There have been great strides taken in racing safety in the past year or so, fueled at least in part by the death of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt.
Now the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has taken another giant step by announcing that it has installed "soft walls" on the outside of each of the track's four corners for the running of the 86th Indy 500 on May 26.
The idea of the soft walls is to provide additional deceleration in an impact, reducing forces transferred to the driver and lessening the likelihood of death or injury. The walls being used at the Speedway are called SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction), constructed in 20-foot modules.
Each module consists of four rectangular steel tubes, welded
together to form a unified element. The modules are tied together with internal steel splices, and bundles of two-inch thick sheets of extruded, closed-cell polystyrene provide "give" to aid in controlled, progressive deceleration as the entire barrier moves back as a unit.
The design allows the walls to absorb tremendous impacts while maintaining integrity and needing little delay for repair during an event.
The barrier in each corner will be 1,060 feet long, with an additional 60 feet of "transition element" approaching the actual barrier. A total of 4,240 feet of the Speedway's 13,200 feet of concrete wall will be lined with the new barriers, primarily in high impact areas.
One interesting note on the presentation of the new system was that NASCAR President Mike Helton joined Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George and other notables for the press conference. Is this a signal that NASCAR is also considering such improvements to some or all of its tracks?
According to a SAFER official, an entire turn at IMS can be fitted with the barrier in less than two days, with times being shorter or longer at other tracks depending on variables such as wall height, track length, and turn radius. If this thing works, I think all sanctioning bodies that run at ovals should work with the tracks to implement it as soon as possible.
NASCAR has also implemented onboard data recorders, as reported in this space some time ago. The Winston Cup, Busch Grand National, and Craftsman Truck series are all mandated to use the recorders. Gary Nelson, former NASCAR Technical Director who is in charge of the program, says that 200 recorders are used during a full racing weekend when all three series are active.
NASCAR, with the help of an outside technical firm, is building what will be an extensive database. Analysis of the data is expected to lead to suggestions for improved design of car chassis and driver restraint systems to make accidents more survivable in the future.
Although NASCAR got started on the data recorders 10 years after CART, it seems committed to using the data in a constructive manner. However, CART and IRL have just made another quantum leap in data collection, with a sensor that will be mounted in the driver's helmet, measuring g loads at the driver's head, with an eye to understanding and possibly preventing closed head injuries.
With the Indy 500 rapidly approaching, more seats are being filled for qualifying, which starts next Saturday with Pole Day. Team Menard has named P.J. Jones, son of Indy champ Parnelli Jones, to replace the injured Jacques Lazier for the Memorial Day classic. And Sam Schmidt will field a second car for perennial Indy contender Mark Dismore, having gotten sponsorship dollars
The car will carry the No. 20. My buddy Memo Gidley still
hasn't landed a ride, although he was on Menard's short list before the team settled on Jones. I'm confident that Gidley will get an opportunity before the month is out, and hopefully qualify for the race.
Locally, one of the big events of the year at Champion Speedway is on tap for next Saturday night, as the USAC Sprint Cars come to town. The show will also include Legends, Bandoleros, and Outlaw Karts. Since NASCAR has Mother's Day weekend off, you can get your speed fix locally at Champion. Bring mom out to
the track, too -- she'll love it!
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist.