Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Is there a lesson for motorcycle rules committees in the Dan Wheldon crash?

I heard about Dan Wheldon's fatal IndyCar crash on Sunday, when I dropped by a friend's place for dinner. He told me that crash footage was already on the web, but I haven't seen it; my personal rule is not to (purposely) watch crashes that end anyone's career.

I was at the gym yesterday, which is the only place I'm exposed to actual television. There's a wall of TVs in front of the cardio equipment, and when I looked up I saw snippets of "analysis" on ESPN, CNN, etc. I also saw photos on the New York Times website.

The 'Vegas track was modified a few years ago, when they increased the steepest banking angle to 20 degrees from 12. That meant that top speeds increased to, like, 225 miles an hour. I remember, maybe 15-20 years ago, when Scott Goodyear lapped the Michigan track at 230-something, and people in IndyCar muttered that it was maybe time to do something about those speeds because if anything went wrong, there would be carnage. Last weekend, despite the fact that the rules governing IndyCar are far stricter than they were in Goodyear's day, lap speeds were nearly that high on the 'Vegas track -- and it's a mile shorter than the Michigan superspeedway.

The Newtonian response to Wheldon's crash is note that Energy=Mass times Velocity squared. All else being equal, a crash at 225mph 'IndyCar' speeds dissipates about 60% more energy than one at 180mph 'NASCAR' speeds. Danica Patrick, in the aftermath of the recent IndyCar incident, noted that she wouldn't mind putting those speeds behind her when she completes her transition to NASCAR for the 2012 season.

The Machiavellian response to the Wheldon crash is that it will finally give IndyCar the marketing hook it has needed for about 10 years. "NASCAR is great, too. For girls. Real men race open-wheel cars."

You can pussyfoot around it all you want, but there's no point in denying the fact that a large part of the audience appeal in mass-market car racing is "wantin' ta see wrecks." One of the reasons that I'm of two minds about promoting motorcycle racing to a wider, mass-market, audience is that in our dumbed-down culture, a big crowd will inevitably be watching for wrecks and incapable of understanding the nuances of actual racing.

Don't get me wrong; there's (sometimes) a distinction between wrecks and fatalities. Over the last 30 years or so, NASCAR's been very good at building up the brand value of drivers, and it doesn't want them killed; it's bad for business. So they use restrictor plates and a bunch of other rules that, taken together reduce lap speeds to threshold below which driver survival is (nearly) guaranteed. As a, ahem, side-effect of those rules, however, the cars run very close together in drafting packs and there are plenty of crowd-pleasing wrecks.

Notwithstanding the Newtonian and Machiavellian responses, though, it was obvious that the Wheldon crash was the result of a series of events that unfolded very quickly as a large pack of cars traveled at very high speed in close formation. Clearly one part of that equation is that a rolling start on a speedway yields a closely spaced pack for a long time under almost any conditions. In current IndyCar racing -- it's nearly a spec series -- all cars' performance is very close. The difference between the pole time at 'Vegas, and Wheldon's time -- he qualified way back in 28th place -- was less than 2%.

We've seen a similar compression in qualifying times in MotoGP, with the advent of the spec tire and/or traction control era. The evolution of MotoGP rules continues, and the stated goal of rules changes in recent years has usually been to help (or force) teams to control costs. Much closer qualifying times are a side effect. The only reason we don't see huge packs of bikes racing close together for the first few laps until they string out, is that the grid is so sparse to begin with.

Curiously, the racing's not nearly so good as the tight qualifying results would imply. That's a subject for another post. Of course, the rules of Moto2 make that even more of a spec class, and with its larger grids it has been a crash-fest since its inception. With lots of bikes riding in tight formation for long periods, the occasional crash in which a rider is left on the track in the path of following riders is inevitable. Tomizawa's crash at Imola last year is just one recent example of how much more dangerous such crashes are in the world of motorcycle racing (although it occurred after the field had strung out.)

Restrictor-plate racing has bunched up the fields in AMA Pro Racing flat track competition, too. Races have been pretty thrilling as a result, and we've done OK, safety-wise. We're keeping speeds under control and there's more air fence than there used to be. In the Pro class, the singles races on big tracks are pure drafting battles that are exciting to watch but I think they're a recipe for disaster.

My point in writing this post is that historically, motorcycle racing has been great to watch when there were battles up and down the field, but it doesn't necessarily need huge packs of riders who can't get away from each other.

Maybe it's time to free up the rules and let that happen, before we have our own Dan Wheldon horror crash. You guys all seem to want more TV coverage of motorcycle racing, but I don't want to get my sport on TV that bad.


  1. Presumably you mean Misano, regarding Tomizawa?

    Something's got to be done regarding MotoGP. I've gone back to F1, and who'd have thought that 6 or 7 years ago?

  2. Oops, yes. Misano. Sorry. I have a real problem separating those two tracks in my mind. Which is strange, since I've ridden both of them. That never used to happen to me before I hit my head!

  3. Your words are somewhat prophetic this post, Mark... "... horrific crash. You guys all seem to want more TV coverage of motorcycle racing, but I don't want to get my sport on TV that bad."

    R.I.P. Marco Simoncelli