Olson: Safety should be ultimate priority in motor racing

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla.  -- A few blocks from the Fountain of Youth in America’s Oldest City is an intersection that defies belief. Three streets -- May Street, San Marco Avenue and San Carlos Avenue -- converge at odd angles, creating a mess of touristy traffic that backs up from all directions.

Add the fact that May Street links St. Augustine to Vilano Beach by way of a bridge over the intracoastal waterway -- one of just six bridges linking the mainland to beaches between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach -- and you have the perfect storm for dangerous gridlock. It’s not uncommon to see inbound traffic from Vilano backed up over the bridge, creating a hazard in need of a solution.

In 2014, city leaders wisely rejected a plan to build a convenience store on the northeast corner of the intersection. Instead, they used the empty lot to build an oval roundabout with traffic signals, which is nearing completion this fall.

If you’re familiar with Americans and roundabouts -- especially American seniors and roundabouts -- you can guess how this project is being received. It’s been dubbed “the peanut,” and that’s not a term of endearment. A visit to local online message boards offers a smorgasbord of angry reactions, including the occasional ALL CAPS contribution.

Every now and then, though, someone quietly pops on a board and says something like, “Hey, the peanut isn’t so bad. It actually works.” Only to be SHOUTED DOWN BY THE ANTI-PEANUT BRIGADE.

Even if it’s for the best, change is difficult for people to accept, especially in the initial stages. A few weeks from now at a track a three-hour drive from the peanut, testing will resume on the NTT IndyCar Series’ new Aeroscreen. The session at Sebring International Raceway will be the fourth on-track test in preparation for the Aeroscreen to debut on all cars for the 2020 season. And, if you’ve been paying attention to the online reaction, fans are struggling with the change.

A quick review of the comments on stories about the Aeroscreen echo the reaction to the peanut. Foremost among them are complaints about the way it looks. We’re not used to seeing something like surrounding the cockpit, so the initial look has been shocking for many.

But, like the peanut, the Aeroscreen’s form isn’t the point. Its function is. The appearance can always be improved. What matters as it’s introduced is that it works. For that reaction, it’s always wise to go with the opinions of those who are actually working with it, not with those who are just looking at it.

So far, that reaction has been positive:

Really impressed with how quickly the aeroscreen project all came together. No issues during testing today. Very happy that we're moving ahead with it.

// @IndyCar / @Team_Penske pic.twitter.com/Ov08VBZjoc

After the same test, Scott Dixon said this:

“I'm so happy that we have it. It's really a huge step in safety, and I think it's the best of both worlds. You've got the halo and you've got a screen, so I think that you'll see other open-wheel categories follow suit. … When you've driven it for a day, you're going to feel naked without it. If you took it off, you'd feel pretty naked because there's not much protection there. (I’m) so very happy that we're moving ahead with it.”

During testing at Richmond last week, Josef Newgarden also approved:

That is one mean lookin’ 🚀!

Can’t wait to jump in and see what @RichmondRaceway is all about! #RISEABOVE | #INDYCAR | @Team_Penske | @IndyCar pic.twitter.com/YgxvSgMwHm

If this change saves one life -- or even prevents one concussion -- it will have been worth it. It’s a bold step, and a necessary one. It might make you cringe initially, but it is the future. Safety should be the ultimate priority in motor racing, and it is with INDYCAR. Safety improvements shouldn’t be quashed because of aesthetics. The way cars look should be far down on the list. The way they protect should be at the very top.

As for the peanut, well, it actually does work. It needs aesthetics but nothing some landscaping can’t fix. Give it a few months and the ONLINE SHOUTING will subside.

From the fans