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SAFER Wall passes first test

May 5, 2002

Robby McGehee was lucky to survive the big hit
Photo: R. Laberge/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, Sunday, May 5, 2002 – Everyone involved with the new SAFER barrier project at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was pleased with the performance of the energy-absorbing barrier after it took its first hit May 5 during Opening Day of the 86th Indianapolis 500.

But perhaps no one was happier with the function of the barrier than Robby McGehee, the driver who made the historic first impact.

1999 Indianapolis 500 Bank One Rookie of the Year McGehee hit the new SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) barrier in Turn 3 at 4:36 p.m. (EST). McGehee spun entering Turn 3 of the 2.5-mile oval, hit the SAFER barrier with the rear of the No. 10 Cahill Racing Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone and then continued into the barrier with the right side of the car before coming to rest on the grass strip between the track and the warm-up lane between Turns 3 and 4. The car suffered heavy damage to the rear and right side.

McGehee climbed from the car complaining of pain in his left leg and was transported to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis for X-rays and evaluation.

“I turned in, and it broke loose,” McGehee said. “I guess I’m the first driver to test the new soft-wall system, which is a distinction I’d rather not have. I can tell you it’s not soft. I hit hard.

“But I can also assure you that I’m very glad it was there. I think the angle that I hit made it a lot worse than it would have been otherwise. I have a cut on one leg, and we’re just going for more X-rays, but I think I’m fine.”

The unprecedented SAFER barrier was installed in late April and early May after extensive research, design and testing since 1998 by officials from the Indy Racing League and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. NASCAR joined in the development of the project in September 2000.

A total of 4,240 feet of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s permanent outside wall is covered with the energy-absorbing barrier for May. Each turn of the speedway has 1,060 feet of barrier and another 60 feet of transition element approaching the actual energy-absorbing barrier.

The SAFER system performed as expected and provided enhanced safety for McGehee, said Brian Barnhart, Indy Racing League vice president of operations.

“We were anxious to get the wall up for a real-world atmosphere and a real-world test,” Barnhart said. “I certainly think one thing that happened today is that we tested on the high-extreme end right away because that was an enormous impact by Robby (McGehee). He was running at speed, 218, 219 mph. Just with the angle of impact, it was a very big impact.

“We are still trying to analyze the data, but I would say first-hand first analysis of the wall, we are very encouraged by what we saw out there. Robby never lost consciousness out there.”

“Based on what we’ve seen, the wall behaved in a very, very encouraging manner. We really like what we see. As I said, Robby never lost consciousness. The car did not snag along the wall. It slid along. It didn’t have a rebound angle. The wall did not become detached. The foam performed flawlessly behind.”

The only damage to the SAFER system from McGehee’s heavy impact were gouges to the steel tubes welded together that form the unified element of the wall, said Kevin Forbes, Indianapolis Motor Speedway director of engineering and construction.

The wall only sustained minor damage
Photo: R. Laberge/Getty Images

“Actually, due to the testing that had been done over and over in Nebraska, the damage that you all saw and that we saw at close inspection was very much expected,” Forbes said. “It is very much in line with the damage that had been done while the tests were conducted in Nebraska.

“It was anticipated even to the point that we had a repair kit that was available on one of our repair trucks. The actual size of one gouge was so much in line with what we were expecting that the patch plates that we already had pre-made fit exactly over the patch.

“Some of the concerns we had just simply going through something that has never been tried before – had been tested but not in a real-world situation – everything held up very well. Other that the puncture that occurred in a couple of the tubes, the remainder of the tubes were virtually undamaged.”

The new energy-absorbing barrier is constructed in 20-foot modules. Each module consists of four rectangular steel tubes, welded together, to form a unified element. The modules are connected with four internal steel splices. Bundles of 2-inch-thick sheets of extruded, closed-cell polystyrene are placed between the concrete wall and the steel tubing modules every 10 feet. Six or seven sheets of polystyrene are used in each bundle, depending on the location on the module.

McGehee’s impact caused hardly any damage to the polystyrene sheets and other internal components of the SAFER system, Forbes said.

“The extruded polystyrene foam bundles that actually provide some of that deceleration, they were undamaged, virtually undamaged,” Forbes said. “We had two small pieces that came loose. Those were removed. The patches were welded in place, and the track went back green.”

While Barnhart and Forbes were pleased with the performance of the SAFER barrier during its first real-world test, both indicated that development and research for the system will be continuous.

“Safety in our sport in every area, whether it is the wall or any other aspect of the car, is an ongoing development,” Barnhart said. “I think that is going to be the case with this wall, as well.”


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