SPEEDWAY, Ind. — On Friday morning, barely 48 hours ahead of the 103rd Indianapolis 500, the media center at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was buzzing with talk about what the race’s cars will look like in 2020.
IndyCar president Jay Frye, sitting alongside five-time series champion Scott Dixon and a pair of Red Bull Racing executives, unveiled the aeroscreen, a titanium-framed, polycarbonate screen that will be mounted at the front of IndyCar cockpits beginning in 2020. The addition, still being developed by Red Bull Advanced Technologies, seeks to protect racers’ heads from flying debris.
In 2015, Justin Wilson was killed when he was struck in the helmet by a piece of a car that had wrecked well ahead of him. That, along with a series of similar incidents in Formula One, pushed open-wheel racing to seek solutions that would better protect drivers’ exposed heads.
For the first time since Indy cars debuted on racing circuits more than a century ago, the open-air cockpit will be nearly enclosed, with only the area immediately above the driver’s head still exposed.
The aeroscreen will move from digital testing to real-life testing this summer.
It is a departure from tradition that is sure to irritate some Indy traditionalists. In fact, three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford jumped in on Friday’s news conference with a question about the screen’s ability to shed oil spewed from other cars. But today’s competitors seem to be all-in on more protection.
“The drivers of IndyCar always wanted to make sure that if we did run something, that it was going to be something great, not something rushed,” Dixon said. “We have seen other versions of this idea, but I think this one really covers all the bases.”
Those bases include strength, removability, durability, breathability, visibility and likability.
Strength: The Aeroscreen 2.0 can withstand blows of up to 34,000 pounds.
Removability: Even with a solid anchor, the aeroscreen can be removed quickly for safety crews to reach drivers after a crash.
Durability: The aeroscreen’s reinforced frame doesn’t flex under the physical forces that come with whipping around ovals at 200-plus mph, a problem that Dixon discovered when he helped test the initial version that was essentially an elongated windshield developed by longtime open-wheel racing collaborator PPG.
Breathability: RBAT engineers paired 2019 IndyCar season data with weather and atmospheric conditions at each racetrack to determine how cockpit temperatures and the resulting dew points of the screen might create fogging. They have worked with car builder Dallara to install an air ventilation system that runs from the nose into the cockpit.
Visibility: Dixon and others have run laps in simulators to ensure that the support bar running up the center of the screen doesn’t hamper vision. Dixon said it does not. As for Rutherford’s concern, RBAT said that in testing most such issues didn’t stick badly and noted that the screen would come with tear-offs, multiple plastic layers that can be pulled off, similar to a NASCAR windshield and most racing helmets. (Rutherford’s response: “So you make a pit stop to clean your windshield” and a skeptical “Ahh.”)
Likability: When the current IndyCar design was being developed three years ago, Frye took sketches to legends Mario Andretti and Rick Mears as well as race fans to make sure the new ride looked cool enough. It was important that the aeroscreen took nothing away from that.
“This car was kind of reverse-engineered, where we did aesthetics first and performance second,” Frye said. “We put all that effort into the aero kit, so we wanted to make sure the screen matched that, and they did a phenomenal job.”
IndyCar bypassed the “halo” concept — protective bars surrounding the driver’s head — used in Formula One out of fear that debris could still seriously wound drivers and their exposed chests. So Frye, who more than a decade ago ran Red Bull’s NASCAR program, called his old friends in Europe to see if they might be interested in reviving the aeroscreen program.
For the better part of the 20th century, the Indianapolis 500 was the trend-setter for auto racing around the world, with innovations such as the rearview mirror and energy-absorbent retaining walls. After a couple of decades in the backseat, the aeroscreen could help ease IndyCar back into the lead.
“A version of this concept could certainly be adapted to other racing cars,” RBAT business development engineer Andy Damon said. “We believe in it very strongly. We believe in saving the lives of racing drivers, no matter where they race. So, yes, we hope to receive some phone calls.”