SAFER AT ANY SPEED : Many of the Dangerous Risks in Indy Car Racing Are Eliminated by Design

Times Staff Writer

Shorty Cantlon was going about 100 m.p.h. when he swerved to avoid Bill Holland’s spinning car in 1947 and rammed the concrete wall at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The car remained upright, spun around and smacked the wall again in the rear.

Damage to the rigid-frame, solid-axle racer, a converted two-seater originally built in 1937, was minimal. Cantlon could be seen slumped over the steering wheel, apparently dazed.

But he had been killed instantly.

Kevin Cogan was going more than 200 m.p.h. last May at Indianapolis when his car brushed the outside wall coming out of the fourth turn, careened across the track and hit the inside pit wall, then whipped violently back across the pit entrance into an outer guard railing.


Destruction of the car, a British-built, rear-engine March, was total. The Cosworth engine broke loose and tumbled along the wall until it stopped in another driver’s pit. The trans-axle separated from the tub and pieces of the car were strewn widely. The entire left side of the chassis was stripped clean. Only the front wheel and front wing remained attached to the right side of the tub--with Cogan still in it.

Veteran observers called it one of the most violent accidents in Indy 500 history. There seemed no way a driver could survive such a series of impacts.

Cogan walked away with no more than a few scrapes on his right arm.

The difference in the two accidents illustrates the way fatality statistics for open-wheel, open-cockpit Indy cars have declined.

In the 15 years between 1947 and 1964, 13 drivers were killed in the Indianapolis 500 or while practicing for it. And another 20 drivers were killed elsewhere racing Indy cars--or champ cars, as they were known then.

High speeds ranged from the 1947 record of 128 m.p.h. by Holland to “an unbelievable” 154 m.p.h. by Jimmy Clark in 1964.

In the last 15 years, between 1974 and today’s Marlboro 500 at Michigan International Raceway, only one driver, Gordon Smiley, has been killed at Indianapolis. And only one other, Jim Hickman, has been killed driving an Indy car elsewhere. Both deaths occurred in 1982.

Yet, the speeds today at Indy have reached 224 m.p.h.

“Safety, that’s the biggest change I’ve seen in racing, that and speed,” said A.J. Foyt, who first drove at Indy in 1958 at 143 m.p.h. and is still at it. “But the safety has made the speed a whole lot more comfortable.

“I’d rather crash one of these cars at 200 m.p.h. than the ones we ran years ago at 150. Even though the speeds are very high, I feel that the cars are five times as safe as they used to be.”

When Foyt started racing, drivers had a tough-guy image to uphold. The uniform of the day was often a T-shirt, jeans, an open-faced helmet, goggles and maybe a bandanna across the mouth. If it was a cool day, drivers wore jackets.

No one asked for safety measures, and on the rare occasions when they were offered, more often than not they were shunned.

Rex Mays, for instance, refused to wear a seat belt when he drove at Del Mar in 1949. He hit a soft spot in the lumpy horse racing track and was thrown from his car. As he lay in the middle of the track, he was run over and killed by another car.

Seat belts were optional then. There were no rules mandating them. Mays had said he didn’t like the way they felt.

Deaths on the race track were considered inevitable.

“I remember, the second or third year I was driving, I’d look around the room at the first driver’s meeting and wonder who would be missing next year,” recalled Mario Andretti, who drove his first race car in 1958. “Racing was a cruel sport, an evil sport, but we didn’t know the difference. It was our way of life.”

When and how the shift in attitude to safety consciousness occurred is unclear.

Some believe it started at LeMans in 1955 when Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz crashed, killing him and 82 spectators. That accident almost killed racing throughout the world, and when racing did crawl back toward acceptance, safety was its password.

Others point to the early 1960s, when Formula One champion Jack Brabham of Australia introduced the rear-engine European car to Indianapolis and Colin Chapman started building Lotus-Fords that changed the complexion of Indy car racing.

Before Brabham, front-engine Indy cars were big, powerful things, built for strength and durability.

But not for driver safety.

Said Kirk Russell, director of operations for Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc. (CART): “The fact that the cars are built to disintegrate on impact today is the most significant safety factor we have. If cars were more rigidly constructed, energy would be transferred to the driver and severe injuries or fatalities would occur.

“You could take a tank, accelerate it up to racing speeds, and run it into a wall and you would see no damage to the tank--but the energy transmitted to the occupants of the tank could cause serious damage. More than likely it would kill them.”

Today’s Penskes, Lolas and Marches, descendants of Brabham’s lightweight Cooper-Climax, are monocoques--frameless tubs. The energy from any sudden impact is spread and absorbed before it reaches the driver. Engineers can program what will break first, how it will break and where it will go.

Adoption of the monocoque chassis, constructed using carbon fiber composites, aluminum honeycomb and Kevlar, made cars lighter, faster and safer.

The change in the strength-to-weight ratio from front-engine roadsters to rear-engine cars was remarkable. The carbon fiber components are as strong as those made of steel but weigh as much as 70% less.

“The composite-type construction also became popular because it gave torsional stiffness to the car, making it handle better and act more predictably,” Russell said. “Then we got an added bonus when we learned that it also improved the ability of the car to absorb high impacts.”

This evolution in design ultimately brought about a shift in concern for drivers, from life-threatening to limb-threatening.

As drivers and CART officials became more safety conscious, a new philosophy evolved. Earlier, most changes made to safeguard drivers were after the fact. It took an accident to trigger any movement toward safety in a specific area.

“When you get down to it, any change is because of something that’s happened,” Joe Cloutier, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said after a rule change in chassis construction had been made in 1984 in an attempt to prevent leg and foot injuries. “It’s like a tumor. You don’t realize it’s there until it starts hurting.”

Today, CART attempts to foresee problems and head them off before they occur.

“One of the best things about CART is that they really respect the input from the drivers,” Andretti said. “Different drivers see different things about different tracks and CART listens. Not too many years ago, no one paid any attention to what drivers said.”

A recent innovation is impact testing. Every model Indy car is tested to make sure it is strong enough to withstand impact and maintain structural integrity with a minimum of deformation in the driver’s area.

“The Kevin Cogan accident was a pretty good representation of the ability of these cars to withstand really violent impacts and have the driver walk away,” Russell said. “His car had several high-impact hits and the energy level for each hit was quite high, but the shell that the driver sits in, although heavily damaged, still had quite a bit of structural integrity to it.”

Andrew Kenopensky, team manager of Cogan’s Machinists Union car, put it more succinctly: “(The car) did what it was designed to do.”

An early side effect of the breakaway cars was an increase in fire danger.

“For a while, every time you crashed a car, you automatically blew up and caught on fire,” Foyt said.

The worst incident occurred during the second lap of the 1964 Indianapolis 500 when Dave MacDonald’s car spun into the northwest turn wall at Indianapolis and exploded. Eddie Sachs’ car hit MacDonald’s and his car exploded in a ball of fire that killed both drivers.

It was nearly two hours before the race was resumed.

After the MacDonald-Sachs fire, in which both cars were loaded with gasoline, the United States Auto Club mandated that methanol, a less volatile fuel, be used exclusively.

“Methanol is much safer than gasoline, much more stable and more difficult to ignite,” Russell said. “Methanol is also much easier to control than gasoline because it absorbs water.”

Methanol consists of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen and is commercially manufactured--from wood and garbage, among other things--by heating hydrogen and carbon monoxide under pressure.

Ten years later at Indy, Salt Walther’s car hit the fence along the front straightaway and sent flames and debris into the crowd as the race was starting. Walther was badly burned and nine spectators were hospitalized.

Fuel capacity was reduced from 80 gallons to 40 gallons after the Walther fire and the fuel tank’s location was limited to the right side of the car. Before, 40 gallon tanks were on either side of the driver, leaving him almost sitting in a tub of fuel.

About that same time, Goodyear engineers were developing an impact-resistant fuel cell for use in combat helicopters during the Vietnam war that virtually eliminated death by fire in survivable crashes.

Similar high-strength, rubber-coated nylon fabric fuel cells with breakaway fittings, built to military specifications, were incorporated into all new Indy cars.

Mexico’s Josele Garza, rookie of the year at Indianapolis in 1981, attested to the effectiveness of the fuel cell after an accident at the Mid-Ohio road course in Lexington, Ohio. His car veered abruptly into the guard rail in front of the pits at close to 150 m.p.h.

“I didn’t mean to do it, but I gave Goodyear’s fuel cell the worst destruction test I hope it ever gets,” Garza said. “I’m thankful to report that it passed with flying colors.”

The Walther crash produced the last major accident-related fire at Indy.

Others, however, have occurred in the pits during refueling. In 1981, Rick Mears and six crewmen were burned when a fire erupted in his pits during the Indy 500. Later that year, a near catastrophic fire broke out in Herm Johnson’s pits at Michigan, burning all 250 gallons of methanol from his overhead tank when a valve failed to shut off.

Those fires led to major changes in the fuel-delivery system. A spring-loaded breakaway valve was introduced so that if the engine comes off a car in a high impact situation such as Cogan’s, the system is designed to shut off and allow only four or five gallons in the hose to escape.

The refueling tanks, which sit behind each pit, now are built to the same specifications as 5,000-gallon tank trucks.

“The only way that tank is going to go is an act of terrorism,” says Jim Reynolds, who manages the refueling operation for Valvoline, which dispenses methanol at the Indianapolis 500 and all CART races.

“We will not fill any tank we do not feel is safe. During a 500-mile race we have over 9,000 gallons of fuel out there, and during the month of May we dispense between 38,000 and 40,000 gallons.

“In the old days, it used to sit in drums, hundreds of drums, that each team brought and we filled. Now we have vented tanks and better control of the situation.”

Wearing apparel has changed almost as dramatically as the design of the cars.

No more T-shirts, bandannas or open-face helmets.

Drivers today are nearly as well protected as astronauts, and in some cases look like them as they sit in compartments that have been custom-molded to their bodies, with only their eyes--peering from thick helmets--exposed to the public behind visors.

“The inside of the race car has to be tight or we’d spend all day flopping around,” said Danny Sullivan, the reigning CART champion and former Indy 500 winner. “But it also has to be comfortable because there’d be no way, especially on a road course, to drive these things if the environment wasn’t comfortable.”

The driver is strapped in with a six-point harness, which includes a lap belt, shoulder harness and submarine belt that keeps him from pitching forward.

“A driver properly buckled in is not only safer, but also has a performance advantage,” Russell said. “You can see the vibration when TV uses cameras in race cars, so you can imagine how hard it would be to control the car if the driver wasn’t anchored in place.”

Some drivers also wear tethers on their helmets, attached to the inside of the car, to help support their head and neck muscles against the weight of the helmet and the G forces, which will reach 5.5 to 6 Gs through the corners today at Michigan. This means that the force of a driver’s body weight--and the weight of his head--will be multiplied by 5.5 or six.

Helmets, which weigh slightly more than three pounds, must meet rigid specifications set down by the Snell Foundation, which was established in the name of Peter Snell, a race driver who was killed while wearing an ineffective helmet.

Helmets are tested for impact absorption, shell penetration and chin-strap retention.

“When I was driving, you couldn’t even call what we wore a helmet,” the late Peter DePaolo once said. “We wore a white, linen thing, sort of a hood. The only good it did was when it started turning red, everyone knew you’d taken a lick.”

DePaolo won the Indy 500 in 1925.

The first crash helmet--more a leather football-type headgear--was introduced at Indy by Wilbur Shaw in 1932, and he was scornfully received by other drivers and spectators.

Shaw later won the 500 three times and the helmet became accepted, but it still wasn’t until 1968 that Dan Gurney wore the first full-face helmet at Indy.

Helmets have become so refined that many even include a cooling system, a Freon-based technology developed in the Apollo aerospace program.

“A cool head and cool body will enhance a driver’s mental acuity and thereby relieve his stress and sharpen his concentration,” said Ken Wright, vice president of Thermacor Technology in Newbury Park, which manufacturers cool helmets and vests. “If body temperature is not controlled, long-term trauma and dehydration can occur, particularly among older drivers.”

Andretti, who will be 50 next February, was so impressed by the concept that he became a stockholder.

Said Russell of cool suits: “This is another example of the way safety and performance have become interrelated. The driver wears one because it makes him feel more comfortable, but at the same time it helps prevent loss of concentration, especially toward the end of a long, hot race. That, in itself, is a plus safety factor.”

Under the helmet drivers wear a balaclava, a fire-resistant head sock. Underwear is fire-retardant Nomex, top and bottom. Over that is a three-piece suit layered with Kevlar and Nomex. Gloves are three layers of Nomex. Shoes are made of leather and Nomex.

Twenty-five years ago, all the fire protection a driver had was a solution of Borax in which he dipped his shirt and coveralls to “fireproof” them.

The epidemic of leg and foot injuries in the mid-1980s involved drivers such as Rick Mears, Derek Daly, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford, John Paul Jr. and Pete Halsmer, and caused a great deal of concern among car owners.

Surprisingly, the injuries were effectively reduced by new chassis designs intended to create an aerodynamically improved suspension package. The improvement in safety was a byproduct of a slicker aerodynamic design.

“In the old days, most of the lower leg injuries occurred when rocker-arm and spring assemblies penetrated the leg area at impact,” Russell said. “With the (new) push-rod, pull-rod suspension, most of the damage at impact takes place outside the tub and reduces the intrusion of pieces into the foot area.

“That, and impact testing, have combined to create what we believe is much improved frontal protection for the driver. Information from the tests have given engineers a design criteria for energy-absorbing structures which reduce the force actually transferred to the driver while providing a supportive structure to contain the driver and minimize injury.”

Dr. Steve Olvey, CART’s medical director, agrees.

“Design improvements in the cars over the last several years have virtually eliminated severe foot and ankle injuries,” he said.

Another innovation introduced last year was an automatic wheel-locking device, designed to prevent tires and wheels from coming loose and becoming hazards to drivers and spectators.

It was a loose wheel from Tony Bettenhausen’s car that was bounced into the stands by Roberto Guerrero’s car at Indianapolis two years ago, killing a spectator in the top row of one of the grandstands.

It was also a tire that came off Guerrero’s car at impact that hit the Colombian driver in the head during a tire test at Indianapolis two years ago, knocking him unconscious for 17 days. And it was also part of the right front wheel assembly that hit Michael Chandler in the temple after a 200-m.p.h. crash during practice at Indianapolis in 1984 that ended his promising racing career.

“We are continually looking at ways to reduce those type injuries,” Russell said. “We are changing the position of the driver in relationship to the suspension link that allows wheel assemblies to go high at impact and cause head injuries. We want to keep the arc (of the wheel) pointed away from the driver. And we now have a rule that high-energy-absorbing padding must be incorporated into the cockpit areas to prevent a driver’s head from serious impacts.”

Even though full roll cages have proven valuable in reducing sprint-car fatalities, it is unlikely they will be seen in Indy cars.

“A roll cage is the worst enemy of a helmet,” said one helmet manufacturer. “In a hard impact, the head bangs into the roll cage like a Ping-Pong ball in a tile bathroom.”

When accidents do occur in CART races--the Indy 500 is sanctioned by the United States Auto Club and the speedway has its own safety crew--the Horton Safety Team provides the most sophisticated and complete medical service in motor racing.

Carl Horton, an ambulance and emergency vehicle manufacturer for more than 20 years, was watching NBC’s live presentation of the first Michigan 500 on TV in 1981 when a major fire broke out in the pits and in a separate incident Foyt was seriously injured.

Horton felt something more was needed to be done in the way of emergency medical services and three years later, in 1984, he brought the Horton Safety Team into the CART program to provide state-of-the-art equipment, complete with experienced personnel, for all Indy car races.

“It was what I saw on TV that started me thinking about what I could do to help,” Horton said. “I had been sponsoring race cars and motorcycles for some time, but I decided I could put that money to better use.”

The team, which has grown to include a staff of 22 professionals and six prototype vehicles, is now financed by corporate sponsorship.

It includes a mobile trauma center in a custom-designed motor coach equipped with medical capabilities comparable to those in a hospital trauma center. Two rescue trucks are positioned on the track at each race as the first-response vehicles for any incident.

Despite all of the changes designed to make cars and races safer, the ultimate safety factor is the driver himself.

Said Bobby Rahal: “Whether it’s fear or respect, and sometimes it’s both, when you’re getting into one of these cars, you’ve got to know that that piece of machinery can hurt you. If you get into that car thinking that you can’t get hurt, or that the risk is gone, that’s when you’re in trouble.”