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SAFER AT ANY SPEED : Many of the Dangerous Risks in Indy Car Racing Are Eliminated by Design

August 06, 1989|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

Today's Penskes, Lolas and Marches, descendants of Brabham's lightweight Cooper-Climax, are monocoques--frameless tubs. The energy from any sudden impact is spread and absorbed before it reaches the driver. Engineers can program what will break first, how it will break and where it will go.

Adoption of the monocoque chassis, constructed using carbon fiber composites, aluminum honeycomb and Kevlar, made cars lighter, faster and safer.

The change in the strength-to-weight ratio from front-engine roadsters to rear-engine cars was remarkable. The carbon fiber components are as strong as those made of steel but weigh as much as 70% less.

"The composite-type construction also became popular because it gave torsional stiffness to the car, making it handle better and act more predictably," Russell said. "Then we got an added bonus when we learned that it also improved the ability of the car to absorb high impacts."

This evolution in design ultimately brought about a shift in concern for drivers, from life-threatening to limb-threatening.

As drivers and CART officials became more safety conscious, a new philosophy evolved. Earlier, most changes made to safeguard drivers were after the fact. It took an accident to trigger any movement toward safety in a specific area.

"When you get down to it, any change is because of something that's happened," Joe Cloutier, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said after a rule change in chassis construction had been made in 1984 in an attempt to prevent leg and foot injuries. "It's like a tumor. You don't realize it's there until it starts hurting."

Today, CART attempts to foresee problems and head them off before they occur.

"One of the best things about CART is that they really respect the input from the drivers," Andretti said. "Different drivers see different things about different tracks and CART listens. Not too many years ago, no one paid any attention to what drivers said."

A recent innovation is impact testing. Every model Indy car is tested to make sure it is strong enough to withstand impact and maintain structural integrity with a minimum of deformation in the driver's area.

"The Kevin Cogan accident was a pretty good representation of the ability of these cars to withstand really violent impacts and have the driver walk away," Russell said. "His car had several high-impact hits and the energy level for each hit was quite high, but the shell that the driver sits in, although heavily damaged, still had quite a bit of structural integrity to it."

Andrew Kenopensky, team manager of Cogan's Machinists Union car, put it more succinctly: "(The car) did what it was designed to do."

An early side effect of the breakaway cars was an increase in fire danger.

"For a while, every time you crashed a car, you automatically blew up and caught on fire," Foyt said.

The worst incident occurred during the second lap of the 1964 Indianapolis 500 when Dave MacDonald's car spun into the northwest turn wall at Indianapolis and exploded. Eddie Sachs' car hit MacDonald's and his car exploded in a ball of fire that killed both drivers.

It was nearly two hours before the race was resumed.

After the MacDonald-Sachs fire, in which both cars were loaded with gasoline, the United States Auto Club mandated that methanol, a less volatile fuel, be used exclusively.

"Methanol is much safer than gasoline, much more stable and more difficult to ignite," Russell said. "Methanol is also much easier to control than gasoline because it absorbs water."

Methanol consists of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and is commercially manufactured--from wood and garbage, among other things--by heating hydrogen and carbon monoxide under pressure.

Ten years later at Indy, Salt Walther's car hit the fence along the front straightaway and sent flames and debris into the crowd as the race was starting. Walther was badly burned and nine spectators were hospitalized.

Fuel capacity was reduced from 80 gallons to 40 gallons after the Walther fire and the fuel tank's location was limited to the right side of the car. Before, 40 gallon tanks were on either side of the driver, leaving him almost sitting in a tub of fuel.

About that same time, Goodyear engineers were developing an impact-resistant fuel cell for use in combat helicopters during the Vietnam war that virtually eliminated death by fire in survivable crashes.

Similar high-strength, rubber-coated nylon fabric fuel cells with breakaway fittings, built to military specifications, were incorporated into all new Indy cars.

Mexico's Josele Garza, rookie of the year at Indianapolis in 1981, attested to the effectiveness of the fuel cell after an accident at the Mid-Ohio road course in Lexington, Ohio. His car veered abruptly into the guard rail in front of the pits at close to 150 m.p.h.

"I didn't mean to do it, but I gave Goodyear's fuel cell the worst destruction test I hope it ever gets," Garza said. "I'm thankful to report that it passed with flying colors."

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