IndyCar fence flower Dan Wheldon

There is a debate within the world of IndyCar as to whether a new and safer type of fencing should be installed at tracks – something less likely to injure a driver gone airborne than the catch fences and support posts used today. We characterize it as a "debate" but judging by the story in Autoweek, no one is against more safety – not drivers, not track owners, not IndyCar execs – but more importantly, no one knows who's going to kick in the $100 million dollars to get a project going.

You read that correctly: one of the doctors who worked on the SAFER barrier system estimates "it will cost $100 million to research, develop and install" either a hard barrier or an energy absorbing curtain around the necessary ovals. True, those are but two options, but in light of the physical realities and forces involved there aren't a whole lot of ways to go, and none of them might be any cheaper. Beyond that, IndyCar only uses five ovals and safely halting flying cars isn't a technology useful to NASCAR, both realities that impinge on the ability to amortize costs. A feasibility study alone is figured to cost $60,000, but the doctor's opinion is that it's not even worth starting the project if you don't know you'll get the money to finish it.

The CEO of IndyCar believes the track promoters should pay for the R&D, considering it just a part of making their facilities as safe as possible. There have been eight fatalities at oval tracks in the 34 years since CART (the predecessor to IndyCar that was absorbed by IndyCar) was established, six of those in the past 20 years but only two of the total were fence-related. Several parties consider that lucky, and that we're only waiting for it to happen again. On the other hand, Eddie Gossage, who owns the Texas oval, said the financials don't support him spending up to $20 million – it would make more sense just to give up the race – and he believes it should be IndyCar that pays.

Gossage said that in 33 years no one ever expressed concern to him over the fencing before Dan Wheldon's death last year. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be a concern now, but racing is dangerous and everyone knows it, and everyone also knows racing is a business and the bottom line is ultimately incompatible with the pricelessness of human life. Where is the middle ground and who'll be standing there if and when it's found is a question that's a long way from an answer.