Running In 2006

Posted by Iannucci | 9/18/2006 | 0 comments »
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Since the 2006 IndyCar series season has concluded, it’s the time of year to compile all the “best of” and “worst of” lists. I’m thinking of doing this myself, but for now I want to focus on one particular “best of” aspect no one else has mentioned in any recap of the just-concluded season: 2006 was probably the best year for safety in IndyCar series history.

Now, I’m not totally dense and I acknowledge the first thing people will recall about this season is the death of Paul Dana on the IRL’s opening day. It’s never a good thing for the league when a fatality results from auto racing (and it’s obviously tragic for the friends and family of the desceased), but what happened at Homestead was not able to be undone and like so many times before the league proceeded ahead.

However, since that fatality – which occurred during a practice session and not an actual race – it seemed there were no serious injuries resulting from accidents during the course of the IndyCar season. Just as a general perception, from what I could recall there seemed to be a lot less accidents this year than in the past.

Well, forget perceptions – I went straight to the stats.

Since the league is so kind as to publish records of what happens to all qualifiers in all races, I was able to go back and determine how many accidents occurred. Now, these statistics are tricky to deal with because you can’t really determine which results actually resulted in accidents. Sure, there’s “accident”, but there are many other results that can indicate trouble on the speedways.

For example, “mechanical” could indicate anything from a busted radio to snapped suspension resulting in a visit with the SAFER barrier. While “handling” usually means a spinout, it doesn’t always. Even something like “DNS” (did not start) can indicate any number of things, including a pre-race accident.

I don’t want to go off on a tangent here, but just trying to determine safety on the track is highly subjective. Complicating this research is the fact that in the last four seasons there have been 25 different results listed for race entries. Have a gander at this list.
• Accident
• Clutch
• Down
• Electrical
• Engine
• Fuel Fire
• Fuel Leak
• Fuel Pressure
• Fuel System
• Garage
• Gear Box
• Halfshaft
• Handling
• Mechanical
• Off Track
• Oil Leak
• Radiator
• Running
• Spin
• Steering
• Suspension
• Transmission
• Vibration
• Wheel Bearing

Maybe some gearheads can get together and condense this list, but for now this is what there is. Instead of trying to make my way through all of these results I decided to focus on one: “running”.

“Running” means a driver was still driving, and 99% of the time that means they were not involved in an accident. Even if they were involved, it clearly did not cause enough injury to the driver or the car to prevent it from proceeding in the race.

So, now that all that nonsense is out of the way, the only question was how far back to go. I chose 2003 because that was the first year the big teams like Andretti, Ganassi, and Penske had all moved over from CART. I know - Penske actually moved in 2002. Anyhow, some consider 2003 a start to an era of legitimacy for the series, and since I had to start somewhere that seemed like the right season.

OK, so here is what I found. Below is the percentage of entrants who were still “running” at the conclusion of all the races in a given season:
2003: 69.9% (251 of 359 entries)
2004: 72.5% (258 of 356)
2005: 68.1% (263 of 386)
2006: 76.7% (214 of 279)

Statistically, this was indeed a safer season to be driving, but as you can see this may be influenced by the fact there are a lot less entries in 2006. This year the starting field usually consisting of about 19 cars as opposed to the 22 cars in the three previous years, and less cars means less cars to run into. But another part of the lower entrant number is due to less races as there were 16 races in 2003 and 2004, and 17 in 2005, but only 14 in 2006.

Looking further at the statistics shows the “running” rate of most recent season was widely different when broken into three sections of time. Check this out.

Homestead, Motegi, St Pete, Indy: 59.8% (55 of 92 entries)
Watkins, Texas, Richmond, Kansas, Nashville, Milwaukee: 79.5% (89 of 112)
Michigan, Kentucky, Infineon, Chicagoland: 93.3% (70 of 75)

This season culminated in Chicagoland where all 19 cars were running at the conclusion. I don’t know if the drivers got safer pills after Indy or if something happened technologically, but that’s a tremendous upward trend in car reliability. If I had to take a guess then I would say this is related to having nearly an entire field full of experienced drivers running the whole season with each other. As drivers become more familiar with each other and their respective rides they presumably learn what to do (and what not to do) when racing within collision range of each other.

Another consideration is that as the season progressed more teams were running identical setups. Honda was the sole supplier of engines, and by the end of the season everyone was using the Dallara chassis. I would think this might play a role also, but I can’t figure out how since I’m not nearly as technically proficient in these kinds of things.

Historically speaking the unbelievable 85% (159 of 187) rate of “running” cars for the last 10 races is probably unsustainable, but as it is it would seem to be a statistic the league could use for attracting potential sponsors. Surely sponsors would be attracted to more actual racing instead of those yellow flag parades, shorter races resulting more driver (spokesperson) interviews and more sponsorship visibility on the car (since TV viewers can’t see the logos from the garage).

And one other positive for teams: lower costs. As Chip Ganassi complained last year, those wrecks tend to put a crimp in the budget.

Unlike many stock car fans, most IndyCar fans do not want to see crashes. At 220 MPH the human carnage fails to offset any visceral appeal. But if the cars keep on running for whatever myriad of reasons, then the results are all good for fans and teams alike. It’s the racing that converts and keeps fans to this league, so if anyone can figure out why there were more cars running, well, let’s see if it can be kept next season.