Monday, October 17, 2011

More Thoughts on Dan Wheldon

I spent most of my day today thinking about the tragedy that befell us yesterday. Try as I might to keep myself busy at work, my mind kept drifting to thoughts about Dan. "Why am I so sad?" I kept asking myself. "He was an athlete, you never knew him. Why is this affecting you so much?" At home tonight, it finally hit me why I felt the way I did, and I started bawling like a baby.

I lost a friend.

Typing those words, I began to lose it again. I never knew Dan personally, but here I am, crying at my computer, thinking about what Dan has meant to me, meant to the sport I love so dearly, and the legacy he leaves behind.

Dan is a driver whose career I watched unfold in front of me. I actually attended his first IndyCar start, at Chicagoland Speedway in 2002. I was in attendance for both his Indianapolis 500 victories in 2005 and this year in 2011. In 2005, I saw this snobby British kid who thought he was God's gift to racing. In 2011, after a few bad years, and when I was ready to write off his IndyCar career, he proved me wrong by showing the rawest emotion I have ever seen in Victory Circle at Indy. He held his son, Sebastian, and made him as much a part of the celebration as the wreath and the jug of milk. He was truly happy and appreciative of what he had just accomplished.

I saw his infectious smile and absolute love for the sport when we worked on the broadcast crew for a few races over the summer. I had fallen in (strictly platonic) love with Dan Wheldon, as did the entire IndyCar community. Everyone was so happy for Dan being the test driver for the new car. There are even rumors that he had already signed the contract to run full-time in next season in the GoDaddy car that Danica is leaving behind for NASCAR.

And I know that I am not the only IndyCar fan that feels this way. I can assure you that almost everyone affiliated with IndyCar, fan or otherwise, has shed tears for Dan Wheldon. Marshall Pruett, IndyCar journalist and former IndyCar mechanic, has had drivers perish in cars that he prepared, had cleaned his driver's blood from the car, but never once cried.

Until yesterday in Las Vegas at McCarran International waiting for his flight to arrive, in front of complete strangers.

The fact that the IndyCar world is so shaken to its core is a true testament to Dan's character. No one is mourning the champion that was lost, but rather, from the outstanding human being that was taken from this Earth far too early.

I will probably miss Dan Wheldon for the rest of my life, so long as I am a racing fan. Though times like these are difficult, it's more important than ever to stick together and continue doing and supporting what we love. Dan would not want the world to stop on his account. And it is for this reason we must continue forward.

I think it would be fantastic if IndyCar instituted a "Dan Wheldon Competitor of the Year" award to the driver exhibiting the humility, friendliness, and selflessness that Dan portrayed. Dan's memory needs to be upheld in as many ways as possible. As James Hinchcliffe suggested on Twitter, every Dallara chassis that Dan worked so hard to develop should all have "DW" as part of its serial number. IndyCar is assembling a trust fund for the wife and two boys that Dan leaves behind. IndyCar drivers are assembling items to auction off and donate all proceeds to the Wheldons.

Despite all the turmoil, I have never been more proud to be an IndyCar fan based on the paddock's actions alone. Dan's memory will live on in everyone.

I can't seem to draw this together to a logical conclusion, so I will leave you with Marty Reid's closing comments as the broadcast came to an end yesterday, words that will stick with me forever.

"Many people ask me why I sign off 'until we meet again.' Because goodbye is always so final. Goodbye, Dan Wheldon."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Remembering Dan Wheldon

IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was killed today at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a 15-car pileup on lap 12 of 200. The race was immediately red-flagged to clean up the carnage. The drivers who were not involved in the wreck who came around and saw what was left on the next lap described the scene as "something from a Terminator movie", "something from Hollywood that looks way more over the top than would happen in real life." After two hours, what we had all feared was confirmed, that Dan had been killed from "unsurvivable injuries." I was at my dad's house watching with him, and we both immediately broke into tears. The race was not finished. The remaining 19 cars drove five parade laps in Dan's honor.

First and foremost, this has to be one of the worst fatalities IndyCar has ever suffered. I believe you have to go back to Mark Donahue's death in the 80s to find someone that was both a series and Indianapolis 500 champion. Dan was one of the greatest people in the IndyCar paddock. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone that didn't like Dan.

He started the season without a ride. He decided to make calculated moves to put him in strong cars for a few races rather than a so-so car for the year. He shocked the world at Indy this year when he won on the last lap after rookie JR Hildebrand hit the wall on the last lap coming out of turn four. Saddled without a ride for the rest of the season, he was pegged by IndyCar, Dallara, and Honda to be the test driver for the new car coming next season. It's unfortunate that he won't be able to drive the car he developed at full-song.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had put together the IndyCar World Championships as the season finale at Las Vegas. The GoDaddy Challenge was put forth that if an outside driver could come in and win the race, they would take home a $5million paycheck. When no drivers surfaced (Travis Pastrana was interested, then he broke his ankle), a new path was forged. Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon would start from the back of the field (which ended up being 34 cars), and if he could win the race, he'd split the $5million with a lucky fan. By the time the wreck occurred, he had already made up ten spots, and was unfortunately collected.

They say things happen for a reason, and I believe this will end up serving some good to the IndyCar drivers. Drivers seemed to become complacent with the safety of the cars, and had begun to drive each other over-aggressively. The new car coming next season is going to be far superior as far as safety goes. This over-aggressiveness is what spawned this massive pile-up. Two cars were battling too hard (especially for lap 12), the two cars behind them had to slow suddenly, which allowed a car to catch up quickly. There wasn't much space for this car, and he banged wheels with another competitor, and ultimately ended up spinning in front of the back third of the field.

Three cars went airborne, including Dan's. Once someone spins in front of you, you really just become a passenger. Dan hit someone from behind. The tire-to-tire contact from front to rear launched his car toward the catch fence. In one replay angle (which I won't look up, it makes me sick to watch), you see Dan's car hit the catch fence topside first. As soon as he hit the fence, it's plain to see how quickly his car decelerated. This impact also sheared the rollbar off of Dan's car. It is unknown yet what exactly killed him, but if he landed upside-down without a rollbar, that certainly would have done it. I believe it will take the death of a person like Dan Wheldon to really make the drivers think twice about just how hard they are racing another person.

Unfortunately for Dan, this probably wouldn't have happened in the new car. There is a "bumper" on the rear of the car to prevent tire-to-tire contact in incidents like this. Many IndyCar fans have been maligned to this, as well as how far forward the sidepod comes to the front tire, also in an effort to eradicate tire-to-tire contact. Hopefully this crash proves to them why these safety features are being implemented.

IndyCar helped to develop the SAFER barrier over ten years ago to help reduce impact with the retaining wall. These are the steel walls you see with foam behind them. I think it is time to redevelop the fences. If hockey-style plexiglass walls were implemented, I believe that this, too, could have saved Dan's life.

Ultimately, I think IndyCar needs to abandon these 1.5 mile tri-ovals. The cars stay packed together and wrecks like this will continue to happen. They should be running on ovals one mile in length or shorter (Milwaukee, New Hampshire, Iowa, Richmond) and two miles or longer (Indy, California, Michigan). They can even run the 1.5 milers that aren't of tri-oval configuration, which is where the front straight is curved and the back-straight is actually straight. Non-tri-oval tracks like this include Homestead-Miami (which is the only one I can think of right now).

I still can't believe this has happened. Dan was such a great guy on an upswing of his career. Everything was looking up for him. He and his wife had just had a boy, with another on the way. He was interviewed in his car just ten minutes before he was killed. Likely the last words he ever said. Hopefully the death of a person like Dan puts the other drivers in check and will start to run each other with more respect. It is a testament to IndyCar safety, however, that of the 15 drivers involved, 11 walked away injury-free, and three with minor injuries.

At the very least, Dan died doing what he loved. This is the Dan Wheldon I will always remember:

Rest in Peace Dan Wheldon, 1978-2011.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Science of Racing: Suspension

Yes, yes, I know this is LONG overdue. A month ago I said I would do this in a week. It's been a pretty eventful month, but now I have some downtime to get into this.

The main components of the suspension in a race car aren't all that different than the suspension on your road car. The springs and shock absorbers aren't kept near the wheel. They would generate too much drag. They are instead sheathed inside the bodywork of the car. This makes the arms of the suspension much longer. To compensate for the extra material, the linkage arms are made out carbon fiber, a lightweight high-strength material. The arms are also very streamlined to reduce drag as much as possible. (Unfortunately, in the real world, EVERYTHING generates drag. No matter how streamlined it is.)

There are a few more linkage arms than are needed to keep the car from bouncing around, however. On the photo below, which is the concept of the new oval configuration IndyCar, the pieces that are running diagonally that enter the bodywork at the top of the nose go to the spring and damper located at the top of the nose. The other linkages affect the camber of the wheel, the toe-in and out of the tires, as well as another adjustment called the weight jacker.

First, I will explain camber. As I mentioned the post about the tires, you want the entire surface of the tire to be in contact with the track. The wheels can be adjusted angularly. This would appear as the top of the tire leaning toward the car or away from the car. This adjustment is called camber. Each of the wheels can be individually adjusted so that the angle of the tire with the track ensures an even contact patch.

Another adjustment you can make, usually to the front wheels only, is known as toe, or sometimes tracking. This can be best explained by the following diagram.

Imagine you are looking down on the car from above, and that the car is travelling in the direction of the arrow. If the front of the tire is closer to the middle of the car than the back of the tire, the car is "toed-in," and vice-versa. This is essentially a change in the steering sensitivity. If the car is toed-in, it responds quicker to turning, as no matter which way you turn, one of the tires is already at least partially turned in that direction. The opposite can be said for a car that is toed-out.

As you can imagine, camber and toe affect one another quite a lot. This is one of the primary reasons there is so much practice before races is for the team to get the set up of the car down pat to maximize both speed and tire longevity.

Inside the car, the driver can change the handling of the car with a tool called the weight jacker. This is a hydraulic cylinder which affects the stiffness of the springs to change the effective weight distribution of the car. There are two weight jackers: one that controls the distribution from front to back, and one that controls the distribution from right to left. For instance, if the car is prone to oversteer (also known as "being loose" in NASCAR country), which means the rear of the car wants to snap around, you cam adjust the weight jacker toward the rear of the car, effectively putting more weight in the rear wheels. If the car is understeering (also known as "being tight" or "push" in NASCAR country), which means it isn't fully reacting to steering input as the front tires of the car have less grip than the rear, the weight jacker can be adjusted toward the front of the car to give the front of the car more grip. During qualifying especially when the car is trimmed out and is running as little downforce (and thus, less drag) as possible, you can see the driver adjusting the weight jacker before nearly every corner. If you watch the in car camera during an IndyCar race, and you see the driver put their left hand down below the steering wheel, they are adjusting the weight jacker. That was years past, however, as now, the control may have been put on the steering wheel.

So, that was suspension. I talked a little bit about carbon fiber, so I may get into that the next time I write about the Science of Racing. No promises as to when that will be. I move into my new apartment next week, and then I start my real job!