IRL: Impact Data Recorders: Black Box history

History of Impact Data Recorders in Racing DETROIT, Mich. -- Racing impact data recorders did not exist in 1991 when General Motors Biomedical Research scientist Dr. John Melvin and GM Racing engineer John Pierce were searching the globe for ...

History of Impact Data Recorders in Racing

DETROIT, Mich. -- Racing impact data recorders did not exist in 1991 when General Motors Biomedical Research scientist Dr. John Melvin and GM Racing engineer John Pierce were searching the globe for "black boxes" to support the newly formed GM Racing Safety Program. So they began writing their own specifications.

Their early attempts at racing accident reconstruction had shown that only limited results were available from analyzing photographs, videos, tire skid marks and mangled race cars. Accustomed to working with detailed data from highly instrumented production vehicles subjected to barrier tests at GM's Milford (Mich.) Proving Grounds, Melvin and Pierce realized that this kind of data would be critical to making recommendations for safer race cars. This pressing need for accurate data led them to seek a suitable crash recorder.

While in the process of writing a purchase order to have specialized racing impact recorders custom-built to their own specifications, they chanced upon a company in Okemos, Mich., called Instrumented Sensor Technology (IST). The company produced a battery-powered impact recorder that was used to monitor shipments of sensitive and costly equipment such as supercomputers and the Space Shuttle booster rockets.

The 4 x 4 x 2-inch, 2-pound IST Model EDR-3 was not designed for racing. But its specifications were virtually identical to those Melvin and Pierce had calculated would be required for high-speed racing accidents. The EDR-3 could record accelerations up to 200 G (200 times the force of gravity) in three axes at a rate of 2,000 samples per second. The sampling rate was especially critical. Some impact data was already being recorded on the data logging systems common to Indy cars in the early 1990s. But the sampling rate was not high enough to provide meaningful crash data.

Experiments were run with the IST recorder on several Indy cars during the 1992 racing season, and the EDR-3 proved capable of providing direct measurement of actual deceleration during high-speed impacts. Data from these accidents could provide enormous benefits in understanding the dynamics of various types of crashes and ultimately lead to better protection for race car drivers.

The crash recorders were formally approved for the first time by the United States Auto Club for installation on Indy cars competing in the 1993 Indianapolis 500, and were made mandatory for all Indy car races later that year.

Information from the data recorders helped to define the structural behavior of Indy cars during an impact, helping race car designers develop safer structures. Even the limited testing in 1992 produced enough data to result in Indy car safety regulations being updated in 1993 to require more structure in front of the driver compartment for additional impact absorption. The result was an immediate reduction in serious foot and leg injuries.

Crash data provided a clear picture of the loads that a race driver is subjected to during a high-speed impact. Detailed analysis of selected race car crashes allowed GM scientists to develop baseline impact sled test conditions for studying driver protection using GM's advanced Hybrid III dummies to simulate the forces on various parts of the human anatomy. More accurate test conditions assisted in evaluating the performance of driver protection systems such as interior padding, restraint belts, seats and head and neck restraint devices.

In 1996, GM began supplying impact recorders to the new Indy Racing League (IRL) in addition to the ongoing CART Indy car series program. GM Racing safety specialists also began sharing their crash recorder experience and procedures with safety personnel from Ford Motor Company. That cooperation helped promote a smooth transition in 1997 when Ford stepped in to manage the impact recorder program for CART while GM moved all of its recorders over to the growing IRL series.

This example of rival car companies working together as partners on safety matters has been a common element of the GM Racing Safety Program since its inception in 1991. It was clearly expressed when the program was publicly announced at the Detroit Grand Prix Indy car race in June, 1992, by Herb Fishel, executive director of GM Racing.

"Beyond winning races, transferring technology to our products and impacting our people with the motorsports culture, there is one thing that is really more important to GM," said Fishel at the 1992 press conference. "That's the safety and health of the drivers and teams who represent GM and rely on our technology. "And I want to make it clear that our concern

extends beyond the individuals and teams that are using our products." In the more than 10 years since its inception, the safety program has expanded from an early focus on Indy cars to encompass stock car racing, sports car racing, drag racing, off-road racing and the International Race of Champions (IROC) series.

In 1997, Melvin and Pierce were named winners of the Louis Schwitzer Award for using data from impact recorders to develop improved cockpit padding and a rear impact attenuator for IRL cars to protect drivers competing in the Indianapolis 500. The award is presented annually by the Indiana section of the Society of Automotive Engineers for innovation and engineering excellence in race car design.

Though both are now retired from General Motors, Melvin and Pierce continue to be active in racing safety development. Melvin works on safety projects at Wayne State University in Detroit, and consults with GM and other automakers and race sanctioning organizations on various safety issues. Pierce has served as a safety consultant to the IRL, and was responsible for developing the Polyethylene Energy Dissipation System (PEDS) "soft wall" that has been tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Tom Gideon, a 32-year GM veteran, has managed the GM Racing Safety Program for the last three years. Gideon worked in the 1970s on production car safety, including early air bag technology, before moving over to production engine development. He joined GM Racing in 1992, and has been responsible for NASCAR intake manifold design.

Gideon is enthusiastic about NASCAR's Aug. 21 announcement of its intent to install impact data recorders on Winston Cup race cars next year.

"It is a major project to install and maintain impact recorders in more than 40 race cars competing in each of NASCAR's nearly 40 Winston Cup races," said Gideon. "But I believe that NASCAR will be pleased with what they can learn from the data that they get in return for their efforts. I will certainly make myself available to assist them in every way that I can."

-GM Racing

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Series Automotive , IndyCar , NASCAR Cup