steel walls “disguised” as advertising, meaning if a car were to get higher than the 3 foot SAFER barrier, the car would not get grabbed, caught and spun by a catch fence; instead would simply cross above SAFER barrier to another flat surface. Wilson actually mentioned Motegi when he was interviewed.

We can’t say a tall wall is hypothetical when a track that was used by the sanctioning bodies for 10+ years had it. What about feasibility? Can similar types of tall walls be implemented all over every inch of every track? No, but do we even need to do that? Reminder this is about making progress and the most impact to safety without impacting motorsports as we know it. The majority of accidents found where a car got above the 3’ walls at tracks happened within the turns.

In fact, many of the accidents actually took place in sections where there are no grandstands behind the fencing and in some cases (Ryan Briscoe @ Chicagoland 2005, Pablo Perez @ Homestead in 2007, and Mikhail Aleshin Fontana in 2014) billboard advertising is already behind the catchfence anyway; so this means nothing would be lost for sightlines/seating. If anything tracks could spin it as a way to get advertising dollars and help pay some of the cost.

But its not all perfect and easy, lets be clear, a Motegi style 20’ tall wall solution doesn’t solve everything, but it would solve the vast majority of spots where these incidents took place. On a minor side, there is a sacrifice in aesthetics or adding walls/advertising to a spot where there wasn’t anything previously.

But what do you do about the 4 turns at Indy, or some of the spots at TMS where adding a 20 foot tall wall would severely impair grandstand views or eliminate them altogether? This is where you go to analysis of each incident. Looking at each of the crashes in slow motion to pinpoint a very important detail. If a car got over the wall, how high was it when it initially got over the wall? Essentially how tall would a wall have needed to be to stop that car from being grabbed by the catch fence?

This is an important detail because in 100% of the accidents that involved a car getting into the catch fence, the catchfence every time made the accident worse for the car/driver, and in most case escalated the height. So we’re not asking how high did the highest point of the car ever get in course of the incident, but how high would a raised wall need to have been to prevent the interaction with fencing/poles from ever starting.

As an example, Robert Wickens 2008 crash at Pocono, the car actually initially makes impact with the SAFER barrier, then rises up and rides the wall for a few hundred feet until it finally gets caught in the catchfence and that’s when the car gets pulled up vertically due to the friction. If you replaced the first 3-6 feet of catchfence with a solid Motegi-style wall, or even just made the SAFER 3-4 feet taller, does that accident even escalate the same way it did?

Of the 26 times a car got over the wall, how high were they when they initially went over the wall?

  • 14 of them 0-3 feet above the wall
  • 8 of the 4-6 feet above
  • 3 of them 7+ feet above the wall

Now my measurements are not exact as I’m scaling based on video/object reference but it’s safe to say the mass majority of the incidents the car initially got over the wall within a 6’ range. The reality is that a Motegi 20’+ tall wall may not even be required.

Take Mike Conway’s famous incident at Indy, his car impacted within the 6’ height range above the wall, but more importantly the grandstands in that area don’t even start until 8’-10’ above the wall. Why is there even catch fence for those first 8 feet? Adding wall there would not impact anyone in the grandstand’s view…

So let’s say we just want to do taller walls in general, the height is determined by what the area can accommodate, where would taller walls be viable/effective? Would raising the wall be doable without majorly impacting/obstructing any grandstand viewing? Of the 26 accidents analyzed:

  • 16 of the accidents, the spot of the incident a taller wall is 100% doable, no issues, no grandstands behind the fence
  • For 4 of the accidents – It’s viable but the track may lose a small insignificant amount of seating/views, I’d argue the benefit far outweighs the loss, as in all cases its low level seats that are often empty anyhow.
  • For 1 incident not viable at all, but that was the Houston street course that doesn’t even exist anymore anyway
  • For 5 of the incidents it’s not as easily viable because we’re talking about Daytona and Talledega’s front D-shaped straight stretch, you may not be able to add 6 feet of wall, but would 3 more hurt that bad? But for arguments sake lets count those as a no.

This means that without changing the cars, the tracks, the drivers, or asking tracks/fans to sacrifice seating, you could have likely prevented 15-19 of those accidents from escalating due to eliminating catchfencing/poles playing a part. Really the question would by why not do it? Clearly drivers want added safety for themselves for when an accident does get out of bounds, they’ve never liked catchfencing and the danger it poses, what is there to lose to implement something another track has already done especially in the areas where no views get blocked.


So where do we go from here? 

I think the biggest and most important next step is to get people to talk about and acknowledge these facts and questions. For many of us, we’re not in a position within a racing body or working at tracks, but most of us are on social media, and at tracks and events where those people are. Ask track workers, track operators, drivers, team owners, engineers, series officials etc. what they think of taller walls, ask them what they think of the Twin Ring Motegi design in turns 3 & 4.

Ask people to look into this and don’t let people ignore that taller walls already exist, don’t let people think this is an extraordinary problem that requires an extraordinary, absolute or draconian solution. Advancements to fix some spots at tracks is better than fixing nothing. The more people talk about this idea the more pressure there is for those in the right positions to at least have to acknowledge the idea and hopefully work out its feasibility, much like the implementation of SAFER barriers in the early 2000s, you need one big domino/track to participate and then its likely that others will follow… put the pressure on for people to stop brushing this off.


Appendix: I anticipate some folks might want to see the list/data of the incidents, so I wanted to be sure to provide this. You can find video of just about all these incidents on YouTube if you'd like to double check my analysis on impact heights etc. but be forewarned, once you look up 1-2 of these on YouTube, its gonna think you like this sort of thing and start recommending all the most horrible crash videos people have uploaded. Alas here is the info I compiled:

Motorsports accidents above the wall 2000-2019