The Race for Safety by iRACE

Danger a Part of Racing (Oct. 6, 1997) -- True or False: Automobile racing is safer than it has ever been. Arguably true; there have been numerous innovations in recent years to help protect participants and spectators from being harmed by ...

Danger a Part of Racing

(Oct. 6, 1997) -- True or False: Automobile racing is safer than it has ever been.

Arguably true; there have been numerous innovations in recent years to help protect participants and spectators from being harmed by accidents or incidents during races. But also, arguably false, because of numerous other advancements which have made it possible for cars to go faster and faster, resulting in greater risk of high-impact crashes and greater risk for crew members, officials and spectators because of their proximity to the action.

In a series which begins today, iRACE takes a look at various aspects of the dangers which threaten auto racing -- not only the risks for those who compete and the fans who watch, but also affect safety has on the economic well-being of the sport.

The 1994 death of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna at Imola, Italy, introduced a new element into the safety issue, with six persons, including team owner Frank Williams and members of his crew plus individuals involved with operation of the Imola track, facing charges stemming from Senna's death. The trial continues.

The Imola trial may be the most significant warning sign for racing since the dark year of 1955, when as many as 100 or more were killed when a Mercedes veered out of control and crashed into a grandstand during the running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. That incident capped an already dark year which had seen several driver fatalities -- including two-time defending Indianapolis 500 champion Bill Vukovich, who crashed while trying to win a third straight 500. The American Automobile Association, considered the major sanctioning body for automobile racing in America, abruptly disbanded its Contest Board and ended its association with racing. The U.S. Auto Club was formed to step into that void, and William H.G. "Bill" France's 8-year-old NASCAR took a giant step toward a position of leadership in the sport.

One death is one too many, and while racing has a relatively good record in recent years, there have been casualties. Craftsman Truck Series driver John Nemechek died after a crash this spring at Homestead, Fla., and last year's toll included Top Fuel Dragster driver Blaine Johnson and Indy 500 pole winner Scott Brayton, plus CART rookie Jeff Krosnoff and a track corner worker who both died in the crash of Krosnoff's car at Toronto.

Indeed, off-track incidents have been of nearly-equal danger to star drivers. Alan Kulwicki, the 1992 Winston Cup champion, and Davey Allison, a second-generation driver who had already established himself as a top NASCAR competitor, both died in 1993 in aviation incidents, and former F1 champion and two-time Indy 500 champion Emerson Fittipaldi, out of action since he suffered a head injury in the 1996 U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway, suffered back injuries recently when the ultralight aircraft he was piloting crash-landed in a swamp.

Regarding non-fatal accidents, the on-track toll has been alarmingly high this year, especially in open-wheel racing. The fledgling Indy Racing League, seeking to establish itself as an oval-based series for open-wheel race cars, has had more than a dozen drivers knocked out of action because of head injuries suffered in crashes; CART drivers reached speeds of 240 mph and more in their season finale Marlboro 500 at the new California Speedway two weeks ago, and several drivers, including the PPG CART World Series champion Alex Zanardi, were sidelined by a rash of high-impact crashes during the California race weekend. Frenchman Olivier Panis returned to F1 competition recently after missing several races with leg injuries he suffered in a crash in Montreal.

There are contradictory data. Advances in tires, aerodynamics and suspension have produced unprecedented high cornering speeds; even with the infamous carburetor restrictor plates required for NASCAR races at its two fastest tracks, stock cars are often caught up in terrifying multi-car wrecks, including two at Talladega, Ala., last year which left drivers Ricky Craven and seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt with injuries which were remarkably minor.

The iRACE series will examine various ways in which race cars and race tracks have been altered to create a safer environment, but sometimes events don't go according to plan. Michael Waltrip's crash in a Busch Series car in 1990 at Bristol, Tenn., and Stan Fox's first-lap crash in the 1995 Indianapolis 500 are the perfect examples of how a modern race car actually performed its safety mission too well. In both cases, the race car virtually disintegrated upon sustaining a severe impact, absorbing a tremendous amount of the energy of the crash. However, in both cases, the initial impact left both drivers in a terribly precarious situation, with little or no protection from a subsequent impact.

Waltrip was dazed by the impact with the blunt end of the Bristol Motor Speedway backstretch wall when a crossover gate collapsed as his car slammed into it. The car went head-on into the unyielding abuttment, and was literally sheared in half lengthwise. While the engine and other pieces of the car went tumbling down the backstretch, the left side of the chassis, with the driver's seat and portions of the sheet metal skin still attached to it, came to rest near the apron of the high-banked track. Waltrip came to his senses, and realized his driving shoes were resting on the asphalt pavement of the track. Incredibly, he maneuvered his 6-foot, 5-inch body from the pile of debris, stood up and walked to an ambulance. After an overnight hospital stay for observation, he drove in the Winston Cup event at Bristol the next day, and has continued as a full-time NASCAR competitor.

Fox was not so lucky. Most race fans probably remember the terrifying TV coverage of his crash, with Fox's legs and much of his body dangling limply from the front of his car as it spun crazily into the short chute of the south turn at the famous Brickyard after a nearly head-on crash into the outside wall in Turn 1. Fox suffered a closed head injury from the initial impact, and was in a coma for some time before he recovered. Only recently did he return to short-track racing, amazing some and confounding others.

That Fox would want to race again is a mystery to many, even long-time and devoted race fans. The late Neil Bonnett, who was inactive for several years after he suffered a head injury in early 1990 which caused temporary loss of memory, returned to NASCAR racing in 1993 against the advice of many who knew the popular Hueytown, Ala., driver. Bonnett pursued his comeback, only to be killed in February 1994 in a practice-session crash at Daytona International Speedway.

Another Winston Cup driver, Rodney Orr, was killed at Daytona just days after Bonnett's death, and later that year, Ernie Irvan suffered severe injuries in a crash at Michigan that kept him out of racing for more than a year. Since then, with the exception of Nemechek's death -- the first for NASCAR's new truck series -- major stock car racing has enjoyed relatively few serious injuries to competitors. But the debate goes on over the nature of restrictor-plate racing and the high-speed, multi-car crashes that often occur at Daytona and Talladega. Also, speeds at intermediate speedways such as Charlotte, Atlanta, Texas, Michigan and California are uncomfortably high.

Are Winston Cup cars going too fast? Are CART machines going too fast? Are new rules (which have been criticized by at least one driver, Jacques Villeneuve) designed to slow Formula One cars appropriate, or indeed are they inadequate? Can track owners make their courses substantially safer?

Likely, there will never be a consensus. Certainly, there are no simple answers to many safety-related questions relating to the questions facing sanctioning bodies and track operators. But one thing seems to be certain -- there is an awareness of the importance of protecting the sport from catastrophy. That much is evident, even if sanctioning body officials and safety equipment manufacturers and innovators are often reluctant to talk about the matter. They fear (rightfully so, in all likelihood, considering today's litigious society) that any candid discussion about plans to deal with a perceived safety problem; to admit as much is tantamount to acknowledging that events are being staged despite "official" recognition that a problem exists. Consequently, much safety-related research and development goes on without publicity.

The quest for safety goes on, nonetheless -- not only by racing governing bodies, but also by private manufacturers and racer/innovators such as Bill Simpson, Brian Butler and others who have risen to prominence for their efforts to promote safety in racing.

If there is anything else which might be conceded as a given, it is the acceptance that neither tecnology nor sanctioning body legislation will ever completely remove the element of danger from auto racing. While comprehensive safety remains the goal, a reasonable level of protection from risk is the realistic objective.

Stop by http://www.irace.com/newsview/1997/safety/index.htm for the entire iRACE Safety Series.

-- Chris Poterala - potsie@irace.com Community Developer/Computer Guy (313) 997-0500, ext. 17

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