Against the wind
I'm still runnin' against the wind
I'm older now but still runnin' against the wind
Well I'm older now and still runnin'
Against the wind
- Bob Seger
I might be the only one in all of auto racing -- fans,
writers, racers, owners and promoters -- who is willing to go
public with these thoughts, who is willing to call a black
shovel a black shovel on this subject. In researching this
article I've contacted auto crash experts, medical trauma
experts as well a PR spokesman for a major track, all refusing
to go "on the record" with their thoughts since they realize
that they, too, are going against the current on this issue.
However, after three wrecks into the "soft walls" at Indy I
can't stay quiet anymore.
Speedway wall padding, especially
an oval speedway, is nowhere near ready for prime time, and in
its current form will probably cause as many injuries and
deaths as it will prevent. Padded walls allow the vehicles to
dig in, propelling them back into traffic to a fate that might
be worse than the initial impact they softened. While they
might prevent some injuries they certainly will cause others,
and while they might prevent some deaths they will certainly
cause their own deaths.
PJ Jones' accident at Indy on Tuesday is a prime example of my
first concern. As you recall, Jones slid butt-first into the
turn 1 wall then was rebounded into the inside guardrail. I
can attest, having sat in that spot for the 1988 Indy 500 that
cars that hit that spot in the wall generally stayed on the
outside wall in the past.
Jones can be thankful for padded
walls during practice, but if there was traffic during that
accident it could've cost him his life as he could've been
T-boned on his way to the inside guardrail. Watching PJ go
across the track brought back horrible memories of Alex
Zanardi's accident last year in Germany.
When Geoff Bodine had his "big
one" at Daytona the fence (which acted like a soft wall) tore
his truck apart and threw him back into traffic. I watched a
bomber-stock hit a padded pit entrance at Anderson (Indiana)
Speedway, rebounding him back onto the track in the opposite
direction of traffic where he quickly got a Chevy enema. If
padded walls are to be effective they cannot allow rebound;
all the oval track examples I've seen seem to rebound like the
sides of a pool table.
The second concern is more difficult to explain. The vast
majority of car-wall impacts on oval courses are low-angle
impacts, with the vast majority of the momentum of the vehicle
going down-track at the time of impact. Unfortunately, a
vehicle striking a glancing blow on a soft wall will also
cause the padding to flex, and the flexing wall will grab the
vehicle. "Darlington Stripe" wall scrapes will turn to major
accidents as cars dig into the soft walls, are spun around,
and rebounded back into traffic. As an added bonus we see in
soft wall tests, as well as Geoff Bodine's Daytona accident,
the shredding of a vehicle by the padding before it is
rebounded into traffic.
The car's transmission punctured the wall
Photo: R. Laberge/Getty
Even worse than a car that
needlessly spins into traffic is the effect that a sudden stop
to a spin can have to the human body. When Robby McGehee's car
hit the padded barrier it flattened the initial impact spike,
and perhaps saved serious injury in this case. However,
McGehee's car dug into the padding when he crashed, causing
him to tank-slap on the right side. Onboard sensors recorded
two impacts -- the first, some 40 G's, was the initial hit,
and the second, of over 70 G's, was due to the car being
grabbed and spun sideways into the same padded walls.
Robby McGehee was lucky to survive the big hit
Photo: R. Laberge/Getty
Not only did the right side of
McGehee's body take that 72 G impact his neck was also
subjected to the forces of a rotating body coming to a stop.
Remember the old martial arts movies, where the victor twists
the head with a quick jerk while holding the body still, thus
delivering the deathblow? The same thing works in auto racing
too. That rotational action is as dangerous to the head/neck
as a frontal impact, and it is my theory that Dale Earnhardt
and Scott Brayton were killed in part due to the rotational
impact of their vehicles.
The backwards-rotating tank-slapper
has long been the most dreaded accident in open-wheeled
racing. Padded walls induce rotation on impact, adding an
additional hazard to auto racing. An auto safety expert who
has done work for racing teams assured me that the HANS device
will compensate for such impacts, but didn't we start this
"padded wall" conversation due to neck and head injuries? Just
as current passenger car airbags can be dangerous if seatbelts
are not worn so padded walls present an added danger if the
HANS devices are not worn, or not working properly at the time
Sharp knives are safer than dull
ones, padded bicycle seats cause more pain and injury than
hard bike seats, and sometimes, concrete walls are the safest
to hit. Padded walls do have their place, mainly in places
where high-angle impacts are likely.
Indy is almost a road racetrack,
albeit without right turns in Indy 500 configuration, and we
know that road race courses have used wall padding for a long
time. Many Indy impacts are high-angle impacts and very few
are wall scrapes, so padding that is properly done might be
useful there. However, the current Indy padding isn't the
answer, and I hope they keep on looking.
This article by Mark Cipolloni,
or Soft Cars, spells out that crumple zones in cars
are the way to go. I urge you to read it if you haven't
already. About 3 feet of crumple zone is required,
regardless of the type of car. With the SAFER Wall
moving perhaps only 6 inches, is it really worth the risk of
rebounding a car back into traffic?
On most ovals, padded walls won't
help safety, and as I've pointed out, will probably cause new
safety hazards. At the very least it's time for the entire
racing family, including fans, to step back and think through
the whole issue. The sales hype probably delivers a lot more
than it will ever deliver, and in fact, could deliver a lot
more than we've bargained for.
to discuss this article