Speed advances demand safety advances at Indy 500

Reuters News
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Posted: May 28, 2016 3:36 PM

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - With drivers hurtling around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval at over 230 miles per hour (370 km per hour), technical advances that boost speeds also spawn health and safety measures to safeguard the race.

The inspiring story of James Hinchcliffe, the polesitter for Sunday's 100th Indianapolis 500 who survived a near-fatal crash last year, illustrates the courage of the driver and swift response of the safety team at the speedway.

Canadian Hinchcliffe was 24th in qualifying for last year's race. Going into Turn 3 the next day in practice, the suspension on his car broke.

His car slammed into the wall at 220 mph (354 kph) and a piece of the suspension broke through and pierced his thigh, severing an artery. He was rushed to Methodist Hospital, receiving 14 pints (6.6 liters) of blood on the way, and emergency surgery stopped the bleeding.

IndyCar has long been considered a leader in motorsports safety.

Its Holmatro Safety Team consists of at least 18 members at each event including a trauma physician, an orthopedic physician, two paramedics, 12 firefighters/EMTs and two registered nurses.

"Indianapolis Motor Speedway has some of the best first responders and medical team of anywhere in the world and they’re right on the spot," Bill Pappas, IndyCar vice president of competition, race engineering, told Reuters.

"As the car came to a rest after it rolled over after the big crash, they got him out, stabilized him and sent him off to Methodist Hospital," he said of Hinchcliffe.

"Unbelievably he got back into a car in late September. His recovery time was probably about four months. It’s a tribute to James’ commitment getting back in there."

Not only did Hinchliffe climb back into the cockpit, but last week he averaged 230.760 mph (371 kph) over four laps to earn the pole position for the centennial race.

Pappas said lessons learned from Hinchcliffe's accident illustrate the evolution of technical innovations to better protect drivers and fans.

After developing a system of tethers to keep parts from coming apart from the cars and flying off, engineers have been making further modifications.

"We keep looking at what’s the next problem, from last year to this year," said Pappas, who oversees a department of seven full-time engineers.

"The big innovation was when the cars were trimmed out and drag reduced, they became very sensitive. If guys hit the walls or spin they’d tend to flip upside down because of the physics of the car.

"But between last year and this year, between (Italian carmakers) Dallara and IndyCar and Chevy design group ... they came up with what they call a rear beam flap.

"As a car spins around backwards these flaps deploy which induce downforce to push the rear of the car back down and drag to slow the car down considerably."

Pappas said speed and safety have led to the evolution of the Indy car, based on accidents and mandated safety regulations.

"The cars use gasoline, a highly volatile, explosive gasoline. After a terrible crash in 1964 that took the lives of Eddie Sachs and young guy named Dave MacDonald, the series mandated that the fuel tanks have rubber bladders put in the cars, something like what’s in jet aircraft today," Pappas said.

"Another breakthough by the series to try and control fire and that sort of problem."

It’s a constant evolution, one that Pappas said dates back to the very first Indy 500.

"Start with the first 500 in 1911 and Roy Harroun. Back in those days race cars usually had a driver and a co-driver, a riding mechanic they called him, giving the driver an idea of where the cars were at.

"And Roy Harroun raced in the first 500 alone with the use of a rear view mirror. Talk about a breakthrough in safety right there in our very first race. Pretty impressive."

(Editing by Andrew Both)