Soft Walls Safer Days

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Years ago when someone would mention soft walls as a safety device I thought they were kidding.

Now, the management of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced they were taking the first step, in which many hope is a way to reduce possible injuries when cars go out of control. This may be the biggest development, in driver safety, since the HANS device. More importantly, instead of attacking the symptoms of the high-speed crash it tries to limit the force of such an impact.

This latest move is commendable and continues a tradition of safety innovations at Indianapolis going back to the first rear-view mirrors.

That speedway president, Tony George, Brian Barnhart, and others involved would take the long view, retaining responsible academics, like the University of Nebraska, shows a commitment to driver safety, which is frankly unparalleled in motorsports. Having Mike Helton, NASCAR’s president, present and involved is also a good measure.

Again, the efforts of the speedway may have been overshadowed by the developments in NASCAR, most notably in the aftermath of Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona last year.

What you can’t forget is that the speedway is now deploying its third iteration of wall technology.

It shows that there is no definitive answer to the making racing safe. As Dan Gurney said in this column, after Earnhardt’s death, some people had forgotten that racing will never be totally safe.

There is no question that today’s racers are providing the latest developments in driver restraints and making a safety cocoon for a driver when an accident happens.

Despite all of this science, drivers still can, and probably will be injured because professional racing is all about pushing limits. Year-by-year rules makers publish rules to slow cars down, yet engineers quickly make up the deficit.

That said, the speedway has continually shown its concern, without much fanfare in trying to mitigate the effects of cars traveling 200mph out of control in a closed environment.

Getting back to an earlier effort, when Arie Luyendyk’s IROC racer creamed the wall in a
race it through his 3,500 pound stock car back into the path of his competitors and made a debris field like the size of the Titanic’s.

Obviously, this was not the final solution.

White-coated scientists can run their models in computers over and over, but unfortunately, the only true test is metal against concrete. There aren’t many volunteers willing to crash into walls at 100-plus mph to gather data.

In a previous press conference Speedway officials outlined the numerous actual tests done by the University of Nebraska, with both 1,500 pound Indy cars and current 3,550 pound stock cars.

Now work is going on to have the new system in place for practice and qualifying for the Indy 500.

Even if there is only one Winston Cup race a year, the Brickyard 400, any information developed will surely be transmitted to NASCAR which has, this year, announced its new safety program.

This year drivers such has Donnie Beechler, Jaques Lazier, and Eliseo Salazar have been sidelined in the aftermath of injury causing accidents. If though soft walls weren’t available by the time of their accidents, they’d probably be at the front of the line to shake the hand of those involved with this program.

Not everyone could be in Indianapolis for the announcement of those soft walls, but this writer is a now a believer.

It will be a great May to write about racing and no injuries. That’s no joke.

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