The Advanced Frontal Protection device is shown directly in front of IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden as climbs into his car during auto racing testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

IndyCar hoping debris deflector helps protect drivers

April 24, 2019 - 6:18 pm

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Will Power got his first real glimpse at IndyCar's new debris deflector Wednesday. He is still getting used to the small piece on the front of his race car.

The defending Indianapolis 500 champion and 2014 series champion was one of more than two dozen drivers who spent Wednesday testing the safety device designed to reduce the risk of head injuries in the series that features open cockpits.

"You notice it," the Australian driver said during a rain delay at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "But you really need to be in it at top speeds, following cars. Anything you can do to protect the head is a good thing."

Series officials have spent years trying to make racing safer, but Justin Wilson's death in August 2015 reignited the discussion about head safety in open-wheel racing. The popular English driver died from injuries sustained when he was hit in the head by flying debris from another car at Pocono.

IndyCar engineers worked on a so-called halo device, similar to the one adopted by Formula One in 2018, but shelved it because it couldn't be fitted on the car and there were concerns about impeding drivers' sight lines. Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden also worked with a clear windscreen last year, but IndyCar president Jay Frye said series officials did not get the desired results. That project continues.

For now, IndyCar has opted to go with a 3/4-inch-wide piece made out of titanium, bolted to the car just in front of the cockpit.

Engineers, Frye said, have been fine-tuning this piece since 2012 and it will make its race debut May 26 when the series holds its marquee event — the Indianapolis 500. The deflector is expected to be used the rest of this season.

Will it work? Frye believes it will do the expected job — knocking away objects moving toward a driver's head.

Dixon, the reigning series champion, reported no troubles after working with it on a simulator.

But while 2017 Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato acknowledged the part is needed, he said he detected an airflow change inside the cockpit and thought it affected his sight line.

"I think IndyCar has made an awful lot of progress, but of course it is distracting from a visibility point of view," the Japanese driver said after turning a lap of 226.993 mph, the fastest of the veterans. "It's better than having nothing of course. But basically the first few laps, it's like you're looking out with one eye closed. So it's a little distracting, but I think we'll get used to it and I think it's a necessary modification."

Three-time Indy pole winner Ed Carpenter agreed, explaining it felt he was seeing two tracks — illustrating the point by putting one hand in front of his nose and acknowledging people would see two hands.

Other questions also remain.

Debris could still go airborne or break into smaller, still dangerous pieces. Some might even fly into the stands or land back on the track.

"You do the tests, you pass all the tests, there are a million different scenarios of what could possibly happen," Frye said. "This we know gives us a much better likelihood of having a good outcome."

It's also not the final answer.

While F1 was the first major open-cockpit series to add protective head protection to its cars, IndyCar engineers face a daunting task because their drivers compete at faster speeds on ovals and superspeedways in addition to the street and road courses used on international circuits.

IndyCar's showcase race has previously served as a hatching ground for safety efforts. Rear-view mirrors, seat belts and SAFER barriers all debuted at the Indy 500. Next month, the debris deflector will join the list. And sometime in the near future, the long-discussed windscreen seems likely, too, especially after Frye acknowledged he expects to make another safety-related announcement in May.

Power and Sato can't wait to hear what's next.

"Nothing is enough in this world, right?" Sato said when asked if this change would suffice. "Any situation is difficult to predict but I'm sure it's going to work when you have a heavy piece of debris coming toward the car."

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