Two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso drove some laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week and good for him. A week earlier, an 11-year-old child was killed at a go-kart track that Alonso owns in Spain, which was not good.
It is impossible to pin down exactly how many children around the world are killed or injured each year while driving go-karts or riding small motorcycles in competition (15 and under is my definition of a child for this column). But there are studies that indicate approximately 10,000 are treated in hospital each year in the United States as a result of go-kart accidents and about 10 children are killed (1990-1999 statistics). I don’t know the Canadian figures but our population is about a tenth of America’s so you could do the math.
Whatever, one child, 10 children — it doesn’t matter. In the end, one death is too many.
When I first fell in love with auto racing, I was about 10 years old. It was in the early 1950s and children weren’t allowed to participate in any speed sport in those days. You had to be 18 to even get into the pits at most speedways and you had to be 21 to drive.
There was very little in the way of safety back then. In the open-wheel, open cockpit cars — the jalopies, the midgets, the sprint cars and so on — the drivers sat up, completely exposed. Same with sports and formula cars. The crash helmets were rudimentary, at best, and safety harness might have been a seat belt with a second strap across the driver’s chest. Maybe.
Cars raced on short ovals or banked board tracks would not only flip over and land upside down but frequently climb up and over cars in front of them. As a result, drivers were often hurt and many were killed. There was one speedway, the Nutley Veledrome in New Jersey, that was a steeply banked board track of about a quarter mile that had so many fatalities, it became known as the “Cathedral of Decapitations.”
I remember a photo spread in Life magazine toward the end of that decade in which two safety features were mandated for midgets and sprint cars to try to cut down on the carnage — an extension out from the rear bumper that would dig into the track (if a car started to climb up and over the car in front) and disallow the momentum. Those extenders can still be seen on the midgets and sprint cars of today. The other feature was a roll bar, or hoop, that went up behind the driver’s head to protect him if the car flipped or rolled upside down.
There was a problem with that second safety feature. In those days, drivers went from car to car, looking for a piece of equipment that could get them to Victory Lane. Some cars suited some drivers better than others. Who knows why, but they did. And because drivers come in all shapes and sizes, a car that had a roll bar added for a small racer like — say — Mario Andretti, would be completely useless if a bigger guy came along to drive the car later.
I remember at the old CNE Speedway in 1965 when the USAC midgets came to Toronto to put on a show and the late Jud Larson, who was more than six feet tall, managed to jam himself into one of those little bombs and the roll cage maybe was as high as the back of his neck. Translation: not a lot of protection in case of an accident.
In 1966, many well-known racers met their ends as a result of that last sentence — driving cars that didn’t “fit” them. The forementioned Larson and Red Riegel died the same night in the same wreck during a race at Reading, Pa. Dick Atkins and Don Branson, ditto, at Ascot Speedway in California. Other racing mishaps in ’66 — such as Bob McLean of Vancouver being killed in a crash during the 12 Hours of Sebring; in a separate accident, four spectators at the same 12-hour race died when a car went off the course and hit them — got the attention of legislators who started to mumble about legislation.
As always happens, sanctioning bodies and race organizers moved swiftly to make the sport safer and to beat off the lawmakers. Full roll cages were mandated for sprints and midgets and, while some competitors were “grandfathered” because they’d raced for years without mishap and didn’t like the full cages (guys like Les Scott, for instance), by the early 1970s cages were on all previously open-cockpit, oval-track, race cars like sprints and midgets. The number of people killed and/or injured fell dramatically.
When I heard about the child killed at Alonso’s circuit — he lost control of the kart and it flipped over, throwing him out and landing on him — I was reminded of a go-kart race I attended years ago in Barrie. Although the youngster wasn’t hurt — or hurt badly, I should say — the scenario was similar, in that a kart got up into the air and landed on the driver.
In many ways, karters today are exactly like the drivers of race cars in yesteryear. If something untoward happens, they have very little protection (other than the personal safety equipment like helmets and so on). And they are racing at high speeds and are very close together.
I think it’s time for the powers-that-be in go-kart racing to seriously consider two things: seatbelts/shoulder harness for the competitors and full roll cages for the karts. I know what the reaction will be: people will think or say that I’m crazy. But think about it for a moment.
Fifty years ago, at the first Formula One Grand Prix of Canada held at Mosport Park, only one driver strapped himself into his racing car — Jackie Stewart. All the rest of them — Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Jo Bonnier, Eppie Wietzes, Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham, Denis Hulme and so-on — thought it best to be thrown out of their car in case of a serious accident. Today, without exception, all Formula One drivers strap themselves into their cars.
In or around 1970, several Indy cars of the day went to Indianapolis for the 500-mile race with roll cages to protect the drivers. Junior Johnson, the NASCAR star, even tried the Brickyard but insisted his car have a cage.
Those cars didn’t last because the racing mechanics of the day couldn’t get the aerodynamics to work with the cages on the cars. But both F1 and IndyCar (although they are taking their sweet time about it) are working on better protection for their drivers. Whether this winds up being a fighter jet-type canopy or a sprint or supermodified roll cage, it will happen one of these days and that will mean all the other formula cars on the various “ladders” to F1 and IndyCar will adopt them too. With the assistance of computers and wind tunnels, the aerodynamics won’t be a problem.
I say go-karting can get a jump on the inevitable by moving now on seatbelts and roll cages. And when that happens, hopefully there won’t be any more fatal accidents in karting, period, but particularly fatal accidents involving children.
WEEKEND TV GUIDE
ARCA Racing Series 200, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, 6 p.m., FOX Sports Racing (FSR)
FIA World Endurance Championship, 6 Hours of Spa (Belgium), 8:30 a.m., FSR
NASCAR Xfinity Series, Talladega Superspeedway, Alabama, 1 p.m., TSN1 and 4
IMSA WeatherTech Championship, Sports cars, Circuit of the Americas, 7 p.m. FSR
FIM MotoGP, motorcycle racing from Jerez in Spain, 7:50 a.m. beIN
NASCAR Monster Energy Cup, Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega 500, 2 p.m., TSN2
NHRA drag racing, Southern Nationals, Atlanta, 6 p.m.,. FSR
NEWS & VIEWS
NASCAR Pinty’s star D.J. Kennington of St. Thomas will be back in the Gaunt Bros. Entry for the Talladega 500. Go get ’em, D.J.! . . . As mentioned, Fernando Alonso was on track on Wednesday at Indy. I watched. I was underwhelmed. Everybody was going crazy about how fast he was going so soon. He’s a two-time world champion. What was there to be surprised about? The first hour or so, they had so much downforce in the car that it was glued to the track. I could have gone 200 mph. Remember, the late TV star Johnny Carson drove the Andy Granatelli turbine car in 1967 that Parnelli Jones nearly won Indy with and went 175 mph right out of the box. Those things are not hard to drive. Racing is a different story. When they drop the green flag on the 101st Indy 500 on May 28, then we will find out how good he is. He will have lots of running in packs during practice but that still ain’t racing. Johnny Rutherford, who won Indy three times, said the first turn of the first lap will be the test. “Lone Star J.R.” said going into the first turn at Indy is like driving 75 miles an hour down a city street and turning left into an alley without lifting. Mario Andretti had the best line. Commenting on his grandson Marco helping Alonso by shaking down the car for him, Mario said: “I wouldn’t have done it — nobody did it for me.” That quote pretty much wraps up how Mario saw the whole thing. I think he’s very and genuinely pleased that Alonso is going to run the Indy 500. I don’t think he likes the fact that, in large part, he’s getting a free ride . . . Best part of the day watching Alonso was when the Spaniard was screaming down the backstretch going probably 220 mph and suddenly jinking to avoid getting a bird in the face. Ed Kostenuk of Victoria, B.C., was making a qualifying run in Grant King’s car at Indy in 1964 when he was hit in the face by a bird. He suffered a broken nose and didn’t make the field. As a result, King and fellow Canadian Rolla Volstedt went looking for another Canuck to have a go and settled on young Billy Foster . . . Toronto Motorsports Parkin Cayuga is about to kick 2017 into high gear with Vintage Motorcycle Lapping, its first F-2000 Driving Experience, the intro to Track Motorcycle School, and two great events at the dragway. The first big weekend of the year will come on Victoria Day, of course, when there will be weekend camping and the Pro Mods and Funny Cars will be in action. Check things out at torontomotorsportspark.com for all the details . . . Joey Logano won the Monster Energy NASCAR race at Richmond last Sunday but he was cheating, so NASCAR lowered the boom — kind of. Joey is still listed as the winner and will be the winner of that race so long as NASCAR is in business. But he can’t count it in order to get into the Chase. I guess they let him keep the prize money, too. Crew chief Todd Gordon was fined $50,000 and suspended for two races and Logano was docked 25 points, as was team owner Roger Penske. NASCAR made a big deal out of this being the first time a race win was labelled encumbered. So? The only time anybody will truly believe NASCAR has gotten tough is when the victory is taken away and given to the second-place guy (or girl) who wasn’t cheating. Otherwise, they’re just words.