IRL: Indy soft wall project press conference, Part I

April 10, 2002, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Part 1 of 2 - King interview with Barnhart Mike King: This is going to be an update on the Indy Soft Wall Project. It's interesting, all of you covering motorsports, there has been much talk about ...

April 10, 2002, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Part 1 of 2 - King interview with Barnhart

Mike King: This is going to be an update on the Indy Soft Wall Project. It's interesting, all of you covering motorsports, there has been much talk about concrete walls in our sport. For a lot of years the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always taken front-runner stance in trying to develop technology to counter the effects of concrete. The PED system was introduced nearly a decade ago, PED being the acronym for I believe it's the polyurethane energy dissipation system that was installed on the interior wall here off of Turn 4 down the front straight. It's been tested twice in race conditions, once by Arie Luyendyk during the IROC event. Brian, that was '98?

Brian Barnhart (Vice president of operations, Indy Racing League): August of '98.

King: By Arie and then by Hideshi Matsuda, during practice for the 500, I guess that was '99 or 2000?

Barnhart: '99.

King: The bottom line is there has been ongoing investigation into this technology. That's what we're basically here to talk about today. I guess, Brian, in knowing what we already knew, where are we today in terms of a soft wall, quote unquote, soft wall project and what new technology is being discussed and developed and how close are we?

Barnhart: Well, Mike, I think my response to your question would be I think soft wall technology is closer than people would probably realize. Because of the research and the development that you've been talking about that we've been ongoing for the last several years -- maybe not a decade, maybe four or five years.

King: But the PED system was installed in, what was it, '93 or '94?

Barnhart: No, the PED wall went up in 1998 for the Indianapolis 500. I'll go over a little bit of a time line of what the development was. In 1996 and '97, especially during 1997, Leo Mehl was the executive director of the Indy Racing League. Leo put a group of us together to examine the possibilities of an energy-absorbing barrier to be placed on the walls of racetracks. We started coming up with some various ideas in the little committee that we had, the Safety Committee came up with what turned into the PEDS wall, as we mentioned, the energy dissipation system that was put on the inside of the Turn 4 wall for the 1998 Indianapolis 500. It was first hit in the real-world application by Luyendyk in the IROC car in August of '99; and the second PEDS version was hit by Matsuda in an Indy car in May of '99. What we really learned out of that situation was we quickly identified a lot of problems that we realized in that safety group that we had that this project was way beyond our engineering capabilities. The wall, I think it performed admirably in Arie Luyendyk's IROC crash in August of '98. I think it was a factor in Arie being able to come out of that accident virtually uninjured and in many ways it possibly saved his life. So I think the benefits of soft wall technology quickly showed themselves to the world; however, we also just as quickly identified serious problems with the design that we had implemented in that inside Turn 4 wall with the PED system, those problems being method of attachment to the wall. We created a debris field out on the racetrack. We were very fortunate that it was an IROC race and there were only 12 cars on the track. So the method of attachment to the wall, the debris field that resulted when it came off the wall, the rebound angle of the car was extreme. Other factors that we also quickly realized were what is known as pocketing and snagging of the car, too rapid of deceleration of the car. So we identified some problems very quickly with the wall that we had up on the inside of Tur At that point in time our safety committee did some research and we found that the Midwest Roadside Safety facility at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln is the nation's leading highway barrier research and development facility. We contacted them and contracted with the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to further develop the soft wall or the PEDS wall, as you were, an energy-absorbing barrier for application use on a racetrack. We took them as much information, as much data as we had from our black boxes that have been in Indy cars for 10 years. We took them as many videos as we could to show them the angles, the velocities, the types of cars, everything from open-wheel cars to stock cars. And the Nebraska research and development team went to work immediately on an evolution of our PEDS wall. Several variations took place and the wall that we initially came up with that was inside of Turn 4 has continued to evolve. We have conducted numerous tests. In September of 2000, we were at a point in the development process that we were encouraged by the progress that had been made and we were at a point where Tony George and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is in a very similar position as most other track owners and track promoters out there in the fact that he runs open-wheel cars and stock cars on his facility. That's one of the other issues that's difficult when you're dealing with soft wall technologies, is the different velocities and the different masses involved with the race car. In September of 2000, we were at a point where Tony was ready to include NASCAR into our development and progress that had been made by the University of Nebraska. At the Richmond event in September, I met with Mike Helton and Gary Nelson, informed them of the progress that we had made and what our current design was and basically brought NASCAR into the loop on the development process. At that time, as I mentioned, the reason for that is we were ready to start testing stock cars into this wall as well.

The University of Nebraska has a system, it's on an airport runway at Lincoln, and we actually pull race cars from approximately 3,000 feet -- it's an unbelievable system if you could watch it. The race cars are pulled via a cable for 3,000 feet. Approximately 15 feet before the impact the cars are released from the cable as a free-floating car. We have crashed stock cars, we have crashed Indy cars, we have crashed passenger cars. We have a number of tests that have been concluded. The last one we did we just conducted yesterday, that was IRL 17, and we have two more tests scheduled before the end of this month as well. Basically we can control the angle of an impact, we can control the velocities and we have tested anything from 80 miles an hour up to 155 miles an hour with open-wheel cars and with stock cars. After NASCAR's involvement in September of 2000, they have helped procure the stock cars that we have used for the tests. They have gone to their manufacturers and their teams and they have supplied the cars. The Indy Racing League, we have gone through our teams and our suppliers and we have been crashing open-wheel cars as well under that scenario. As I mentioned, we did conduct a test yesterday. Yesterday's test was basically a validation test of a previous test. It was very successful.

We have two more tests scheduled before the end of this month. We're encouraged by the results we have so far. But IRL 18 and IRL 19 will both be pulled before the end of the month of April here. Indications are from what we've seen and where we stand on the wall at this point, we're extremely pleased. And, as I mentioned to begin with, I think soft wall technology is probably closer than people have imagined. Pending the results of those tests, if they are as we anticipate them to be -- our computer modeling, we are now predicting the results of these tests and we're very accurate in those -- pending the results of those tests, obviously if they're positive results and what we anticipate them being, then we are moving forward and anticipating and hoping to have soft walls on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May of next month. So obviously we're looking forward to those two tests and the results of such, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mel Harder and Kevin Forbes and the facilities and engineering department are prepared for, if that decision comes forward and is a positive one, they are preparing the racetrack. They have already increased the overhang of the fences and the height of the fences and they're preparing the wall should we move that direction.

King: Wow, that's quite an announcement. Brian, I'm curious, how much driver input, if any, has been a part of the development of this technology?

Barnhart: Well, actually it hasn't been driver oriented in any way, shape or form. In fact, most of our drivers have not seen or heard anything of it until the Nazareth test last weekend. I explained and talked to two or three of the drivers at Nazareth and showed them some video clips of what we're looking to do. Obviously, from what they saw and the results of both open-wheel cars and stock cars, our drivers were extremely impressed and encouraged by what they saw.

King: Just to clarify what you just said, if the results of IRL 18 and 19 are positive, then we could see soft walls this month of May at the Speedway?

Barnhart: There's a possibility of it, yes.


Part II - Media questions: Part II

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About this article
Series Automotive , Formula 1 , IndyCar , NASCAR Cup
Drivers Arie Luyendyk , Tony George , Mike Helton , Brian Barnhart , Matsuda Hideshi