Drivers can take hit and survive Padded Turn 4 wall is engineered to absorb impacts and save lives

Indianapolis 500

May 22, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George acknowledges that there was a time, he believes, when people came to auto races to see accidents.

And during 81 previous Indianapolis 500 races, there have been a lot of accidents to see. A lot of deaths, too. Sixty-six in all, 39 of them drivers.

"But I don't think they come for that anymore," George said yesterday, while talking about the new padded wall he has had installed on the inside wall of Turn 4. "Racing is safer than it has ever been, and motorsports is more popular than it's ever been. If this works in Turn 4, I can see it spreading around the track."

Through the years, Turn 4 has been deadly.

Veteran A. J. Foyt, whose two drivers, Billy Boat and Kenny Brack, sit on the inside and outside poles, respectively, for Sunday's Indy 500, can recall one of the deadly crashes.

"It was 1958, my rookie year," Foyt said. "Driver Keith Andrews lost his life during a practice, when his car spun in that turn and he smashed backward into the inside wall. I didn't know him, but I'll never forget that. It scared me pretty bad."

Other drivers have died in Turn 4: Clay Weatherly in 1935, Jerry Unser in 1959 and Swede Savage in 1973. And Turn 4 has also been the site of some pretty horrific accidents that maimed.

But this Sunday, in the 82nd Indianapolis 500, it will be less treacherous because of the installation of five-foot-long, overlapping, high-density polyethylene plates that stretch over 550 feet on Turn 4's inside wall.

The structure, the first to be installed to soften a blow here since the speedway opened in 1909, is expected to cut the force of impact by about 50 percent.

The plates and connecting cylinders are anchored to the concrete wall with steel cables that will secure them firmly if the wall is struck by a spinning car.

"When it's hit by a car, it compresses and then slowly returns to the original shape," said designer John Pierce, a retired engineer from GM Motorsports who serves as a safety consultant to the Indy Racing League.

Retired driver Tom Sneva, the 1983 winner and the first man to go 200 mph here, back in 1977, hit so many walls around this speedway -- and elsewhere -- he developed a strategy for it.

"When I'd see the wall looming, I'd close my eyes and say, 'Faint, you coward, faint!' " Sneva recalled yesterday, while looking at the safety-wall design. "I think this is great. And I'm glad they started on the inside wall."

Sneva said that when a car hits the outside wall, the crash usually knocks off its wheels and results in the loss of its sheet metal and chassis structure, leaving only the driver in his close-fitting compartment to absorb the second blow when the car spins down the track and smashes into the inside wall.

"I think it definitely will cut down on injuries," Sneva said. "I wish they'd had it when I was racing. If it works as well as they think it will, the whole track could be padded.

"Then it will be like bumper cars!"

Dr. Henry Bock, the speedway's director of medical services, said IRL officials began looking at designs in 1994, but until now, none seemed optimal for open-wheel, high-speed racing.

"Once we saw this, we went after it aggressively," Bock said.

No driver tested the barrier yesterday during the final day of practice for Sunday's race. But in head-on crash tests at 30 mph, the polyethylene system reduced the force of impact from 80Gs (about 80 times the force of gravity) to 30Gs, said IRL executive director Leo Mehl.

In a sport in which there is often debate over everything from a flashing caution light to what time lunch is scheduled, the padded safety barrier is the rare development that has caused no debate.

Looking at the padded wall, defending 500 champion Arie Luyendyk spoke for almost everyone.

"I hope I'm not the one to test the barrier Sunday," he said. "But I think the IRL has to be commended for striving for driver safety. I can't see any negative side effects in this."

Race facts

What: 82nd Indianapolis 500

When: Sunday, noon

Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

TV: Chs. 2, 7. Coverage begins at 11 a.m.

Number of starters: 33.

Pole-sitter: Billy Boat, who qualified a Dallara-Aurora at a four-lap average of 223.503 mph.

Defending champion: Arie Luyendyk.

Field average in qualifications: 218.305 mph

Purse: Depends on attendance and accessory awards; 1997 payoff was a record $8,612,450, of which Luyendyk and Treadway Racing received a record winner's share of $1,568,150.

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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