Friday, April 04, 2008

Safety features pass ultimate test.

At PPIR, in 1999, we were sitting just over the final turn of an AMA motorcycle racing course. Right in front of us a rider accelerating out of that final turn had his motor freeze up and the motorcycle stopped dead, from 110 mph, throwing the rider to the pavement, over the handlebars and face down. He slid like that for nearly 200 feet and lay still. My friends and I, and all those around us were silent and shocked, certain we had just seen someone get killed in front of our very eyes. For at least ten minutes--it seemed longer--we sat trying to deal with it, praying, crying, or just sitting with head in hands. Then the rider--a Japanese guy whose name escapes me--sat up, and was helped to the waiting ambulance, limping but otherwise okay, mostly under his own power. That was on a Friday, during the preliminary heats. He raced on Sunday in the feature.
During NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying, for the Samsung 500 it seemed like Deja-Vu as rookie Michael McDowell lost the handle on his car coming out of turn four, and, while trying to get the car under control, lost the car completely entering turn one. The rear slid around to the left, shooting his car directly into the barrier outside the turn at approximately 180 mph. The car bounced off the SAFER barrier, slid a bit, then violently rolled eight times, on fire and losing pieces all over the track. It was almost certain that the driver would be seriously injured, at least. But, miraculously, McDowell climbed out of his car on his own and walked to the ambulance with only a slight limp.
These "miracles" occurred by virtue of safety features and equipment. The motorcycle racers wear lots of body armor, including a piece that reinforces the spine, and goes from the base of the skull to the tailbone. That is what saved the rider's life in 1999.
For McDowell it was a combination of many safety features that have been implemented since 2001. The SAFER barrier absorbed much of the impact, protecting the the driver from experiencing the full force of the collision. The HANS device prevented his head from snapping forward on impact, preventing serious injury to the spine and spinal cord, even to the point of preventing a fatality.
When the Sprint Cup Car was first conceived, as the "Car of Tomorrow," the main feature the designers wanted to build into it was safety. The "green house," in which the driver sits was made larger, the driver's position was moved closer to the center of the car, and the frame was reinforced in various places in order to protect the cockpit from the force of impact from various directions.
These safety features have been put to the test several times this season. Jeff Gordon hit the inner corner of the emergency vehicle access opening at Las Vegas head on without the benefit of a SAFER barrier and walked away from the wreck with a few bumps and bruises. But Friday, we saw the car put to the ultimate test. We saw a horrifying wreck that undoubtedly would have resulted in serious injury or even fatality in the older car, only to see the driver walk away relatively unharmed. If safety is the main reason in the design of the Sprint Cup car, then the new car has proven itself.

1 comment:

Amy said...

i was working during qualifying and while I normally keep track via nascar.com and foxsports.com I was too busy this afternoon.

When I found out about the accident when I got him I found it on youtube and watched and was immediately horrified at the tumble that car took. It was amazing to me that he was able to get out and walk away!! AMAZING.