Not Good Enough


It doesn’t seem so very long ago when we were all left in stunned disbelief following the death of Dan Wheldon, October 16, 2011.


Maybe it’s because it hasn’t been that long really. 

Now resigned to the terrible result of another all too fateful moment on Sunday, I finally had to take a moment away from my work duties this morning to read what I wrote in the hours (of shock and disgust with the sport) and days (of ‘Indycar family’ and hope) following Wheldon’s death. 

Seeing the television footage of the helicopter rising from its mid-track perch at Pocono on Sunday was an all too familiar scene and one that left me suspended between disbelief, despair, and hope. 

I told my kids this morning about Justin dying before they left for school. Certainly far from ideal timing but I also I didn’t want them to not hear it from me. 

Nick, Justin, Ellie. Milwaukee 2012.
Photo: (c) Lynne Zehr
My daughter is a casual fan who could name several drivers and recognize a few by face. My son has a bit of deeper interest and knows most every car and driver visually. In the case of Justin Wilson, he represents a rare moment that they both shared with him in Milwaukee back in 2012. 

He had just finished a TV report of his riding the Milwaukee Indyfest ferris wheel with a young fan and was heading back to the paddock. We just happened to be walking nearby and asked for a quick photo opportunity with him which he so graciously, and so ridiculously-commonly, obliged. 

That was over three years ago and while my kids have grown so much when compared to the picture, they both remember this moment quite vividly and fondly. Both were saddened to hear the news I had to share with them this morning. 

I was equally sad to have to deliver it.

Having just surpassed my recent “Gurney Eagle/Jerry Karl/Foyt’s third entry” birthday, each year seems to bring more energy into my brain for more existential pondering – “what, if any, is the purpose and meaning of life?”

You may have also read my recent post with the same question bent specifically toward the sport of Indycar. Having little remaining hope that Indycar will ever be any sort of genuine ‘innovative and working future-thought laboratory’ for auto manufacturers as I’d dream, I have finally come to grips that this sport is set-up primarily as an entertainment vehicle which sells thrills and tradition and nostalgia in direct support of the Indianapolis 500 and the benefit of those who own the event and property.

“Duh.” might be your response. 

Fair enough, but I bought in early and heavily into the ideals found in automotive innovation found in the golden years of auto-racing (c. early-1960s to mid-1980s). Giving up on that ideal has been difficult for sure as it represents, to me, all that is good about people – the unfailing human desire to achieve and progress – working together to improve the things in our lives and the world around us.

That flicker of optimism found in human nature as reflected in the form of automotive racing has finally been extinguished for me. So what is left is simply a sport as entertainment vehicle. 

What is left is simply not good enough. 

This sport, as we are all too-well aware, is horrifically brutal. There are moments of thrilling performance to be sure, but when things go wrong, it seems it is always in spectacular fashion. I’ve written before about the ‘the long dark thread’ woven into the fabric of autosport. Sunday was evidence that thread is long and continuous. 

And so here we are again.

Another death. 

Another widowed family. 

Another horrible event in a long list of horrible events. 

It seems that only numerous, and somewhat random factors, align to produce these darkest of events which often leave us with nothing else to ponder but “why?” Could every single death of every single racing driver and fan have been prevented somehow? Of course, but it’s always that strange alignment of wrong thing, wrong place, wrong time. 

In pursuit of something so uncommonly amazing, such as landing a human on the moon, the risks are significant and great and their achievement stands as incredible historical human events. People lined up to be selected for those ridiculously dangerous roles because their desire was so great to risk their very essence to be a part of that history.

For me, Indycars racing around tracks on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon for the benefit of thousands watching in person or on broadcast are not of such gravitas. Likewise nor do I think the similar risk of life is worth the paltry sums of either glory or riches we have today in autosport, and Indycar specifically.

Therefore, I simply find no good, remaining excuse you can give me why the safety of the competitors (and crews and fans) isn’t paramount anymore. You may want to argue with me whether safety is or isn’t paramount, but following and understanding what has happened in this sport over the last 40 years, I’m of the informed opinion that cost-containment, not safety, is at the forefront. That isn’t to say that the current cars aren’t amazing in how they protect drivers and fans, but that safety needs to be at the forefront of autosport design now. 

The time for making only reactionary improvements in safety has long passed. These people aren’t sound-barrier or moonshot pilots, they’re highly skilled drivers of cars for entertainment purposes. I have no desire to see people on either side of the fence get maimed or killed for a paltry bit of entertainment. 

What we have is simply not good enough. 

Justin Wilson knew all too well the risks involved. By most all accounts he also was a very thoughtful and genuine person who spoke often of his concerns for the safety of fans and drivers alike. We know there are significant risks that have existed for several years and still need to be addressed as evidenced by the most recent injuries and fatalities from cockpit intrusion in autosport, and especially over the last seven years. I call for this issue to be addressed now via development of the full enclosure of the cockpit from all manner of intrusions. End of story. It will take nothing away from the sport and it’s enjoyment. 

Not just incrementally better but BEST driver protection should be the new hallmark.

No amount of tradition, nostalgia, or perception of danger is worth this. No excuse you can give me for not immediately pursuing, testing, and incorporating designs fully-enclosed cockpits in Indycar is acceptable. Anything short of this is not acceptable and I’ll go one further and propose that NO MORE Indycar racing should occur after Sonoma until this is properly done. 

What we have is simply not good enough.

I’m telling everyone in the positions of power and rule over the sport of Indycar – I will not watch people die anymore for the sake of mere entertainment. 

No reason you can give me, or Susie Wheldon or Julia Wilson or whomever the next is to be widowed by this brutal sport, is good enough.


What we have today is simply not good enough.

 
Right now, this sport is simply not good enough to go on.






Perception Is Everything

“There are things known,

and things unknown, 
and in between 
are the doors of perception”
– Aldous Huxley

With a relatively late-in-the-day 4-hour drive home from the Milwaukee Mile Sunday night, and my fully-tired 11-year-old son asleep in the co-pilot’s seat, I had some extended solitude with which to consider my very enjoyable weekend in West Allis, Wisconsin. 

Typically, I’ll stay off Twitter while at a race because I am a big advocate of simply filling your senses with the many inputs received during a race.  This beautiful Sunday, however, tweeting while watching the racing as moments allowed, came much more easily than in other recent events (Indy 500). While doing so, following others’ comments via twitter confirmed for me my belief that the intake of the product in-person and for those not on-site is different and that those differences are quite marked.  I also noted that even at various locations in this relatively small venue, the experience is different. 

Reflecting during my drive I was left with many positives over those 36 hours, but also two crucial items that I believe strongly Indycar must concern themselves with: what the product is and how to best manage its perception (or reception). Since I’ve already written about the existential ennui of Indycar multiple times, I’m going to take aim at how it’s perceived.

During practice and qualifying, I took a seat near the end of the front straight in the front row, just 15 feet away from the cars at speed. 179 mph trap speeds at a range of 15 feet or less is close to mind-blowing, and especially so when watching them negotiate a seemingly-impossible 180-degree, flat-arc change of direction over the next five seconds. 

Much as you have, I’ve seen in-car camera views of them going upwards of 235 mph, but being in-person and so close, even at 180, is the best way to really sense how fast they’re going. For the race, my seats were near the same point of the straight but within 3 rows of the top. Huge difference in perception! 50′ above and approximately 75′ away from those cars (see pic – P = Practice, R = Race). The cars look fairly fast yet fairly benign from that location.



Imagine going from standing on a sidewalk proximity to a 7th floor window view across a four-lane street. Sure the overall view is better, it simply isn’t the same experience in any regard.  I’ve always been an advocate of sitting as closely as possible as it seems in direct correlation with how amazing the sensation of the cars speed is.  

Herein lies my point – Indycar MUST be able to give as many fans as possible this experience. Even if not everyone could sit in Row 1 and see them speeding by, to have this in practice gives a new perspective on just how fast these cars are, even at “just 180 mph”. 

The perception that the racing isn’t very thrilling unless masses of cars are heaped on top of each other goes away quite rapidly when you see just one of these cars ripping by you that closely at speed. You can quite easily see the difficulty of their proposition and to then consider a tightly bunched pack is, in fact, lunacy.

Getting more fans closer access needs to be a priority even in the age of moving fans farther away from the danger. It’s imperative that the fan see just how amazing these cars are and as closely as possible. Finding a way to also get that sensation communicated via a camera to a remote viewer is a challenge even-bigger although the in-car cameras begin to approach it. 


I’ve yet to see the TV coverage from this weekend but I’m sure I’ll be quite amazed at how poorly the sensation of speed comes across. Other forms of racing may be suited for the types of camera angles we’ve seen for decades, but Indycar would do itself much credit to develop an entirely new way of receiving the product for those not in attendance and also figuring out a way to emphasize how being in-person is the best way to see it.

I can’t even remember how many times I’ve said, “TV doesn’t do it justice”.  Perhaps no other sport I’ve attended reflects this sentiment quite as much.

Blow up the decades-old methods of visually presenting Indycars at speed from high above and a wide-angles.  

Give us a view and a sensation that is totally unique and amazing.


Editor’s Note: I’ll have some continuing thoughts on this subject as a guest blogger over at Oilpressure.com tomorrow for the Brainstorming Series.

2012 Milwaukee Indyfest and a Joule of an Idea

With the Milwaukee Indycar race being the final leg of our 12-day family summer vacation, you’ll forgive me for not posting since just before the Indy 500 race weekend.So much has already transpired and been written by others since my last post for me to fathom another recap so I’ll simply jump to the here and now.


In short, my first trip to the Milwaukee Mile was great. Not only did it cap a terrific extended family vacation, but I left quite satisfied at the ease we had in doing most everything in and about the track. Luck perhaps, but I feel more than comfortable considering the trip again for 2013. Also, I found the Milwaukee Indyfest plan and execution quite good for the venue and would encourage them to adopt the same ‘event-based’ approach in the future. With kids, we took advantage of the midway and family fun zone which added much value for us in addition to the racing event itself. Full marks for Andretti and his team for producing an enjoyable event around the race.  


I have noted in the past on this blog that outside of the Indy 500, Indycar must create an ‘event’ at each stop to draw more than just adults interested solely in Indycar racing or  relatively uninterested persons there because a corporation doles out the free tickets and swag. Andretti Sports Marketing did a terrific job on an abbreviated timeframe in my opinion.


And now, for what may be the best little gem I found during the Indyfest… The Joule


I am the first to admit that any sort of engineer I am not, but also in previous posts here and here, I contend the series needs to consider developing its platform around propulsion system competition. In light of the recent victory by a ‘hybrid’ engine at the 24 hours of LeMans, efficient propulsion systems will only continue to become a larger factor in passenger car decision-making. If Indycar can become a showcase for a variety of propulsion systems and hybrids of those with an emphasis on efficient power, it can entrench itself in the automotive racing landscape of the future.


With that in mind, I was struck by a non-descript booth in the Fan Village of the Milwaukee Indyfest. Hosted by the Milwaukee School of Engineering, this group displayed an open-wheeled vehicle used in a recent competition utilizing battery electric and internal combustion motors to propel their vehicle on (what I recall in a brief conversation as, but don’t quote me) 20 megajoules of energy equivalent over a 22km street course. First team to cross the finish line with the given amount of energy available, wins. 


Apparently the Joule is the measure for multiple forms of energy (combustibles, electric, etc.) I’ve been longing to discover as a means of having an equivalent measure of energy to apply to multiple forms of racing propulsion. The megajoules used in the above contest was described to me as the equivalent of energy that would be provided (if used entirely as gasoline) by approximately one-eighth gallon of standard 87-octane automobile fuel in an internal combustion system to go 13 miles (roughly 104 mpg) or taken as all-electric power would equate to approximately 5.5 kilowatt hours. The MSOE car utilized both battery electric motors and a small internal combustion motor to propel their vehicle.


I was fascinated by the possibilities this type of racing could present and really believe it is the wave of the future which should be embraced as quickly as possible. Does it need to be the primary racing form for Indycar now? Not initially, but could be addressed as an experimental class that races concurrently at several of Indycar’s variety of venues, with the future possibilities to be explored from there. 


Ultimately, I see the continued challenge to develop the most efficient of multiple forms of propulsion as what will become the prime focus for manufacturers and producers of mobility vehicles. Where brute speed was once king, things eventually changed and the future almost certainly holds the continued refinement of efficient power. The DeltaWing begins to scratch the surface from the physical load side of the equation. The propulsion system is the other.


I would love nothing more than for Indycar to become that major player in developing or becoming the series that allows these companies to showcase the newest in propulsion technology. 


I also hope I (or at least my kids) will be around to see it.