Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Safety improvements make a difference in IndyCar

Twenty-one years ago, IndyCar driver Scott Brayton crashed into the wall at turn two at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a practice session for the Indy 500. His crash was a fatal one.

Two years ago, driver James Hinchcliffe crashed into the wall at Indy after a piece of suspension broke on his car. He nearly bled to death but survived and came back to win the pole position for the 100th running of the Indy 500 last year.

On pole day of this year's qualifying, Sebastien Bourdais appeared to get loose heading out of a turn and crashed into the outside wall during qualifying with speeds in the 220 mph range. His crash was reminiscent of Hinchcliffe right away, which was why seeing his hand go up to open his helmet visor as he car slowed was a good sign.

Bourdais also survived the heavy hit, sustaining multiple fractures to his pelvis and right thigh. He underwent successful surgery last Saturday night.

So, what's changed since Brayton's fatal crash a couple decades ago? The most important thing: SAFER Barriers. From what I know as a follower of the sport, I would say the SAFER Barrier saved Bourdais' life this weekend. More on that later.

Obviously, the main concern here is safety, so it's a big relief that Bourdais is alright. He was already up and around on crutches at the speedway. Crashes like that are tough to see for anyone who watches the sport. It's not something you really get used to at all.

Shifting to Bourdais' race season though, it's a shame he wasn't able to race in the 500. He's come back with a full-time ride with the Dale Coyne Racing team this year and got off to a great start. He came from the last position in St. Petersburg to win the first race of the season.

Bourdais is a back-to-back-to-back-to-back Champ Car champion (2004-07) before IndyCar merged back together a few years ago. He raced for the Newman-Haas team and simply dominated.

The risk of injury and death are part of the gig for race car drivers. From what I've observed and heard, it's something drivers realize and know they take the risk each time they step into the car. But, they also have to keep those emotions at bay once they hit the track. They're in the car because it's what they love to do.

Dixon has a scary moment of his own 
That brings me to the major crash during the Indy 500 this year. Jay Howard, participating in an IndyCar race for the first time since 2011, got high on the track and collided with the wall. As his car slid down the track (after he hit the SAFER Barrier which again did its job), a passing Scott Dixon had nowhere to go. The cars touched, sending Dixon high into the air before his car came back to earth with the inside wall and debris fencing.

Dixon hopped out of the car and walked away. He later returned to the track medical center and left in a walking boot for an ankle injury. That's it. Even his interview for the ABC broadcast was calm, cool and collected, which is typical for the guy known as "Iceman." He called it a "wild ride."

The crash looked awful. Casual viewers and veteran race fans were relieved to see Dixon walk away from the crash. For those that don't regularly watch the sport, I think they were also amazed to see it wasn't a fatal incident.

Safety shines again
It's a tribute to the safety of these cars in 2017. A few decades ago, we could be talking about a fatal crash. There's no doubt Dixon got lucky, too. The way a driver impacts can make all the difference in the world. If his helmet slams against that guardrail, I think this is a very different outcome.

The race was red-flagged to clean up the debris - Dixon's back half of the car was destroyed - and repair some of the fence. All the clutter on the track is actually a good thing, in a way. It means the car did its job to project the driver in the tub - or the Dallara chassis safety cell. The car is supposed to come apart like that when it makes the impact.

Dixon's car hit the inside-wall SAFER barrier. SAFER stands for Steel And Foam Energy Reduction. The foam barrier mounted to a steel skeleton combines to absorb energy from crashes, helping to reduce the forces transferred to the driver and the rest of the car. The SAFER Barrier first appeared 15 years ago at the Indy speedway before being installed at other oval tracks.

Anyway, I wanted to share my perspective as someone who's watched auto racing for a long time and seen plenty of crashes. Watching some of the old Indy 500s on ESPN Classic last week, it really is extraordinary to see how far open-wheel racing has come in terms of safety improvements.

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