Grand Prix course has safety in mind

Published March 28, 2006

HOMESTEAD - Could it happen here?

Could the high-speed collision that killed Indy Racing League rookie Paul Dana at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday happen on the downtown streets of St. Petersburg when the Grand Prix comes to town this weekend?

Certainly, experts say. Auto racing is a dangerous sport, no matter the commitment to safety or numerous technological advances. That ever-present danger was tragically underscored when Dana died after colliding with Ed Carpenter's car in a morning warmup session before the season-opening race.

But if recent history is any indication, the second IRL-sanctioned Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will exhibit a tradeoff between speed and safety, thrill and peril.

Dana was the sixth driver of an Indy-type car to die on the track since 1996, and the first since DeLand native Tony Renna perished when his car went airborne in a turn and into the catch fence at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October 2003.

Four of those fatalities occurred on ovals, however. And no driver has died on a street course since Jeff Krosnoff was killed when his Champ Car went through a fence and struck a tree and light pole at the July 14, 1996, Indy Toronto.

Dr. Steve Olvey, who served as the CART director of medical affairs for 25 years, said St. Petersburg's course, designed by another former CART employee, Kirk Russell, is one of the safest he has seen. That's a start, he said.

"In general, speeds are down on temporary street circuits and if designed properly, quite probably prove to be the safest," said Olvey, who is now a fellow with the FIA Institute for Motor Sport Safety. "St. Petersburg is very well designed and I think is state-of-the-art as temporary street courses go. Kirk has years and years of experience with track design and what causes injury as far as races go."

Russell worked for the Grand Prix last season but was replaced this year with another CART veteran, Dave Lambert.

Two-time defending Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais agreed that the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg course is as safe as any could be, basing his opinion on driving the course in a turbo-charged Champ Car in 2003 that averaged almost 7 mph faster than IRL cars last April. The track went through just a few alterations when the IRL raced here for the first time last spring.

"The fast section is a wide open area on the airport side, so you've got plenty of space to go one way or the other (in case of accident)," Bourdais said. "You've got good visibility, you have one kink in the middle of the back straight, but at that point you're still not going too fast, so I would say it is a typical street course where you've got decent conditions, a pretty wide track and good visibility. It's actually pretty good."

Speeds are generally down on street courses because of the extensive amount of braking and turning.

The greatest speeds at St. Petersburg are reached on the 2,450-foot front straightaway between Turns 14 and 1, where cars attained 180 mph - their maximum speed with that aerodynamic package - near the start/finish line last April.

Whereas Sam Hornish Jr.'s pole speed for Sunday's season-opener on the Homestead oval was 218.539 mph (a record) and winner Dan Wheldon averaged 167.730 mph, Bryan Herta won the pole for the first IRL St. Petersburg Grand Prix at 103.664 and Wheldon's winning average speed was 83.140.

Les MacTaggart, IRL senior technical director, said that while the St. Petersburg course is "overall very good," the sharp angle and backward hook in Turn 1 creates "an environment where you can see a huge potential hazard, where you have one of those straights where you've got cars coming down in a breaking turn and you could have a car going sideways or something and creating a very similar situation to what we had here (Sunday)."

Krosnoff's death was another example of a freak accident demonstrating a weakness in safety procedures, Olvey said. The rookie went airborne with less than five laps left and the car bent back the catch fence as it disintegrated, allowing it to strike a tree and then a light pole outside the course. A track worker was killed by flying debris.

"A lot of attention now is paid to trees and poles (so that if the car) was to get off course, it hopefully wouldn't have much to run into," Olvey said. "That's of particular concern on a street course because you don't have wide-open spaces around like on a road course.

"You're looking for potential things to happen. But you think you think of everything and then some bizarre set of circumstances occurs and you have a whole new scenario."

Olvey warned that although the St. Petersburg course appears to be safe, organizers and safety experts should not be "lulled into thinking you're completely safe." Driver Jim Fitzgerald, 65, a teammate of actor/racer Paul Newman, was killed in the 1987 sports car incarnation of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, but on a different course.

In Olvey's opinion, Dana's accident was not necessarily a byproduct of open-wheel cars racing on ovals. He said the potential for such an impact exists everywhere in any type of vehicle.

IRL street course cars are the same used on ovals with chassis and suspension alterations, bigger wings to create more downforce at slower speeds and more durable cast-iron brakes instead of carbon fiber. Practices become crucial for finding a comfort and safety level for drivers.

"In many ways," MacTaggart said, "we're dealing with a lot of the potential problems as a high-speed oval."

Bourdais knew when he left Europe to make his career in North America that oval speedways dominated the racing landscape of this country. He was pretty sure he wouldn't like it, and not just because he preferred the challenge of racing on streets and road courses.

He was proved right.

"I think the risks are multiplied on an oval," said Bourdais, who much prefers the street- and road course-dominated schedule Champ Car races. "Zero risk does not exist in racing. You need to be a fool to think like that, but obviously on a street course I do not feel as exposed as when I was racing in Vegas or Milwaukee (on ovals)."

Driver Robby Gordon grew up in California with the nerve to race just about anything he could make go fast. He found his limits with open wheel cars on ovals and left to race stock cars in NASCAR four years ago.

"One hundred percent, no ifs, ands or buts about it. Indy cars are too fast for ovals, and they run ovals every weekend," Gordon told USA Today in Monday's Internet edition.

Gordon, who was ninth in the Toronto race in which Krosnoff was killed, told USA Today that a possible future reunification of the IRL and Champ Car series would make racing safer because the merged schedule would likely eliminate some oval track dates.

Safer, but not safe.