Friday, August 19, 2011

Sicking: pit wall, catch fence, T-bone crashes next safety directive after SAFER success

Dr. Dean Sicking, director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska and the developer of the SAFER barrier, on the next evolution of motorsports safety.

On NASCAR and INDYCAR currently funding research to develop a SAFER-type system for oustide pit walls, like those at Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
DS: Many tracks have these pit walls. Whichever have them, that’s a danger spot. Safety engineers’ job is to look around the track and find the most dangerous problems they have and go fix those. We think we pretty much fixed the (outside) wall, so now we’re looking at other locations. The two we identified were the end of pit wall because when you hit there, it’s usually pretty nasty and then the other one is the catch fence, which is primarily a problem for the open wheel cars. Still, that’s a significant safety risk that we’ll eventually need to address. NASCAR and INDYCAR have talked about it, but with the economy turning down, they only have so much money to spend. So, we think pit wall is a higher safety risk in aggregate because you have so many NASCAR races than you do open wheel races.

On other areas in need of improvement:

DS: Improving management of the vehicle. In 2001, When (Dale) Earnhardt was killed, (NASCAR) came to us and some other experts and said 'what should we work on first?' Everyone said they needed to work on the cockpit side first, the seats. We said 'Number one, you can improve that a lot, because your system sucks.' They did. They came and really upgraded the seats and the restraint systems and we’ve seen benefit from that.
The second thing we said needed to be done was to mitigate the seriousness of crash by putting up barriers, and we’ve done that. SAFER barriers has been placed, we believe, in practically all the critical spots. There’s a few here and there, but we will get them soon.
The third and final area, which takes longer and is more expensive, is to revise the car. They made a big step forward with the Car of Tomorrow. Now they’re trying to make the step to The Car of the Day After Tomorrow, I guess. They’ve been working on that quite a bit. You think about: if you hit the wall, we haven’t had anybody seriously hurt. Now we need to think of car-to-car crashes and the first thing that comes to mind is T-bone where you get a car that is more or less stopped on the track hit by a car going, say, 100 mph, injures the driver. That’s a tremendously difficult energy management problem and NASCAR is working on that problem now. We’re trying to help them as best we can. It’s a real challenge. What you have to do is get the stopped car up to the speed of the impacting car with available crush distance, which is about six or eight inches. That’s a tremendous amount of structure to make that happen. They’re not there yet, but they’re moving a lot closer.

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