'Humpy Bumper' is on deck for NASCAR

In the strange new lexicon of life-saving innovations for NASCAR drivers, the HANS device may soon be joined by the "Humpy Bumper."

Silly as the name sounds, the graphite-fiber bumper unveiled here Wednesday promises to "absorb a minimum of 50 Gs" from frontal crashes against concrete walls, according to its designer.

That sort of energy management could easily have NASCAR drivers walking away again from the types of impacts that have killed seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt and four other NASCAR drivers in the past year. Earnhardt's crash was estimated by engineers at a maximum of about 60 G.

Las Vegas-based composite materials engineer and manufacturer Paul Lew, who previously worked mainly in the aerospace industry and has developed impact-energy absorption devices for Indy cars, named his latest creation after the man who gave him the idea.

Howard Augustus Wheeler acquired the nickname "Humpy" as an overachieving high school football player. And it stuck throughout his rise to prominence, and that of a colorful reputation, in motor racing.

Currently president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which operates six Winston Cup tracks -- including Lowe's Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- Wheeler wanted to "accelerate the process," he said, of making NASCAR cars more crushable in the front to ease the effects of crashes on drivers.

Wheeler conceded Wednesday the device may not be ready in June as he'd hoped because of the remaining timeline for testing and manufacture:

Two more weeks of computer crash simulations, one week of actual sled-testing, and 30 days for Lew's manufacturing plant to turn out enough of the bumpers for all Winston Cup teams.

That would make the Chicagoland 400 on July 15 at Joliet, Ill., the earliest likely racing debut for the Humpy Bumper.

But it's a relative lightning bolt of scientific development. The HANS head and neck restraint tethering system took nearly 20 years to develop to the point where most NASCAR drivers can wear it comfortably.

The new bumper, which acts as a sort of lightning rod for crash energy, won't break under the standard fender-banging and bumping conditions that make NASCAR so popular. It will break only under high-impact, "sacrificing itself for the sake of the driver," Lew said.

Lew's process organizes the direction of the fibers in the composite to channel crash energy in desired directions. On the deadly right-front hits, the energy would be channeled away from the driver's body and down the right side of the chassis and across the front.

"What we've tried to do is the same thing that's done in open-wheel [Indy and Formula One] racing," Lew said. "That is, take all the force that would go directly to the driver and shoot it around the sides of the car."

Only two weeks after Earnhardt's death in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500, Wheeler decided the relationship of "stiff" chassis fronts and the fatality outbreak in NASCAR wasn't all in the imagination of worried crew chiefs, car builders, team owners and drivers.

So Wheeler visited Lew at his North Las Vegas laboratories.

"I challenged Paul to take 20 percent of the energy out of a right-front hit in a Winston Cup car," Wheeler said. "Obviously, he has vastly exceeded that.

"Now, we're talking about knocking out 50 to 100 G," Wheeler said. "That's practically the whole accident."

Lew and his high-tech team named their project Humpy Bumper V1.3. And when they unveiled the device Wednesday, that name was clearly stamped in the composite material.

"I was a little embarrassed," Wheeler said.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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