Serving the scholastic field hockey and lacrosse community since 1998

Aug. 23, 2015 — Safety vs. speed

I really hope I didn’t watch a man get killed on national television this afternoon.

Justin Wilson was seriously injured yesterday in an Indy Car race at Long Pond, Pa., when the nose cone from the car of Sage Karam became airborne and, according to television replays, hit Wilson in the head.

Indy Car racing is much less of a risk to life and limb than it once was when the Indianapolis 500-mile race was the global jewel in the motorsports crown. NASCAR-style SAFER barriers line most tracks, the cars have plenty of downforce, and the crumple zones around the monocoque construction of the cars are as good as they have ever been.

But at speeds approaching 230 miles an hour, and with the construction of the new cars over the last several years, a few unintended consequences have arisen.

Over the last three years, the design of the car has changed, especially in the back. There are fairings in front of and behind the rear wheels of the car. The rear fairings make the car look like a World Sports Car prototype from the back. There’s a reason for that: the rear pods make it more difficult for two cars to interlock wheels, potentially creating a situation in which a car may be vaulted into the air.

In addition, teams are now ordering and using custom aero kits for their racing cars that can change the aerodynamic characteristics of each Indy car.

But this bodywork has shown a distressing tendency to come flying off the car in case of an accident. Look especially at some of the wrecks this year at the high-speed tracks — Indianapolis, Fontana, and Pocono — and there seems to be more of a disintegration of large parts of the car than ever before.

After a series of deaths in the early 1970s in both Formula 1 and Indy Car racing, design engineers came up with the idea to make the driver and the tub he sits in the strongest part of the car in case of an accident. Tires, sidepods, wings would disperse the energy from the accident and keep it away from the driver.

Only with these large rear pods and a nose cone with lead ballast in it, this energy is manifesting itself in pieces and parts which are a hazard to other drivers.

There have been calls to make optional a plastic cowl over the driver’s compartment, much like in sports car racing and more recently in NHRA Top Fuel, where drivers can reach a terminal velocity of more than 300 miles per hour.

It’s an argument which makes sense in a protection point of view, but may not help in terms of overall safety. Drivers already have helmets, head restraints in the cockpit, and neck restraints to help the neck remain steady over the course of a race. Adding a plastic bubble over the top may help repel the impact of a heavy object, but it also may hinder a safety crew in the instance when a car flips over, which happened three times during practice at Indianapolis this year.

And putting a bubble over an head already protected against skull fractures by a helmet would mask the underlying problem, that being the fact that projectiles coming off a car in an accident are much larger than they used to be and aren’t tethered to the car like the wheel assemblies.

Kind of reminds you of the logic of putting headgear on field hockey and lacrosse players, no?


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