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Safety: a work in progress

By JOANNE KORTH and MIKE STEPHENSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 22, 2001


Head and neck support devices

WHAT THEY DO: The Head And Neck Safety, or HANS, device and similar restraint systems are designed to impede the whiplash-like forward movement of a driver's head in a collision.

PROS: The HANS has been shown to prevent the whip action that causes the sort of skull fracture that proved fatal for drivers such as Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Dale Earnhardt.

CONS: Some drivers, especially in NASCAR, which has a larger driver area than open-wheel cars, complain the device is uncomfortable, restricts their head movement and makes it difficult to exit the car quickly in the event of fire.

Composite-fiber seats

WHAT THEY DO: Cocoon-like seats such as the one being developed by PPI Motorsports owner Cal Wells, who came to NASCAR two years ago from CART, help absorb energy and hold the driver as still as possible in a crash.

PROS: The seats are much more forgiving than the metal ones NASCAR drivers use now.

CONS: The composite materials are expensive.

Energy absorbent bumpers

WHAT THEY DO: Made of composite materials, bumpers such as the "Humpy Bumper" being developed by Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler add a layer of crushability to the front ends of stock cars, which experts determined are too rigid.

PROS: Energy-absorbent bumpers would serve as a cushion in what is now 2 feet of empty space between the nose and the engine block. Less of the G-force impact of a crash would be transferred through the frame to the driver's body.

CONS: Testing is being done to make sure the bumpers do not create an aerodynamic problem or a dangerous situation for the drivers of other cars in collisions.

Safety harnesses

WHAT THEY DO: They combine shoulder and lap belts into a five-, six- or seven-point harness, restraining the driver.

PROS: They hold the driver's body in place, even when a car flips as Tony Stewart's did at the Daytona 500.

CONS: Drivers sometimes find them uncomfortable.

Data recorders

WHAT THEY DO: Similar to the black boxes used in airplanes, crash recorders track continuously and in fine detail the acceleration and deceleration of the chassis near the driver during a crash.

PROS: Investigators can use the data to reconstruct crashes and drive crash-test slides carrying dummies.

CONS: NASCAR feared teams would manipulate the devices to gain a competitive advantage. Experts assure they would be of no use in such a manner.

Air bags

WHAT THEY DO: As in passenger cars, bags inflate on impact to cushion the driver.

PROS: Having an air bag can prevent a driver's head from hitting something else inside the car, such as the steering wheel.

CONS: Race cars make incidental contact with each other and with walls throughout each race. Developing an air bag that inflates only in a serious crash such as Earnhardt's and does so fast enough has proven difficult.

Soft walls

WHAT THEY DO: An energy-absorbing material such as foam-like blocks cover existing concrete walls, lessening the impact of a crash.

PROS: The soft walls, some of which are being developed at the University of Nebraska in cooperation with the IRL and NASCAR, dissipate the energy of a crash before impact with the concrete.

CONS: While soft walls are somewhat effective in direct hits, cars that glance off concrete walls and continue on might be "snagged" by a softer substance, which can form a pocket on impact. When a car is snagged, it can be stopped violently or spun across the track in the way of other cars. Also, some soft wall substances can throw debris across the track, creating a hazard for other cars.

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