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In the Garage: Questions Arise As INDYCAR Flips The Aero Conversation

Josef Newgarden on course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [Jim Haines Photo]

Josef Newgarden on course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [Jim Haines Photo]

Indianapolis—Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves suffered a spectacular, and frightening, crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday.

Video replay shows Castroneves react to a slight sideways movement of the car, perhaps when it touches the painted white line on the inside of the track, then a much greater correction as the car begins to spin leaving Turn 1 of the oval.

As the race car hits the outside wall of the Speedway the steering wheel begins to turn violently at terrific speed as the tires and suspension collapse, and Castroneves properly brings both hands to his chest to avoid injury.

Finally, the car lifts up and over, the blue sky silhouetting the driver, helpless, simply along for the ride. With impact, upside down, the video camera is destroyed and the tape stops.

Afterwards, team owner Roger Penske of Team Penske expressed amazement that the Dallara IR12 with super-speedway aerodynamics kit affixed went into the air. After all, a key off-season design component (triangular cut-outs in the floor of the chassis) was intended to prevent lift and airborne flight.

“We’re playing with new areas from the aerodynamic standpoint and, of course, going backwards at that speed, you don’t know what kind of lift it had,” Penske said.

Watching the video on replay it appears that the critical incident that put the car in flight was air entering the rear wheel-covers, the so-called “bumpers” intended to prevent tire-on-tire contact.

The bumpers, when the car is rolling backwards, act as huge scoops that trap the air with only one place to go: down around the rear tires and under the car.

Castroneves had just turned a lap at 219.183 mph prior to the incident.

Today, Josef Newgarden entered Turn 3 at over 200 miles per hour, spun, hit the outside wall, got backwards and flipped into the air.

Where Castroneves’ car rolled completely back onto the four tires and upright, Newgarden’s Dallara skidded along on its side, the left side-pod collapsed beneath it.

Newgarden, like Castroneves, crawled out from under and appeared substantially intact.

Newgarden, like Castroneves, was checked and released from the infield medical center inside the Speedway within 15 minutes, and cleared to drive again.

Chevy, the maker of both cars that flipped, followed a tried-and-true script to develop its aero kit. Computer-aided design created potential pieces that could be added to the car, followed by driver-testing on a simulator, and finally half-scale models tested in a wind tunnel.

The question this begs is simple: did anyone ever think to turn the model around backwards and see what happens?

For now, that question remains unanswered, and that is simply hind-sight anyway.

A bigger and more important question is “What do we do now?” because cars will get backwards during the Indianapolis 500, and based on what we now know, there is a good chance some of them will get airborne.

If, and this is just if, one gets into the catch-fence we have an incident much too familiar to the one that took Dan Wheldon’s life.

Back to the drawing board.

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Allan Brewer covers IndyCar and other racing series for RacingNation.com. Allan is a fixture at the race track, armed with keyboard and camera, eager to take you inside open-wheel sport where the news is being made. He comes to RacingNation.com with multiple professional awards from the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AWWRBA). He began his motorsports writing career at FastMachines.com; and solely published IndyProRacer.com and A1GP.com, two award-winning websites for open-wheel racing’s junior leagues, prior to becoming IndyCar correspondent at Motorsport.com. He has also covered Formula 1, NASCAR, Formula E, the Indy Lights Series and its predecessor Indy Pro Series, NHRA events and major auto shows. His major interest outside of competition is automotive technology and its application to the cars we drive every day on the public highways.