Wheeler continues quest for `soft' bumper


Auto Racing

September 02, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Long before May 12, 2000, when Adam Petty became the first of four NASCAR drivers to die in racing accidents in nine months, Lowe's Motor Speedway president H. A. "Humpy" Wheeler was on record as saying, "There is no excuse for anyone dying in a racing accident."

So it should come as no surprise that last week Wheeler was the driving force behind a "soft" bumper test at his speedway. Over the years, Wheeler has been behind a lot of safety testing involving soft-wall technology.

Now he is testing and recommending a new carbon-fiber bumper designed to lessen a high-speed crash's impact on a driver.

Reaction has been skeptical.

But Wheeler, at his desk in Charlotte, N.C., late Friday afternoon, saw only the positives.

"I'm glad we're having a good, open debate about safety," he said. "That hasn't been something that has gone on in the past."

In a column in the Orlando Sentinel, Ed Hinton wrote that Tom Gideon, racing safety manager at General Motors, doesn't think the new bumper is ready and doesn't understand the data he has seen from the tests.

"But," Hinton quotes Gideon as saying, "my point - that I keep going back to - is that the structure of the car is not as big a problem as the driver area. We're still working hard to get everyone in the right restraints, the HANS [head and neck support device] and six-point belts and the right seats."

Wheeler has no quarrel with improving cars with those safety devices. But he sees them as three parts of a four-part problem.

"There is absolutely no question we need to be doing something to absorb the shock of the crash," he said. "The head restraints, the belts and seats can all be in place, and you still have the human body [contending]with the impact."

Wheeler says a crash of 40 Gs (40 times gravity's normal pressure) "is probably fatal" and that the force of the nastiest racing crashes is about 80 Gs.

"What we've found [in testing] is that when the right front of a car hits the concrete wall, there is nothing between [the front fender] and the right-front frame rail but air. Then, a few inches later, there is the engine, which has no absorbency at all, and after that, the driver's compartment, which takes 35 to 50 Gs."

In tests, Wheeler's group found the shock-absorbing bumper reduced impact by about half.

"I don't know why someone can't understand that," he says.

Wheeler worked at Firestone in the 1960s, when the big danger in auto racing was fire.

"Deaths in racing seem to occur in clusters," he says. "In the 1960s, it was the [exploding] fuel problem, and at Firestone we solved that by developing the fuel cell out of World War II airplane technology. Now, we have to look at the cars again. What's changed?"

The answer, Wheeler says, is stiff front ends that have been developed to improve handling. He's not alone in that belief.

Darrell Waltrip, three-time Winston Cup champ and Fox Sports commentator, pointed to that problem less than a week after Dale Earnhardt was killed at the Daytona 500 in February.

Race cars have been hitting walls hard for decades, but only since the front ends have been stiffened have deaths occurred.

To Wheeler and others, it is an obvious one-plus-one that, now, equals disaster in a crash.

It might have been a conclusion NASCAR would have come to if officials had included the crashes involved in the deaths of Craftsman truck driver Tony Roper, Busch Grand National driver Adam Petty and Winston Cup driver Kenny Irwin in their study of what caused Earnhardt's death.

In the garage area, drivers such as Jeff Gordon have been campaigning for soft walls for years. The soft-wall technology is advancing, but Wheeler sees the shock-absorbing bumper as a fix that could work now.

NASCAR president Mike Helton has been supportive, Wheeler says, even encouraging him to look into the use of carbon fiber, which has been off-limits in stock cars because it is expensive. With that material, a bumper is estimated to cost about $6,000.

The results of the bumper tests are expected to be presented to NASCAR this week.

"I think they will approve it, though it will take them a little while," Wheeler says. "For me, that's difficult. I'm impatient. My only interest in it is to save lives and to decrease the injury rate. I think with all the other improvements - the head restraints, the seats and belts - we can eliminate death. But we have to eliminate the serious injuries, too."

And that's where Wheeler believes the new bumper will make the difference.

A `Wally' award

Middle River's Seth Valentin, 10, won his first Junior Drag Racing event last Sunday at U.S. 13 Dragway in Delmar, Del. It was a big event to win, because it was the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Hot Rod Association at the track, and the coveted "Wally" statue was given to each class winner that night. The statue honors Wally Parks, the founder of the drag racing series.

"Winning it means a lot, and I'm showing it to my neighbors," said Seth, who will put it in a glass case once his friends have seen it.

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