Put a canopy on Justin Wilson’s death

Alan Truex

Whenever someone dies, we want to feel it was not a total loss, that from death something valuable can live.  So it was with Justin Wilson, British race-driver who died Monday, the day after being struck in the head by the nosecone off Sage Karam’s Indy-car in a race at Pocono in Pennsylvania.

Wilson, who was living in Longmont, Colo., was one of the better-liked racers on the circuit —  “one of the few who was a friend of everyone,” said fellow driver Ed Carpenter.

Wilson, 37, had been thoughtful enough to become an organ donor.  His brother said six people’s lives were saved by transplants from his body.

And it’s also likely that because of the death of Wilson, a seven-race winner in the IndyCar series, changes will be made to bring more safety to the open-wheel vehicles.  

Even before the tragedy of Wilson, drivers had been proposing the installation of a plastic canopy to provide protection for a driver’s head.  Such a device might have saved Wilson.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, the winner of Sunday’s race, said, “These cars are inherently dangerous with the open cockpit like that, head exposed.”

The canopy is resisted by traditionalists (such as Michael Andretti, owner of Wilson’s Honda) who feel open-wheel racing requires an open cockpit, the driver’s head protected only by his or her helmet.

“We’ve seen some concept renderings,” Hunter-Reay said, “of something that can give us a little protection but keep the tradition of the sport.”

But some drivers fear a canopy will make it more difficult to escape a wreck if the car is upside down or engulfed by fire.  There are also concerns that enclosing the cockpit would decrease peripheral vision.

Similar arguments were made against hockey goaltenders putting on masks and then caged helmets.  But most goalies soon decided that protection of the brain takes priority over visual acuity and everything else.

It’s likely that if IndyCar fails to make its sport safer, the series, which has its season finale this weekend at Sonoma, Calif., will continue to lose good young drivers to rival NASCAR.

“You think about family, for sure,” Hunter-Reay told USA Today.  “You think about your health, your well-being.  The Indy car is much more dangerous than NASCAR.”

David Letterman, the retired late-night comedian who’s co-owner of an IndyCar team, is having second thoughts about a sport he’s loved since his childhood days in Indianapolis.  He told the Associated Press: “Maybe we’ve reached diminishing returns at making the sport safer.  . . .  Whoa, is this really the sport that you can embrace entirely?  It’s a real self-examination.”

Of course, some drivers see the danger as part of the allure.  As Tony Kanaan put it: “We do this because we love it and we can’t live without it.”

It had been only four years since the previous death from an IndyCar event.  Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon was killed in the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas after his car went airborne and struck a fence.

But it’s thought that if IndyCar can develop an acceptable canopy, Formula One could follow suit.  Graham Rahal, who drives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, said, “More than ever, we’ve got to be the first series to figure this out.  We have to.”

Perhaps that would be the best memorial possible for Justin Wilson.  It would give his life more meaning – and his death.

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