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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Wheel-Tethering System Another Step in Safety Evolution

July 23, 1999|SHAV GLICK

After the tragic accident one year ago this week when three spectators were killed by flying debris during the U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway, racing's response was to raise the fences in hopes of containing loose wheels and other car parts.

Then came an eerily similar accident May 1 during the VisionAire 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., in which three spectators were killed and eight others injured when hit by a wheel that flew into the grandstand.

Both incidents having been caused by wheels breaking away from the chassis during accidents, the two sanctioning bodies for open-wheel racing, CART and the Indy Racing League, began requiring a tethering system--officially called energy absorption restraints--on the wheels of their race cars.

The IRL, which sanctioned the Charlotte race, ordered them placed on all four wheels for the Indianapolis 500 and all subsequent races. CART, which ran the U.S. 500, used them on front wheels only for a race at Gateway Raceway on May 29, but will have all four wheels tethered when the U.S. 500 returns to Michigan on Sunday.

"Nothing you can do can guarantee complete safety when you're dealing with cars running 200 mph," said Leo Mehl, IRL executive director. But each step taken is one more plus in making racing safer than before-- especially for spectators.

"We are pleased with the way the energy absorption restraints responded [at Gateway Raceway] and we remain cautiously optimistic," said Tim Mayer, CART senior vice president of racing operations. "Safety procedures are evolutionary, and we will have an ongoing process throughout the season to evaluate their performances."

Skeptics of the tether restraints have pointed out that a wheel from Robby Gordon's car broke loose at Gateway, but their criticism has been unjustified.

"We did not have enough material for restraints on all four wheels for every FedEx car for that first race, so we had the front wheels tethered," said Kirk Russell, CART vice president of competition. "It was one of Gordon's rear wheels that separated.

"For this year, all our restraints have been retrofitted. For our 2000 cars, the restraint system will be built into the chassis, which should make it more effective."

The IRL will also make the wheel restraints an integral part of its new model chassis next year.

"We feel the system has been working very well, but we will continue to make improvements as we learn more," said Phil Casey, IRL technical director. "When Steve Knapp hit the wall at Atlanta, the impact was 92 1/2 Gs and every wheel broke loose, but the cables hung on to the wheels."

Knapp, Indy 500 rookie of the year after finishing third in 1998, was hospitalized with a broken back and is expected to be out of competition for three months or more.

"We have used the cables for four races and have had 16 wheels knocked off and only three got loose," continued Casey. "When the system becomes part of the body of the car, we feel it will be 90% safe-proof."

The idea for tethering wheels came from Formula One, where the concern was more for protecting the driver from a rebounding wheel than for spectators. At Formula One races, where speeds are much slower and there are many low-speed turns, the prospects that a loose tire might be catapulted into the stands is much less likely.

The FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) began requiring suspension and wheel tethers at the beginning of the season, in part a reaction to the death of legendary Ayrton Senna, who was killed when the right front wheel of his car rebounded into the cockpit and a suspension arm pierced the visor of his helmet during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

In addition to cars in Sunday's U.S. 500, CART will require tethers for cars in its two development series, PPG Dayton Indy Lights and Kool/Toyota Atlantic.

Obscured by fatalities, last year's U.S. 500 was the most competitive race in champ car history with 62 lead changes before Greg Moore slipped past Jimmy Vasser on the last lap to win.

CART officials credited the Handford Device, a winglike aerodynamic piece used to help contain speeds at superspeedways, for the amount of passing. It will be used again Sunday.

IRWINDALE CHANGES

Midway through its inaugural season, Irwindale Speedway will undergo a major change in its schedule next month.

Friday night racing will be discontinued--except for two special events--and Saturday night programs will be beefed up with added races. One-night-a-week racing will begin Aug. 7.

"We're combining the best of our Friday and Saturday night shows into one night of great racing action," said Ray Wilkings, Irwindale's chief operating officer. "Saturday nights are the best night for racing for everyone concerned--fans, racers and sponsors.

"With our revised schedule, we expect to see stronger car counts in all our racing divisions, and that will make it great for all our fans."

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