Christopher A. Sawyer
For many years in motor racing, death was not unexpected. The year 1955 began to change this attitude, albeit very slowly. In May of that year, Bill Vukovich Sr. was on his way to his third Indy 500 victory in as many years when he came across someone else’s accident, shot for a gap that closed too quickly, and cartwheeled into the crowd. Miraculously, Vukovich was the only fatality. His death came just days after two-time F1 world champion Alberto Ascari died while testing a Ferrari at the Monza track, and two weeks before Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes 300 SLR launched off Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Officially, Levegh and 83 spectators were killed, while a further 120 were injured. The combined result of this carnage led racing organizers to seriously address safety, although it would take years, changing societal norms, and other high-profile fatalities before safety became a main concern for racing.
Here are three recent technologies that have made a measurable difference.
The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier was a long-time dream of the Indy car community, stemming from the fiery 1964 crash that killed veteran Eddie Sachs and rookie Dave MacDonald. Firestone’s then-chief executive directed the company’s research department to investigate the design of a soft wall made of rubber that could be placed in front of the unyielding concrete walls of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) to make accidents more survivable. It didn’t work. But the idea continued to simmer.
IMS and the Indy Racing League (IRL) worked with John Pierce at Detroit’s Wayne State University to develop and deploy the Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System, or PEDS Barrier in the 1990s. It used vertically mounted polyethylene cylinders covered by overlapping plates of the same material, each oriented in the direction of travel. It was installed along the wall near the pit lane entry for the 1998 Indy 500, but didn’t see action until that year’s IROC race. Unfortunately, Arie Luyendyk’s broadside impact threw PEDS components into the air and across the track, leading to a revised design for the 1999 Indianapolis 500. It, however, had a tendency to grab the car and cause it to pivot, rather than gently redirect it.
IMS also worked with engineers from the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility (MwRSF) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With input from IMS, the IRL and NASCAR, they created a device with a flush surface that could be adapted to existing concrete walls, accommodate both open-wheel and stock cars, prevent them from being redirected into oncoming traffic, and be easily and cost-effectively repaired during an event. The result of this development was installed in time for the 2002 Indy 500. A second version of the SAFER Barrier was deployed in 2003, and has been installed on a majority of tracks hosting IndyCar or NASCAR events ever since.
It consists of four 20-foot long rectangular steel tubes stacked one atop the other and welded together to create a unified barrier face 38.5-icnhes high. Each module is connected via four internal steel connectors that bolt on either side of the splice, while bundles of two-inch-thick closed-cell extruded polystyrene sit between the wall and the outer barrier. Deformation is controlled by shaping the polystyrene sheets, with the width of the initial sheets increasing as they near the concrete wall. They are placed every 10 feet, as are the 3/8-in. diameter cables that keep the steel tubes aligned with the concrete barrier behind. Variants have been designed and developed for highway use.
When Patrick Jacquemart’s mid-engined R5 Turbo went off the road during testing at the Mid-Ohio road course in 1981, there was little expectation that the 35-year-old would be dead after his car’s head-on collision with a dirt embankment. The car was relatively undamaged, as was Jacquemart. However, the young Frenchman died from a basilar skull fracture, caused by the hyperextension of the head and neck relative to the body. Jim Downing, a Mazda-sponsored driver and friend of Jacquemart’s turned to his brother-in-law and part-time pit crew member, Dr. Bob Hubbard, for help in changing this scenario.
Hubbard wasn’t a medical doctor. He had a Ph.D. in engineering and had studied the mechanical properties of the skull bone for his thesis. From 1971 to 1977, he worked at GM on the development of the Hybrid III crash test dummy, concentrating mainly on the design specifications for its head, as well as helping develop injury measurement technology. From this he reasoned that the head had to be restrained relative to the torso in a way that wouldn’t add unacceptable loads to the driver’s neck.
This resulted in a collar with two arms that extend over the driver’s shoulders, sits under the belts, and flows into a semi-circular vertical section behind the driver’s helmet. A pair of straps, one on each side of the raised section, attach to mountings on the helmet. Patented in 1985, it became the first racing safety equipment to be tested on a crash test sled when Dr. Paul Begeman and his team at Wayne State University began testing it in 1989. GM’s motorsport racing program, which was working with Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) at the time, began investigating its efficacy for reclined and upright drivers, and Ford moved this program forward from 1995. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz and racing’s international governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), began studying airbag systems following the death of three-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna in 1994, but suspended this research when the HANS device—for Head and Neck Support--showed superior results. Hubbard/Downing Inc., the company created to manufacture the unit, worked with Mercedes-Benz over a two-year period to create the device’s current configuration. It wasn’t until 2000 that CART made the lightweight, carbon fiber HANS device mandatory for all drivers.
That same year, NASCAR lost drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper to basilar skull fractures. The sanctioning body had relied on the drivers and teams deciding on their own to adopt the system, and automakers competing in the series provided the safety device free-of-charge to their drivers. Yet, by the time cars lined up to compete in the 2001 Daytona 500, fewer than a dozen drivers were using it. After Dale Earnhardt Sr. died of a basilar skull fracture on the last lap of the race, Downing/Hubbard Inc. had more orders than they had taken since the HANS device went on sale. Even more amazing is this fact: no driver in a major series where the device has been mandated has since died of a basilar skull fracture.
The drive to increase cockpit protection in single-seat race cars ratcheted up in 2009 with the death of Henry Surtees during a Formula 2 race, and the life-threatening injuries sustained one week later by Ferrari driver Felipe Massa during practice for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Surtees was killed by a loose wheel, while Massa was struck in the head by a helper spring that dislodged from a car he was following. Yet nothing was done until Jules Bianchi died from head injuries suffered in a freak accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix, and Justin Wilson was killed by flying debris from another car during a 2015 IndyCar race.
The FIA put a provision in its 2017 F1 rules for the Mercedes-developed Halo — a roll bar-like structure above the cockpit opening — and began on-track testing in 2016. It was competing against a device called the “Shield,” a transparent polycarbonate windscreen, and another known as the “Aeroscreen,” that combined the polycarbonate with a structural carbon fiber frame. Both looked better than the Halo, but had a tougher time withstanding 15 times the static load of a Formula 1 car, and an impact from a 44-lb. wheel at 140 mph. In addition, chassis and attachment points had to resist a load of 28,000 lbs vertically downward and rearward followed by the same load sideways and back. That’s like parking a London single-deck bus atop the car.
The Halo’s titanium structure weighs just under 16 lb. but must accommodate different vehicles. Thus, it is made from two tube sections welded together. The upper, 180° tube is gun-drilled and its outer diameter turned before it is placed in an electric bending machine that applies a consistent amount of torque from start to finish. The upper rear mounts are made from titanium billet and machined over a 40-hour period. The various pieces are welded together and the assembly undergoes a final milling process to bring the tolerance across the bolt holes in the rear to a reported 100 microns.
IndyCar has passed on the Halo for now, and is still investigating Aeroscreen-like designs molded from multiple 0.375-in. polycarbonate sheets fusion bonded together, then draped over a heated former. This gives a consistent section thickness across the part and eliminates the Halo’s central strut; a major benefit on an oval. However, with IndyCar and the FIA working together, it’s possible that future designs will be a hybrid of the Halo and Aeroscreen.
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