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Original Issue

...And Lived To Tell About It

As speeds soared during Indy qualifying, drivers were able to survive terrifying crashes
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The speeds attained on the 2.5-mile track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week during practice and qualifying runs for the May 24 Indianapolis 500 shot past 230 mph, obliterating every record in oval track racing. Straightaway speeds surpassed 240 mph, rivaling the takeoff velocity of the Concorde. By Sunday, Roberto Guerrero, driving a Lola-Buick, had won the pole position for the 500 with a four-lap average speed of 232.482 mph, shattering the previous qualifying record of 225.301 mph set by Emerson Fittipaldi in 1990. By raising the mark by more than 7 mph, Guerrero made the single largest leap in the track record in 20 years.

Along with those speeds came 13 crashes, two of which were so violent that it seemed impossible that the drivers could have survived. On the afternoon of May 6, in the middle of the second turn, water from a broken line began spewing from the right side of Rick Mears's Penske-Chevy. Mears's tires skidded, and the car slid 320 feet before striking the wall and going slightly airborne. The car spun 3¬Ω times before flipping over and sliding upside down for 730 feet, as sparks flew from the roll bar behind Mears's helmeted head, which scraped along the track as well. The crash appeared to be calamitous, perhaps fatal. Yet Mears emerged with only a fractured left foot and a sprained right wrist.

A day later Nelson Piquet was coming out of the fourth turn when his Lola-Buick spun and struck the wall head-on. The car then scraped along the wall for 60 feet and spun twice before stopping on the front stretch. Piquet was not as fortunate as Mears had been. His left foot was almost severed—"pulverized to the point that it wasn't recognizable," said Dr. Terry Trammell, who operated on Piquet for six hours. Piquet also suffered a compound fracture of his right ankle. Still, had it not been for the remarkable safety features of today's Indy Cars, the injuries to Mears and Piquet almost certainly would have been much worse.

Imagine a football player receiving a kickoff deep in his own end zone and one second later spiking the ball in the opposite end zone, and you have some idea of how fast—352 feet per second—drivers are going at the Speedway these days. Now picture that player, at that velocity, colliding with an immovable defender, and you have a slight sense of what it's like to hit the wall at Indy.

Mears called his escape from more serious injury "a credit to Nigel Bennett," a British engineer and the designer of Mears's Penske car. But Bennett called Mears's escape "a bit of the luck of the draw." They were both right.

Mears's crash was a classic example of the paradoxical rule of thumb that the worse an Indy Car crash looks—with pieces of the automobile flying every which way during a long skid along the wall—the better off the driver is likely to be. So, when an Indy Car smacks a wall at 200 mph, the angle of impact has an enormous effect on the severity of injury. "If you hit the wall at an oblique angle," says Bennett, "and the accident goes on for some distance, the energy has a lot of time to be dissipated. When you hit at a blunt angle, that energy has no place to go." Mears luckily struck the wall at an oblique angle. Piquet unluckily hit it head-on.

Luck aside, drivers who crash at Indy survive to race again because of design features in their cars that get better virtually every year. Beneath the skin of a typical Indy Car, the driver sits strapped into a rigid cocoon (box, page 22). This cocoon, called a tub by those in the sport, is surrounded by other parts of the car—bodywork, radiators, suspension—that are not nearly as strong. In an accident, these parts absorb energy as they are crushed, broken and torn away. As a car disintegrates, often nothing remains intact but the tub, encasing its fragile human cargo.

However, because Indy Cars have open cockpits, drivers are vulnerable to parts that fly loose, especially wheels. Says Bennett, "Sometimes a wheel can get knocked back into the cockpit, and what looks like a fairly insignificant accident can do damage to the driver." That is precisely what happened to Guerrero during a tire test at Indy in September 1987. A wheel broke loose from the car and flew back into his cockpit, striking him in the head. He was in a coma for 17 days.

Besides the tub, the Indy Car's most important safety component is its fuel cell, a flexible, self-sealing bladder whose design is an outgrowth of Vietnam War technology. Made of heavy-duty rubber material, the 40-gallon cell is nearly rupture proof. "We don't get fires these days," says Bennett.

Safety advances have had to keep pace with the engine and bodywork technology that has enabled these 1,550-pound machines to reach speeds of 240-plus mph. Indy Cars keep getting faster, not only because of increases in power—the engines now develop 700-plus horsepower—but also because of improvements in tire technology and aerodynamics. At the Speedway all this technology is put to the test on a track that was designed in 1909 for cars that did not average even 90 mph in the first 500, held in 1911.

"When I first came here [in 1965], we were fighting to run 160," says Mario Andretti, who will start in third place this year after qualifying last Saturday at, for him, a disappointing 229.503 mph. "The only difference," he says, referring to the sensation of traveling at much faster speeds in the same confines, "is that the track is about half the size now as then. The corners are unbelievably quick. You're coming down the straightaway, and when you dump into that corner at 240 miles an hour, it looks like a hairpin from the cockpit."

Last Friday, two days after his crash. Mears was back in another Penske-Chevy car. He calmly gave a blow-by-blow of the accident as seen, heard and felt from his cockpit. "I'd just run a lap at about 220," he said. "As I went into Turn 1, the car broke a water line, but I didn't know it. Just as I started into Turn 2, I felt the car slide. I thought I'd caught a big gust of wind. I backed off the throttle and gathered it [the steering] back. I started turning again, and I felt the car wiggle. I thought, This is not wind. I slowed down a little. I felt the car slide pretty good. Then I knew I was in either my own oil or water. I caught the car again, and it took one more wiggle and around it went.

"When it spun backward, all I could see was the tire smoke. My first thought was. This is going to hurt. My second thought was, I hope the car spins in a way that it won't hit the wall nose first."

During those seconds, Mears took what emergency measures he could. "I still couldn't see the wall, so I tried to estimate how long it was going to be until impact," he said. "When I thought I was getting close to making contact, I got off the brake and pulled both my feet back. I timed it pretty close—just about the time I got them back is when I made contact.

"My legs and feet banged pretty hard. I felt the car start to lift a little bit—something I'd never felt before. But my focus was on my legs and feet because they were hurting. At that time the car was rolling, which I didn't even know.

"When it lit upside down—not hard, just with kind of a bump—I saw sparks flying by my helmet. It was during the light show that I realized I was upside down. There was almost a sigh of relief then, a feeling that we've just got to sit here until the car stops sliding. I felt the worst was over, because the first impact is usually the worst. I do remember thinking, I hope the car stops quickly, because my feet and legs were hurt, and I wanted to get out."

Until five or six years ago, the "foot box," a compartment that houses the pedals, extended beyond the front tires. It now sits farther back, near the front edges of the tires, affording the driver some protection from the front wheels and the suspension in an accident. Nonetheless, the lower extremities remain the most vulnerable part of a driver's body. A.J. Foyt still limps on feet and legs that were mangled in a crash in 1989 in Elkhart Lake, Wis., and then reconstructed by Trammell, an Indianapolis spinal deformity specialist who has treated many race car drivers. Last year Mears broke his right foot in a wreck during a practice run at Indy, but he came back to win the 500. And Mears has limped slightly ever since his feet were injured in a 1984 crash near Montreal.

Given all these foot and leg injuries, why don't race cars have noses that are strong enough to remain rigid around the driver's feet during impact? If that were the case, says Bennett, "the driver would be killed during deceleration. The human body can only withstand so many G's in deceleration."

That's a scientific way of expressing the old saying that it's not speed that kills, but the sudden stop. The concern for designers, says Trammell, is how to make a front end strong enough to protect the feet "without transferring energy to the torso," where it can ravage vital organs. "We haven't had any life-threatening injuries—cardiac contusions or massive chest or abdominal injuries—in a long time."

The last driver killed at the Speedway was Gordon Smiley, who hit the wall head-on in 1982. His car nearly disintegrated, and Smiley died of massive head injuries. "How can you safely stop a human body going 200 miles an hour in a short distance?" says Bennett. "Experience has to tell you that it is not possible." Hence the collapsible nose that endangers drivers' legs but slows their rate of deceleration and saves their lives.

After Mears's and Piquet's accidents, Guerrero, a gentle man from Medellín, Colombia, who became a U.S. citizen in 1990, spoke of how he deals with the risks of his sport. "They show the crashes on TV about 200 times," Guerrero said. "I try not to watch. Fortunately, when you're driving the car, your concentration is such that nothing else crosses your mind."

However, at other times, said Guerrero, "I'd be lying if I said you don't think about it, because the speeds are so high that you know that if something goes wrong, there's a good chance that you're going to get hurt." As for whether the head injury he sustained in 1987 preoccupies him when he is on the track, Guerrero said, "That is never in my mind. You see, I can't remember anything about that accident. So it doesn't bother me at all."

Bennett thinks something should be done to lower the speeds at Indy, a step that was taken before, in 1975, mainly because the bodywork had not yet caught up with the horsepower. "Don't ask me exactly what," says Bennett, "because that's something that's puzzling everybody."

One fix might be to turn down the turbocharger pressure, or boost, on the engines, a measure that has been tried with mixed results in the past. But, says Teddy Mayer, managing director of Penske Cars, adjusting the engines to accept the lower boost would be a maddening if not impossible task between now and May 24. Says Foyt, "Let's face it: Race cars arc made to run fast. We could slow them down, but then we'd figure out something else to make them go fast again."

Jim Crawford had this year's fastest practice lap, 233.432 mph, before two engine failures cost him a shot at the pole. That does not bode well either for Crawford, who qualified in 22nd place at 228.859 mph, or for his Lola-Buick teammate, Guerrero. Crawford suffered severe foot and leg injuries at Indy in 1987. But, he says, "you'd be in the wrong job if you were worried about crashing."

After Mears had qualified ninth, at 224.594 mph—a respectable performance considering his violent week—his wife, Chris, recalled the moment she saw him in the hospital after his accident'. "He started laughing," she said. "I said, 'Rick, it's not funny, and when you see it on tape you won't think it's funny.' "

At a gathering following his climb back on the horse last Friday, Mears was asked what it had been like to see his own crash on TV. "It was really kind of nice to be able to watch it," he said. He and everyone else laughed—except Chris, who stood to the side hardly smiling at all.

PHOTO

CARL PENDLETON/AP

Mears's accident reflected a paradoxical rule of thumb: The worse a crash looks, the better off the driver probably is.

PHOTO

LARRY PAPKE

In pain after hitting the wall on the fourth turn, Piquet was fitted with a neck brace before being lifted from his car.

PHOTO

TONY REESER/UPI

[See caption above.]

PHOTO

GEORGE TIEDEMANN

[See caption above.]

ILLUSTRATION

JOHN GRIMWADE

Flexible fuel cell

Tub

PHOTO

TRIESTER/AP

TWO PHOTOS

GEORGE TIEDEMANN

Guerrero's wife, Katie, watched her husband (below) win the pole position at record speed.

Design for Living

When Hiro Matsushita crashed into the wall on Turn 1 last Saturday (top), the right side of his Lola-Chevy was all but obliterated. Yet Matsushita avoided serious injury because he was seated in the so-called tub, a rigid cocoon around which the rest of the race car is built. The cocoon, introduced in Indy and Formula One cars in the early '60s, is made of composites consisting of aluminum honeycomb and/or carbon fiber. Fire, which used to be a driver's greatest fear, has become a rarity at Indy with advances in fuel storage. The fuel cell, located behind the driver and in front of the engine, is a rubber bladder that is almost impossible to rupture. Matsushita's right thigh was broken in the accident, but thanks to safety advances in Indy Cars, he will return to race another day.

"When the car spun backward, all I could see was the tire smoke. My first thought was, This is going to hurt."
—RICK MEARS