A race against time

After a series of high-profile fatalities, IndyCar is going flat-out to improve safety at circuits and in cars

The fact that IndyCar Series drivers Sébastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon were recently able to survive (and in Dixon’s case, walk away from) two of the most spectacular accidents the sport has ever seen cannot be attributed to a miracle or divine intervention.

Decades of desire, cooperation, research and development in the interest of driver safety all contributed to two popular champions being able to live to tell the story of wrecks that likely would have crippled or killed them not all that many years ago.

As with Formula 1, the path to making Indycar racing safer involved incremental changes over the years to cars, tracks and
driver safety equipment. There was no single magic bullet, though the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s (IMS) funding and development of the SAFER Barrier system now in universal use is without question the most important safety development in the  history of oval track competition.

Introduced in 2002 at IMS, the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) Barrier finally made practical the kind of ‘soft wall’ long needed to lessen the impact of high-speed oval accidents. NASCAR, which hasn’t suffered a fatality since the legendary Dale Earnhardt died during the 2001 Daytona 500, is the greatest beneficiary of the SAFER Barrier.

The contribution of the HANS (Head and Neck Support) Device mandated by many sanctioning bodies in the early 21st century must also be heralded. Skull injuries like the
one that killed Earnhardt have been nearly eliminated in all forms of racing since the HANS became as much a part of a driver’s safety kit as a helmet, fireproof overalls and gloves.

Bourdais probably owes his life to a combination of the cushioning effect of the SAFER wall, HANS Device and safety advances that have been made to Indycars over the last 35 years. Through USAC, CART, IRL and IndyCar sanction, a relentless desire has existed to make the sport safer for everyone involved. 

The catalyst was a series of accidents in the early 1980s that produced a pair of fatalities and led to a more dedicated examination of what could be done to prevent or minimise injuries to drivers. 

Bourdais’ crash during a qualifying run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was eerily similar to a 1982 accident at IMS that instantly killed driver Gordon Smiley. The Frenchman had just turned a 231mph lap when he over-corrected a slide, causing his Dale Coyne Racing Dallara-Honda to snap violently to the right into an oblique right-front impact measured at 227mph and more than 100g.

Dr Steve Olvey, medical director for the CART-sanctioned IndyCar Series from 1979 to 2007, calls the Smiley accident “the most devastating crash ever witnessed at the Speedway”, and the fact that Bourdais’ crash drew comparison speaks volumes. At the time, Smiley was the first fatality at IMS since 1973 when drivers Art Pollard and Swede Savage and a safety worker were killed during the month of May, prompting substantial changes to slow the cars for 1974.

Speeds crept back up over the next 10 years until accidents involving drivers Danny Ongais, Derek Daly, Chip Ganassi and Rick Mears in the early ’80s drew Indianapolis-based orthopaedic surgeon Dr Terry Trammell into the sport. Trammell’s work on Ongais after a grisly wreck at IMS in 1981 gained him the reputation as a magician who put broken Indycar drivers back together. This was amplified when he saved Mears’ feet from amputation three years later after the Indycar legend crashed at Sanair Speedway. 

In 1984, Trammell and Olvey began recording their experiences and published an article in Physician and Sports Medicine. They reported that nearly 90 per cent of driver injuries in the CART series were orthopaedic-related, with head injuries making up most of the rest.

“The number of drivers who sustained crippling injuries was growing exponentially
in this period and the sport was getting a bad reputation as a result,” Olvey explained, adding that up to 1982, any safety improvements were generally the direct result of a fatal crash. 

As an example, CART immediately mandated a steering wheel-mounted engine ‘kill’ switch in the wake of a fatal accident involving driver Jim Hickman at Milwaukee in 1982. Hickman’s car had such a device, but it was mounted on the dash and he was unable to reach it in time when his throttle stuck wide open.

The same kind of wheel-mounted kill switch might have saved the lives of NASCAR drivers Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty who died in throttle-related accidents nearly 20 years later.

After Mears’ accident, CART’s focus turned to preventing or mitigating severe foot and ankle injuries. As the ’80s progressed, the car’s nose cone was strengthened, the driver was moved back in the car and additional bulkheads were mandated in front of the driver’s feet. By the time Olvey and Trammell published their second paper, in 1989, lower extremity injuries were down to 60 per cent. Head injuries now represented almost 40 per cent of all injuries – a proportional rise since there were fewer orthopaedic injuries; their actual number remained roughly the same.

Still, by the late ’80s, drivers were sustaining concussions in even minor oval crashes because the harder surface of the carbon tubs was not forgiving like aluminium. This resulted in the addition of cockpit padding around the drivers’ helmet, but the development of specialised padded headrests and shoulder collars didn’t start in earnest until the mid-90s, first with higher cockpit sides and ultimately a wider cockpit with padded shoulder collar.

Indycar racing lagged behind F1 in the use of a full composite chassis, though John Watson’s crash in a McLaren MP4-1 in 1981
at Monza clearly demonstrated the superior strength and potential safety of a carbon tub. Designer Nigel Bennett incorporated the first use of carbon fibre into his little remembered 1983 Theodore Indycar chassis, but it was not until 1991 that CART finally allowed full composite tubs. The basic safety cell for an Indycar hasn’t really changed since. 

“The essential rules remain as true today as they did then,” notes Olvey. “The key to injury prevention in an open-wheel car is to restrain the driver in a very strong safety cell or tub, which then needs to be surrounded by breakaway energy absorbing parts. Wheels, suspension parts, and importantly, the sidepods of the car all serve to dissipate kinetic energy during a crash. Sidepods not only absorb energy but help divert errant pieces of debris away from and over a driver’s head.

“The crashes that concern us the most are the ones where few parts leave the car on impact,” he adds. “In these crashes, the car suddenly decelerates over a very short time and distance, overwhelming the crushability of the various components. This rapid deceleration or sudden stop is the cause of most life-threatening injuries that result from a racing accident.”

In the late 1990s, the IRL-sanctioned IndyCar Series had a significant problem in that respect. An extremely heavy-spec gearbox created a pendulum effect that speared a spinning car rearward into a concrete wall, causing numerous spine and neck injuries in the final years leading up to the introduction of the SAFER Barrier. Current IndyCar Series team owner Sam Schmidt was paralysed in an IRL accident in 2000, prompting the series to quickly develop a gearbox-mounted foam attenuator with technology that is still used today.

The Bourdais accident was the most graphic example of a rapid deceleration frontal crash seen in recent memory, with a severity of impact that stunned even veteran observers of the sport. 

His survival was aided by recent safety developments to the spec Dallara chassis used by all IndyCar Series competitors created in the wake of accidents involving Tristan Vautier and Justin Wilson in 2013 and James Hinchcliffe
in 2015 to emphasise side intrusion protection. Wilson, Hinchcliffe and Bourdais all incurred pelvic injuries due to side intrusion, with Hinchcliffe suffering near-fatal consequences when his femoral artery was impaled by
a suspension arm.

INDYCAR is working to incorporate additional side-impact protection with the new universal bodywork and floor that will be fitted to the carryover Dallara tub in 2018 and beyond.  

“The sidepods are extended forward along the side of the monocoque, and the front of the sidepod and inlet ducts are all made in one piece and they are crash structure,” says Tino Belli, IndyCar director of aerodynamic development. “If a driver slaps the wall, as in Sébastien’s case, there should be more structure beside the tub. It should help nose penetration, and the radiators have moved from sort of beside the engine to be in a layover position beside the tub. They will add impact structure and will be quite heavily constrained because the inlet duct is a lot tougher. They won’t just fold away; they’ll have to crush in a side impact.

“In Sébastien’s accident, the Xylon side intrusion panels and the foam we’ve mandated in the headrest held up well,” Belli adds. “I’m hoping in that sort of accident next year the stronger sidepods will crush and maybe create some deceleration before the tub gets to the wall. In one photo sequence I saw, the centreline of Bourdais’ car was in the normal position of the SAFER Barrier and you could see that there was no deceleration. It’s always going to be tough in that sort of accident and
a side impact is going to be a bit of a learning curve for us.”

Remarkably, Bourdais was able to leave Indianapolis Methodist Hospital under his own power (albeit on crutches) just four days after the accident. On Indy 500 Race Day, he talked about the crash with reporters at IMS.

“There’s a lot of stuff that maybe you can discuss about side protection that hopefully will prevent collapsing on side impacts and reduce the kind of injuries I sustained in that crash,” he said. “But I was still full throttle when I hit the wall and it’s a pretty good testament to safety. The car did a really good job head-on. I don’t have any injuries on my feet or anything like that. 

“If we could avoid pelvis and hip fractures, that would be great,” he continued. “But I don’t think there’s a lot of people who can say they have survived a head-on crash at 227mph.”

Dixon’s crash in the race brought to light an area where IndyCar continues to grasp for a solution: cars launched into the air when they hit another car from behind with a high closing speed. In Dixon’s case, Jay Howard crashed in front of him and Dixon was unable to avoid Howard’s car as it crossed the track. Dixon’s car was launched into a roll, bouncing off the top of a SAFER Barrier lining the inside of the short chute between Turns 1 and 2 before landing intact on its wheels. The four-time IndyCar Series champion clambered out on his own power and was quickly cleared to drive by IndyCar medical staff – though it was later obvious that Dixon sustained a badly bruised or fractured left ankle. He’s still not saying, but he drove to a second-place finish six days later on the punishing Detroit street course and followed that up with a fourth-place run in another full race just 24 hours later. 

Dixon and the Indycar community joked about his dramatic flight, but the issue of airborne cars has been an area of sensitivity for IndyCar for the last 15 years, since the early 2000s when many IRL teams set up their cars with the nose-up rake of a speedboat in an effort to minimise the drag effect of the rear wing.

Dixon’s Ganassi Racing team-mate-to-be Tony Renna was killed in a private testing accident at IMS in October 2002, and Kenny Brack suffered career-threatening injuries when his car was launched into the fence at Texas Motor Speedway in late 2003. IndyCar outlawed the ‘powerboat’ set-up, but cars continued to get up in the air during front-wheel to rear-wheel impacts, most notably in a pair of accidents suffered by Dario Franchitti in the summer of 2007. IndyCar was already trying to address the problem by mandating a beam wing supporting awkward-looking rear ‘bumpers’ for the new car it planned to introduce for 2012. Sadly, the change came too late for Dan Wheldon: in the last race for the chassis used from 2003-11, Wheldon was killed when his car was launched into the fence at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 2011 season finale in the very kind of accident the series was trying to avoid in the future.

The bumpers turned out to be a dead end in terms of safety. In fact, the attempt to correct one problem may have directly contributed to another, as a series of accidents at Indianapolis in 2015 involving cars with Chevrolet bodywork getting airborne demonstrated. The controversial appendages will disappear in 2018.

“Some people might question removing the wheel guards as a safety negative, but I think as you saw from Dixon’s accident, the wheel guards, although well-intentioned when the DW12 came out, didn’t fix the problem,” says IndyCar’s Belli. “In Dixon’s accident, there is one frame of film where the wheel guard had gone from being there to being out of the picture. They just did nothing. We’ve learned that the wheel guards actually helped the back flips considerably.”

Safety continues to be a moving target and the comprehensive changes being introduced to the 2018 Indycar will undoubtedly reveal additional avenues of improvement for the future. The current focus is on overhead cockpit protection, spurred by Justin Wilson’s fatal accident at Pocono Raceway in August 2015 when he was struck in the helmet by a flying piece of debris.

The 2018 car is unlikely to include additional cockpit protection at first, but Belli says that development of an acceptable system is ongoing.

“We are working on a windscreen,” Belli confirms. “Jeff Horton [IndyCar director of engineering] and Terry Trammell have always been going down the windscreen route, not the halo route. We have run a windscreen in the simulator for visual studies and are making the prototype, which should run on the simulator in July. 

“Quite often drivers will give you the thumbs up for things in the simulator and then give you the thumbs down on the track,” he adds. “I believe our drivers are about 50-50 right now, which is similar to F1. We need to make sure we make it right and we are working diligently on that.”

It’s clear that developments in chassis safety and the advent of the SAFER Barrier and the HANS Device have significantly reduced the risks involved with oval racing. IndyCar is deep into the process of eliminating the kind of head injuries that Wilson sustained in his freak accident, and the most likely source of the next ‘Eureka!’ moment in terms of oval track safety appears to be a solution for the catch fence above the wall. Wheldon’s death was caused when his helmet struck a post mounted on the track side of the mesh fencing at Las Vegas, a controversial system still in use at most oval tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc.

The next generation of cars will incorporate safety advancements, but drivers like Sébastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon are just thankful for the ones that have already come to fruition.

“I’m just glad that everybody is okay,” says Dixon. “It serves as a huge testament to Dallara and everybody on the safety crew on how we’ve lifted the safety of these cars and what we’re able to get through.”