What is the racing world doing about head injuries?

Drivers remain exposed in the world's most thrilling motorsports

IndyCar driver Justin Wilson was in the 12th car to reach the scene of an accident during the Pocono IndyCar 500 two weekends ago. The crash — a relatively unspectacular one — happened further up in the field, but the timing could not have been worse. In the scrum, part of another car’s nose had torn off, skipped two or three feet in the air, and made an unimpeded impact with Wilson’s helmet. Suffering major head trauma, Wilson later died of his injuries.

Amidst an outpouring of support for Wilson’s family from the motorsports community, IndyCar finished its season this past Sunday under a grim specter. Behind the checkered flag, unavoidable questions were being asked: should IndyCar — and more widely, should all forms of open-cockpit racing — close off those cockpits to reduce the chance of severe head injuries?

Three major disciplines of racing still allow open cockpits: IndyCar, Formula One, and the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) Top Fuel division. And despite multiple injuries and deaths in all three related to the exposure of the driver, only the NHRA has started to acquiesce: in 2012, the Top Fuel series began allowing fully closed cockpits, or "canopies," as an option for drivers.

Even before Wilson’s death, the issue was already at the forefront thanks to controversial new aerodynamics kits that IndyCar had introduced at the beginning of this season. Each of the series’ two manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda, were asked by IndyCar to develop these kits to increase performance and draw attention from new fans. And all season, parts have exploded every which way any time there’s been an accident — even when there’s just been one or two cars involved. (The gaudier versions of the aero kits, run on road courses and shorter oval tracks, consist of around 100 separate pieces that attach to the chassis.)

IndyCar’s JR Hildebrand, NASCAR’s Brad Keselowski, and Chip Gannassi — a team owner in both sports — professed support on social media for closed cockpits in the days following Wilson’s death. Some drivers, like IndyCar’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, have been talking about it in the media for a while now. Even David Letterman, a long time part owner of an IndyCar team, has publicly questioned pulling away from the sport entirely.

There are legitimate concerns when it comes to the idea of a fully closed cockpit or canopy. You don’t want to trap a driver who is trying to flee the car after an accident (fires are a major concern when you’re carrying 22 gallons of ethanol onboard). You don’t want the canopy to deflect debris so well that it redirects toward spectators. And you don’t want to warp or obstruct the driver’s field of view, which could lead to more accidents.

But there’s a good chance that, with enough research, these issues could be solved.

IndyCar

Let's be clear — IndyCar drivers walk away from most accidents without much more than a scratch. Considering they can reach speeds of up to 230mph on certain tracks, that feels like a miracle in itself, and it's a testament to the series' commitment to pushing the boundaries of safety while it stretches the limits of speed.

But throughout the years, certain accidents — Wilson's included — have kept the conversation about cockpit safety simmering. At this year's Indy 500, the series had to dial back speeds because a number of cars went airborne in practice. In 2014, IndyCar's James Hinchcliffe was struck in the head by debris and suffered a concussion. (Strangely enough, the debris was from Wilson's car.) In 2011, IndyCar's Dan Wheldon died in an accident when his car went cockpit-first into the fence at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. You can even go back to 2005, when a then-27-year-old Justin Wilson was struck in the head by a tire at a race in Colorado. "If I were an inch taller, I might be dead," he reportedly said after the accident.

The conversation has boiled over after Wilson's death, but does that mean IndyCar is going to pursue the idea of a closed cockpit?

"The FIA [F1's governing body] has done an extensive study on it, and we’ve been tracking their work, because there’s no point in us all duplicating the same kind of research," Derrick Walker, IndyCar’s outgoing director of competition, tells The Verge.

In other words, IndyCar is currently doing very little — almost nothing, in fact — in the way of researching or testing the feasibility of a closed cockpit. Walker says the mostly likely way that the racing series will address open cockpit safety is with an entirely new car, one that’s built with enhanced cockpit safety in mind. That’s something that’s been on the books for a while now at IndyCar, with Walker himself saying in 2014 that a new car could be on the track as early as 2018.

"I think the next-generation car … I can’t imagine that the designers would not try to build a safe drivers cell and chassis that offers more than what they’ve got right now," says Walker. "It wouldn’t be a complete answer, because a complete answer? We’ve yet to find out what that would be at the moment."

But that next-generation car apparently isn’t coming soon. "The next IndyCar is being postponed at the moment," Walker says. Why? "Money. That’s all." According to him, the series just doesn’t have enough cash right now to fund the development of a redesigned chassis.

In the meantime, he says, IndyCar will keep monitoring what the FIA (and in turn, Formula One) is doing, which begs the question: what is Formula One doing about it?

Formula One

F1 is much like IndyCar in that, on the whole, drivers are extremely well-protected considering the the ludicrous high-speed maneuvers they perform. But if there's a weakness, it's the exposure of its drivers. In 2012, test driver Maria de Villota crashed into a safety truck and suffered life-threatening head injuries, later dying of a heart attack that doctors attributed to the crash. This July, driver Jules Bianchi died from injuries sustained in a crash last October, where his car sped off the track and crashed into a tractor. (An official investigation of the accident found that Bianchi's head was subjected to a force 240 times that of gravity.) And beyond outright deaths, there have been many other close calls, like when Felipe Massa was struck in the head by a spring in 2009, or when Kimi Raikkonen almost lost his head earlier this year.

F1 drivers like Massa and Cristiano Da Matta have come out in support of closed cockpits, and the good news is that the FIA — the organization in charge of F1, as well as a number of other racing series — has done a lot of research when it comes to the closed cockpits. In 2011, the FIA’s Institute for Motor Sport Safety and Sustainability tested a partial canopy made of polycarbonate, as well as a full jet fighter-style canopy made of aerospace-grade polycarbonate.

The partial canopy didn’t do so well; when a tire and wheel were fired at it at over 200 kilometers per hour, the windshield shattered and barely changed the deadly object’s direction. The full canopy appeared to perform brilliantly, warping ever so slightly as it flung the tire and wheel away from where the cockpit would be.

In 2012 the Institute tested another solution: a small, angled metal cage in front of the cockpit that successfully deflected the tire and wheel. And last week, it was publicized that the FIA will soon be testing a new type of cockpit protection system that surrounds the driver’s head with blade-like metal guards.

After a screengrab leaked online last week of a wild, blade-like cockpit design, F1 officially announced that the FIA would test "some alternative solutions designed to improve protection from flying debris whilst also providing easy cockpit access" next month. The notion of a full canopy is apparently off the table, though, over concerns at how forcefully the jet fighter canopy redirected the debris. In the announcement about the new round of testing, the series called canopies "problematic" because of how far they can cause debris to ricochet, and for fear that it would restrict the safety crew’s access to the driver during an accident. (Multiple requests by The Verge to speak to the FIA and the FIA Institute about these programs were not returned in time for this piece.)

NHRA Top Fuel

There is a third major open-wheel series out there where drivers race with exposed cockpits, but it’s the only one that's already made an appreciable effort to change that on the track. The Top Fuel division of the NHRA — the one with the 30-foot-long winged dragsters that go over 300mph — has long dealt with violent, fiery wrecks. So, in the 2012 preseason, the sport began testing full canopies.

By the end of that season the series had approved the use of closed cockpits, and made them optional for drivers. It has quick releases on the inside and outside, so that either the driver or a safety crew member can remove it in the event of a crash. There are access ports for fire hoses, and the driver is equipped with a fresh-air breathing system.

A number of Top Fuel drivers already use canopies

All that tech wasn’t easy to integrate. Installing a canopy on a Top Fuel dragster adds about 30 pounds to the weight of the car, and costs a team more than $10,000 outright. That’s not including the fact that, in order to outfit a car with a closed cockpit, it needs something close to an entirely redesigned cockpit in the first place — new seats, padding, and fire extinguishing systems all need to be considered.

The first to bite was eight-time champion Tony Schumacher (whose father’s company, Don Schumacher Racing, designed the canopy that the NHRA adopted). "This is about safety," Schumacher said before his first race with a closed cockpit. "I want every driver to have one. We aren't hiding anything. Again, this is just all about making it safer for all the guys in Top Fuel."

Three more drivers adopted the canopy in 2013. One of those was series champion Antron Brown, who told USA Today that, at first, he struggled with a restricted field of vision and a lack of fresh air. But, like Schumacher, he eventually embraced it.

"You go from a 3/16th-inch piece of Plexiglas between you and 330 miles an hour to a fully enclosed cockpit that's got a ballistic windshield that's bulletproof," Brown told USA Today. "Then you have all the struts to support and embrace your cockpit better. It gives you a lot more support and makes your area stronger where things can't even come to you. We're definitely happy we have that on our race car now."

(Sean O'Kane)

The NHRA appears to be in the early stages of a closed-cockpit revolution. As more teams opt to use a canopy, the weight and the cost are likely to go down. While the series has less to worry about when it comes to visibility — you are, after all, only ever competing against one other driver, instead of 32 others in IndyCar — it seems to have have solved the problems of allowing the driver to safely escape in the event of a fire.

But in IndyCar and Formula One, the drivers’ fates remain squarely in the hands of the FIA. [You can count Formula E in this group, too. A representative for the series told The Verge that "Formula E will work in accordance with the FIA when implementing any future regulations."] It is apparently up to that one governing body alone to find a way around roadblocks like visibility and trapped drivers. Even if the FIA is ultimately successful, Walker says that IndyCar might be slow to address cockpit safety for an entirely different reason: it may not be a top priority. "I don’t think driver head protection is any more or any less [a priority] than a lot of other things we’ve been working on in our safety committee," he says.

Maybe he’s right to look at it that way. Maybe the myriad other concerns when it comes to safety in IndyCar — padding the walls, reevaluating the aerodynamics kits, the exposure of the wheels themselves — are as, or perhaps more, important to overall safety as the exposure of a driver’s head. The flukish nature of these tragic accidents and near misses in open-wheeled racing as a whole might be enough reason not to tear down and rebuild a major part of the sport — but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be the first thing on everyone’s mind the next time debris goes flying.

There’s also the matter of "tradition": open-wheel racing fans and drivers alike often wave that flag every time the sport is threatened with major change. Even Walker admitted as much during our conversation.

"Racing is very old-school in some respects, and probably needs to evolve more to be able to meet and deliver the kind of product that the fans of today might want," he says. "That takes time to understand and do that successfully. It’s not an overnight thing."