One Formula For Safety?

May 16, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Indianapolis -- When does speed outdistance reflexes? When is fast too fast? Is there a correlation between speed and danger?

And could tragedy, such as that that has struck the Formula One series, happen here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

They are simple questions with complicated answers.

Formula One and Indy cars look pretty much the same to a casual observer. Because of that and because the motor sports community is so intertwined, concern over the recent string of serious accidents on the Formula One circuit extends to the IndyCar competitors, who are preparing for the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

"Often time, it is without rhyme or reason," said Leo Mehl, Goodyear's director of racing worldwide. "I'm very reluctant to draw conclusions. Formula One had not experienced a fatality in 12 years, and suddenly they're in this streak.

"IndyCars suffered through a lot of broken lower extremities a few years ago and slowly -- after studying each accident -- altered the cars to prevent them.

"Everyone would say NASCAR Winston Cup stock cars are the safest, and we had problems there."

Two Winston Cup drivers died in February. The Formula One circuit, which just had completed its safest decade in history, has lost two competitors in the past two weeks, with another in a coma.

At Indianapolis, there has been one death in 12 years. In 1992, Jovy Marcelo died in an accident during practice, when a tire flew off his car and struck his head.

"Any form of motor racing is dangerous," said current IndyCar and former Formula One champion Nigel Mansell. "In the last 10 years, there have been a lot of horrific accidents in both IndyCar and Formula One whereby a lot of luck has helped save the situation.

"We could quite easily have had two fatalities at Phoenix [last month]. The reason we didn't was pure luck. If Jacques Villeneuve had hit Hiro [Matsushita] one foot to the left, he'd have hit the cockpit. One foot to the right, he'd have hit the engine."

But even with yesterday's crash that sent Scott Goodyear to the hospital with back pain, this is one of the safest Mays on record here, with just three accidents.

In fact, since the Speedway was redesigned after more than 20 accidents that sent nearly a dozen drivers to the hospital with foot and leg injuries in 1992, there has not been one broken bone here.

"But you can never say one kind of racing is safe," said Eddie Cheever, another former Formula One driver who now competes in IndyCar. "It's just the way the cards fall. But there has been a lot of work put into making these Indy cars safe. Accidents, real serious accidents, are an aberration.

"In Formula One, drivers don't have enough input into the design of cars, and an official in Paris, who does make the rules, doesn't feel much pain. It's the driver behind the wheel who knows and feels and, unfortunately, they aren't listened to."

And under the sheet metal, men such as Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears and Cheever say, there are enough differences between Formula One and Indy cars to make a substantial difference.

"The thing about speed is you don't just wake up one morning and go 15 miles per hour faster," said Cheever. "What happens is you pick up a mile here, a mile there."

At Monte Carlo Thursday, Austrian driver Karl Wendlinger crashed into a wall at about 180 mph. He is in a deep coma, but according to a report on ESPN yesterday, he is expected to live, though possibly not drive again.

Two weeks earlier, drivers Ayrton Senna -- after complaining about rule changes -- and Roland Ratzenberger were killed during the San Marino Grand Prix.

At Daytona last February, Neil Bonnett and Rodney Orr died in racing accidents during activities leading up to the Daytona 500.

Formula One officials are making changes that will reduce speeds and increase car weight. But at Indy, where cars are going 242 mph down the straightaways, drivers say speed is not the reason for those tragedies.

"I think it is more of a design problem than it is a speed problem," said Mears, a four-time IndyCar champion who is team adviser to the Roger Penske organization. "In Formula One, the driver's whole head is up above the side of the car, and there are no sides to the cars. There is very little crushable structure between them and the wall to absorb the impact."

Mears pointed to Friday's accident here involving Paul Tracy. Tracy hit both the infield fence and the outer concrete wall and suffered a concussion.

"Tracy's helmet hit the steering wheel in that wreck," said Mears. "That means the impact caused his body to stretch arm's length, two feet. In a Formula One car, if the impact is enough to stretch a driver's body that much, his head is going to hit the wall, because there is no crushable structure there to take the shock out."

Speed adds to the problem, but drivers say it is not the big problem.

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