May 25, 2012
By Kim Roberson
This weekend is the Indianapolis 500 IZOD IndyCar race.
It is hard to believe it has been a year since the spectacular finish that sent Dan Wheldon to what would end up being his final victory.
Five months later, he was dead, the victim of a spectacular crash on the track at Las Vegas, that brought home the fact that race car drivers, regardless of what they drive, are mere mortals, and subject to the laws of physics when their vehicle leaves it’s intended path.
There have been some amazing crashes in NASCAR so far this season -- Juan Pablo vs. the Jet Dryer at Daytona after a night filled with cars hitting the wall and Eric McClure vs. the Talladega infield wall just to name two -- and thankfully only McClure has spent any time in the hospital. But when McClure’s No. 51 hit the SAFER Barrier head on at close to 200 mph two weeks ago, they still had to cut him out of the car -- and fans had to collectively wait and hold their breath as NASCAR Safety Officials extricated him out of the mangled car and passed along word that he was well enough to communicate with those rescue crews.
I don’t know if you have noticed, but much of the marketing on TV surrounding upcoming races isn’t so much about the racing, as the crashing. In ads promoting Darlington, Charlotte and Dover, you are shown cars on their side, on their roof, flipping one way or another.
Earlier this year, I heard many fans complain that the race at Bristol was boring because the drivers didn’t rough-up each other enough -- there wasn’t enough wrecking to get past a guy or to win. As a result, track owner Bruton Smith is re-working the track before NASCAR returns in the fall for the night race.
When did this sport become more about crashing, and less about driving?
I suppose, in part, the safety innovations are to blame. We have become used to seeing a driver hit a wall, either head on or while in the air, rolling around and shedding parts and the driver blithely climbs out and waves to the fans. Fans cheer when a car goes airborne, or begins rolling side over side or end over end -- seemingly either forgetting that there is a person inside that wrecked piece of metal or not caring about their safety.
It is only when someone, like McClure, isn’t fast to lower the window net and hop out that they remember that what they have just seen is not normal, and is dangerous not only to the driver, but potentially to anyone else in that cars way.
“I look at NASCAR and I really applaud them for the stance that they’ve taken on stuff,” notes Ray Evernham, former crew chief for Jeff Gordon and analyst for ESPN. “I think they went from being behind and being reactive to being really proactive about safety. It used to be the teams or people could come in and teach NASCAR about safety, now I think it’s NASCAR that’s teaching the teams and other people about it.
"I think they have done an unbelievable job with driver restraint systems, again, thinking about fire, thinking about the G-forces that the drivers take. I look at it and everything I could say they need to be working on I know for a fact they are working on because I’ve had conversations -- I bump into Ryan Pemberton once in a while and we talk about stuff. They have been really proactive on safety.
"I started 20 years ago and in that 20 years the leaps and bounds different. Now if I was building a car, I would go to NASCAR to find out why they do things that they do. That's one area where I think they have really excelled.”
McClure, who spent several days in the hospital with internal bruising as the result of his crash, was able to share the memories he has of the moments leading up to, and after, hitting the wall. "I just remember getting hit by someone and going toward the wall. At that point, I just braced for impact and that's really all I remember until after the accident." He has a new appreciation for all the safety built into the car, from the body and chassis to the seat, to the HANS device he was wearing. “I’ve seen first-hand now (how they work).”
Juan Pablo Montoya had the most talked about crash back in February, when he did something no other NASCAR driver has ever done before: He hit a jet dryer on the track.
“I’ve hit a lot of things,” explained the driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet after the crash. “But a jet dryer? -- I thought, ‘I’m actually hitting the jet and it’s not going to be fun.’ Before I got there, I was thinking this thing was going to be on fire pretty bad. And it was. I saw the flames. My helmet got a little burned and everything.”
And yet, after spending the night in the hospital for observation, Montoya was released with only a sore right foot to show for his explosive evening.
This past weekend, during qualifying for the All Star Race, Kasey Kahne hit the wall hard, shedding pieces of his No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet as he came down the track. This wasn’t a mere brush, but a hard hit. Apparently, he was a little out of breath, but otherwise none the worse for wear.
Tom Gideon has been the director of safety, Research and Development (R&D) for the NASCAR R&D Center since 2009. Prior to joining NASCAR he was an engineer for General Motors (GM) from 1969 to 2008 and a safety manager for GM Racing from 1997 to 2008.
Gideon admits the two main concerns his team has when it comes to driver safety are the two we have seen the most of this season: impact and fire. And the NASCAR R&D Center does everything they can to make sure that when either one of those things happens, the driver will be as safe as possible. Each car has a “black box” that records impact data that is reviewed at the R&D center by experts with a very specific skill set.
“Whenever there is an accident, we’ve got a data recorder in the car, so we get that data, look at that data. We have biomechanical experts on the outside, these are the PhD Biomechanics. We bring them in and they look at anything we need them to look at.”
These aren’t just mechanics or engineers who are looking over the crash data. Biomechanical engineering is the combined use of mechanical engineering principals and biological knowledge to better understand how these areas intersect and how they can be used together to potentially improve peoples’ quality of life, or in this case, driver safety. These people dissect the overall impact of the damage caused by the crash on both vehicle and driver, and work to find ways to make sure the same thing can’t happen again.
And not every accident is treated the same. The majority are what they consider “run of the mill” accidents, where a car is damaged enough to be unable to return to the race, but the driver is uninjured. However, some weekends you have crashes like what happened in the Talladega Nationwide race, where a driver is injured enough to require transport to a local hospital for treatment. It is these accidents that are dissected from every angle.
“A severe accident is covered differently than your normal run of the mill accidents,” explained Gideon. “In the Eric McClure case, we’ve been looking at that car, we’ve talked to the driver, we’ve talked to the medical people and we continue to look at -- there are many facets to that wreck that we don’t totally understand yet, but we hope to by continuing the investigation. We look at these things very seriously and they do come under a little higher protocol than your run of the mill wreck.
“We look at every part of the car and how it performed. We look at things that might not have worked properly and we look at the things that worked very well. That car performed well for the type of accident it was in. Unfortunately Eric was injured, but we are continuing that investigation. We won’t give up on that one because we want to get to the bottom of that one.”
Interestingly, while the crash of the No. 42 car at Daytona was spectacular, it wasn’t considered major by NASCAR standards. At least, not the car part of the crash.
“We went and looked a (Juan Pablo Montoya’s) car and in that case, he was uninjured in a classical sense. We did look at the car and we looked at the data. There was a part failure on his car, so in that case you go through that and say “Why did that part fail and what is the remedy for that?” and then you look at the fire with the jet dryer and say “Why did it need be that big a fire for that long a time?” So that is a continuing investigation. It was a long time ago, but these things don’t get solved overnight in a lot of cases.”
So, in the case of Juan Pablo vs. the Jet Dryer, more investigation is going into what happened with the Jet Dryer than the Chevy Impala that hit it.
NASCAR also works with the Indy Racing League (IRL), especially when it comes to the use of SAFER Barriers. “We work with the University of Nebraska, they were the people who brought us the SAFER barrier, and we work with the Indy Racing League, so there is a consortium there of us three together working budgeting things, look at tracks, because we use the same tracks in many cases. It’s all a continuing effort to make the sport safer.”
Gideon says NASCAR reached out to the IRL after Wheldon’s death to see if there was any assistance their experts could provide in the investigation to the crash. While there wasn’t a lot that could be learned and applied to the cars NASCAR uses, he says all forms of racing are like one big extended family, and when one branch suffers a tragedy, the other branches reach out to try and lend a hand.
So the next time you watch a race and there are spectacular crashes, know that Tom Gideon and his team will be pouring over the wreckage in an effort to make the car that much safer the next time an accident happens. And if there is a race with no crashes, or only minor crashes, know that that is the proof that the team at NASCAR R&D was doing their job well.
And remember that just because there isn’t a lot of crashing doesn’t mean the racing isn’t good. It just means it is safe. And that is a good thing.
Follow Kim on Twitter: @ksrgatorfn
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.