Monday, November 7, 2011

Putting a Lid on it: The Canopy, and what other Racing Classes can Learn from the Unlimiteds

      It was initially my intention to include a talk about canopy in a larger piece focusing on innovations throughout the history of Unlimited Hydroplane racing, but recent events have meant that canopies should be looked at in more detail.  As I am sure you already know, the racing world has suffered the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon last weekend at the IndyCar race in Las Vegas.  As is almost always the case with any tragedy in racing, the attention quickly turns to safety and what could be done to avoid a similar tragedy in the future.
   With this in mind, the sport of Unlimited Hydroplane racing has garnered some attention in recent weeks with its greatest safety innovation being at the forefront: the canopy.

   The enclosed cockpit, or the use of the F-16 canopy, truly is the greatest innovation in the history of Unlimited Hydroplane racing.  True, other innovations have been more glamorous or even more technologically advanced, but the canopy took what was previously one of the most dangerous forms of racing and made it one of the safest.  It's hard to imagine now, but for previous generations the loss of life of drivers was a sad reality of the sport.  Since the introduction of the canopy, however, there has only been one casualty in the Unlimited class when George Stratton crashedin shallow water while testing  in San Diego in 2000.

   With the overwhelming success that the canopy has proven to be, one might think that it had an easy route to acceptance.  This was not the case, however.  From the introduction of the Unlimited class in 1946 through the 1970's all Unlimited Hydroplanes had open cockpits and only a few had seatbelts.  The thinking at the time, which in hindsight almost seems primitive, was that a driver would be the safest if he were actually thrown from the boat in the event of an accident.  Although the danger was always there, safety was not a top priority in the Unlimited Class.

   This began to change in the early 1980's when Bill Muncey was killed in an accident in 1981 in Acapulco and Dean Chenoweth was lost in 1982 in a blowover in Tri-Cities.  With the loss of Unlimited Hydroplane racing's two winningest and most legendary drivers at that time, attention quickly turned to how such tragic losses could be prevented in the future.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the two teams who suffered the loss of these legendary drivers stepped to the forefront of this noble cause.  First in 1983 the Atlas Van Lines team introduced a cockpit that set the driver lower in the boat and employed seatbelts, helping both of these safety aspects finally gain wide acceptance for the Unlimited Class.

   The biggest safety innovations, however, were coming from the Miss Budweiser team.  After the loss of Dean Chenoweth Jeff Neff, who was not only the Miss Budweiser Crew Chief but also a close friend and brother in law of Chenoweth, set about in developing a way in order to make sure such a loss wouldn't happen again.  In 1986 Neff installed a plexiglass canopy around the driver.  The "Bubble Bud," as it would come to be known, would win in San Diego that year while finishing second in the High Points.  The following season the next step was taken and Ron Jones had an F-16 canopy installed on the Miss Budweiser team's first turbine powered craft.  The Unlimited Racing Commission quickly saw the benefit and passed a new rule requiring all new boats to have an F-16 canopy installed on all new hydroplanes while all Unlimiteds built before 1987 were given until 1989 to make the change.  In a short amount of time, one of the most dangerous  forms of racing became one of the safest.  In the two plus decades since the canopy mandate, there has been only one loss of life in an Unlimited: George Stratton, who crashed in shallow water in San Diego in 2000.  The canopy truly is the greatest innovation in Unlimited Hydroplane racing, and the benefits of this innovation are felt at nearly every race.  For more on this I would highly recommend reading Fred Farley's fine article on the development of the F-16 canopy.

   Moving to current events, I'm sure by now you have heard of the tragic loss of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas.  As is usually the case in accidents like this, the attention quickly turns to safety and how such tragic losses can be prevented in the future.  Some of the proposals have included attempting to slow the cars down, which would only be effective as long as it would take for engineers to figure out how to speed the cars up again.  Another more extreme proposal has been that IndyCar should no longer race on banked ovals or perhaps on ovals altogether.  This won't work for a number of reasons, first off obviously IndyCar's biggest event takes place on an oval and beyond that part of IndyCar's culture is a mixture of oval and road races.  Without oval races IndyCar would be nothing more than an underclass to Formula 1. On Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain (which, in my opinion, is not only the best racing talk show but the best sports talk show of any kind on television) a discussion took place questioning whether a canopy similar to that used in Unlimited Hydroplane racing should be used in IndyCar racing.  One big worry is oil getting on the windshield of such a canopy.  While it will never be known if a canopy would have saved the life of Dan Wheldon I think it should at least be looked into.  Personally I think that IndyCar races can still happen on high banked ovals but perhaps there should be a chicane put on the backstretch, similar to what Daytona uses for sports car races.  While it's true that such a layout could be written off "not a real oval race" having such a chicane would mean the cars would need to slow down to negotiate the turns and could slow down the cars enough so that a race on a high banked oval could be safely held.    I'm not sure if canopies will make IndyCar racing much safer, but it's something that should at least be looked into.  The success of the canopy in Unlimited Hydroplane racing is obvious, and if it proves to have similar success in other forms of racing then the greatest innovation in the history of hydroplane racing could see benefits throughout racing.

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