Ed Hinton in 2002 — Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s SAFER Barrier System Living Up to it’s Name …

Posted: February 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

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SpeedwaySightings Editor Note: 

Let’s remember the SAFER Barrier was a product of IndyCar Racing and NASCAR has been consistently late to the party.  Ed Hinton, one to finest journalists in sports, told the story back in 2002.

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Indy’s SAFER System Living Up To it’s Name

The speedway’s new soft-wall barrier system has drawn some great reviews. In fact, says driver P.J. Jones, `It saved me, big time.’

May 23, 2002
By Ed Hinton — Chicago Tribune auto racing reporter.

INDIANAPOLIS — For most of the 20th century Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the epicenter of death in auto racing, claiming 66 lives from 1909 to 1996. Now the track is a paragon of the sport’s safety revolution.

The new soft-wall system here is working, and it has become a sudden monument to what is vs. what was.

In Turn 2, where Scott Brayton was the last driver to die here, in ’96, Paul Tracy’s car hit horrifically May 11. Tracy walked away and will start 29th in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

In Turn 3, where Gordon Smiley never knew his car had become a cloud of shrapnel in ’82, Robby McGehee slammed into the new barrier May 5, on its first day in use. He came away with a sore neck and a hairline fracture in his leg, and he’ll miss the 500 only because he didn’t qualify for the fastest field in Indy history.

In Turn 1, where Jovy Marcello was killed in ’92, four drivers have had severe crashes this month. Two, Max Papis and Alex Barron, walked away, and another, Mark Dismore, received a concussion; each will be in the field Sunday. The fourth was P.J. Jones, and even though he’s wearing a neck brace, his grin is relentless. He’s disappointed he’ll miss the race but joyful to be walking around at all.

His fractured cervical vertebra was the worst injury sustained by any of the five drivers who have given the SAFER (an acronym for “steel and foam energy reduction”) barrier its first real-life tests.

But Jones, son of Indy legend Parnelli Jones, knows the history of this place. He knows how bad his crash in Turn 1 could have been–indeed, would have been, he believes–if not for the new barrier.

“It saved me, big time,” he says.

“The new SAFER wall absorbed the impact,” Barron said of his crash.

“I think I would have had a head injury, for sure, without it,” McGehee said.

Soft walls are the next giant step in recent safety innovation that has included head restraints such as the HANS, more elaborate safety harness systems, stronger seats and–in the case of Indy cars–energy-absorbing materials within the cars.

The SAFER system especially encourages experts, considering how fast the cars are this year. The field’s qualifying average for Sunday’s race is a record 228.648 m.p.h., up more than 5 m.p.h. from last year. And each of the top five qualifiers exceeded 230.

John Melvin, a Detroit-based biomechanical engineer who is considered racing’s leading expert on racing safety, is here as a consultant.

“The cars are going awfully fast,” Melvin says. “And they’re hitting the wall awfully hard. And yet the drivers are coming away pretty darn well. The wall is working. There’s no doubt about that.”

Crash-data recorders in the cars have shown that G-spikes in crashes against the new barriers have been “consistently lower than we’ve ever seen,” says Dr. Henry Bock, the medical director of the Indy Racing League who is in his 20th year as chief physician at the speedway.

“The barrier is very effective in terms of reduction of the forces that we see, and therefore the reduction of injuries we would expect from the severity of the crashes we’ve had.”

In addition, the G-forces are being spread out over a longer period of time. Even though that’s a matter of milliseconds, it’s life-saving.

The system is the result of a project speedway President Tony George initiated nearly five years ago, when most other track owners claimed such a system was next to impossible to develop.

“There’s no other organization out there that’s spending the money or putting in the effort like this,” Jones says. “There’s a lot of lip service, but nobody’s doing it except Tony.”

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race will be run without SAFER barriers, but “we’re watching what happens at Indy very closely,” Lowe’s Speedway President H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler says.

So is every other major track operator in the country. If all continues to go well and engineers give the system a final OK, “I think you’ll see a wholesale response from the [other] tracks,” NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter says.

Bob Bahre, owner of New Hampshire International Speedway, where NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin died in 2000, already has committed to be the first track other than Indy to install the SAFER system, pending NASCAR approval.
NASCAR’s interest in the project accelerated with the deaths of Petty and Irwin. After Dale Earnhardt died against a concrete wall at Daytona in 2001, NASCAR joined more actively in George’s research and development, which was conducted at the University of Nebraska.

The SAFER system doesn’t shatter, and damage to the barrier requires “10 to 12 minutes” to repair, says the speedway’s chief engineer, Kevin Forbes. “Clean-up is a non-issue.”

That means that during Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, unless TV announcers point it out, you won’t notice any repairs to the barrier during an average caution period.

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