in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of September 15, 1999
Well, it took a few days to get back to it, but I've had some time to reflect on the Indy Car tragedy at Monterey over the weekend and before the "story" gets too old, I'd better pass along some of my thoughts on the subject of safety in motorsport. While the death of Gonzalo Rodriguez only has a direct impact on the IndyCar scene, the lessons to (hopefully) be learned from it can be valuable for all racers: ovals, circuits and straight-line types alike.
So let's talk about safety for a minute. Please note, that while I can "preach" about it, I sometimes don't "practise what I preach". For confirmation of that, look closely at the picture at the head of this update. Click on it for a closer look and see if you can spot the obvious safety infraction. You can clearly see the large drum of "hazardous material" (methanol) beside me, but did you notice the cigarette burning merrily away....
All joking aside, I take the issue of safety very seriously in my racing program. When I first got into this sport, over 25 years ago, the number and stringency of safety rules was minimal compared to today's regulations. At that time, the thought of spending more than $20 on a helmet (seriously, $20 !) was a foreign concept. Roll cage? Certified seat belts? Transmission blanket? "Give me a break... all that stuff is going to cost money, and the budget is better off going into the engine and any other area that will make the car faster, isn't it?" Believe me, I wasn't alone with that line of "reasoning", as even today, there are still far too many racers willing to take shortcuts to save a dollar. Even at the risk of their own lives, the life of the racer in the other lane, the spectators and the track workers.
In fact, I could put a serious curl in everyone's hair if I related the story of my aftermarket (fibreglass) seat installation in my first race car. (A 1969 Dodge Charger "Super Bee"). Hang on to your seats to read this, by the way. Two-by-four (YES, WOOD) framing, wood screws into the seat, carriage bolts mounting the seats to the floor. NO, I'm not kidding! That was it! Even today, a quarter century later, I get shivers thinking about what would have happened to me in the event of any sort of mishap. Thankfully, I never bumped into anything, but if I had..... well, you probably wouldn't be reading this right now, would you?
A few years later (and somewhat wiser), I fell into this bottomless pit of blown alcohol racing. My first car was a well-built, certified chassis with almost all the safety equipment required... at the moment I bought it. Before we even got to our first race, the bellhousing rules changed and blower restraints became mandatory. It was frustrating having to throw away a NEW, brand spanking new, SPE housing and replace it before ever firing the engine, but it had to be done. The blower restraint, and the accompanying breakaway studs gave me and the crew a greater level of comfort in dealing with our first blown engine. Overall, I had no arguments with these first changes.
As the years went by, first the firesuit and helmet, then the trans blanket, then the safety harnesses had to be replaced. Again, with the exception of having to trash an almost new Simpson suit, these changes were all accepted with the realization that as the cars got faster, the level of protection required had to be increased. Comparing my current safety gear to some of the stuff I used 15 or 20 years ago is like trying to compare apples and oranges. There were, I'll freely admit, times that I suspected a conspiracy between the manufacturers and the association in the almost yearly rules changes and safety upgrades. In most instances, however, the logistics and legal implications of re-certifying used products made that option impossible. Unfortunate, expensive, but still not practical.
We've now reached the point where the yearly, yes, yearly, tab for all the required safety certifications and re-certifications is approaching $5000. Seems like a lot of money at first glance, but, in the final analysis, how much is a human life (or a serious injury) worth? A lot more than $5000, right? Right?? Yes, some of the rules about certifying safety gear seem onerous, but in the litigious age we unfortunately live in, absolutely necessary to ensure the continued health and even the existence of, the safety equipment manufacturers. When someone can sue -- and win -- $5,000,000 for spilling a cup of coffee in their lap -- not realizing that HOT coffee is really..... uh, HOT, then you know why all that gear comes with those sewn-in disclaimers that coldly state: "Use of this product in no way guarantees the user from serious injury or death. Motorsports is dangerous.... etc."
While the quality and amount of attachable safety equipment continues to increase, the chassis' themselves have also kept pace. My original dragster was certified (in 1983) as an SFI-2.1. Through the years I've had to upgrade it several times to meet current specs: SFI-2.3E, F, G and now H. During that period we've gone from mid-5 second fuel cars to the current sub-4.50 standards. Alcohol dragsters have similarly progressed from 6.20's and .30's to the current top mark of 5.39. Sixteen years of progress, with the cars going nearly one second quicker and as much as 80 mph faster. Even with the vastly increased performances, the injury rate and severity has actually dropped over that period.
The drag strips have not been left out of the safety equation either. How many tracks can you remember running on with a single row of armco guardrail; wide, sometimes sloping, stretches of grass between the track edge and the guardrail? How many of those tracks do you remember running on RECENTLY? Big changes over the years, eh? Now we have full length, full height concrete guard walls at the edge of each lane; concrete launch pads, longer braking areas, gravel traps and safety nets at the end of the track. The safety crews and medical equipment/assistance available have taken quantum leaps foward too. Fully sprayed, prepared, track surfaces are the norm, not the exception. While so many of these assets seem almost taken for granted by newcomers to the sport, anyone who's been around for more than ten years or so has to be impressed by the improvements.
Despite all the improvements in chassis', safety equipment, tracks and personnel, we still have accidents. We still have injuries. And worst of all, we still have the occasional death. Statistically, we have a lower incidence of injuries and deaths than almost any other motorsport. When you consider the number of drag racers and the number of passes made each year, the percentages are very much in our favour. Now if you took those statistics and converted them to miles driven versus injuries, then we might not look quite as good. But the bottom line is, drag racing is a very safe sport. Especially when you consider the highly variable types of cars, construction techniques and quality of equipment used.
The vast majority of drag racing accidents occur in the slower, quite often home-built (or slightly modified stock automobile) classes. As racers move up to the faster classes, increasingly stringent requirements come into force. That is why, despite the tremendous speeds involved, that the fastest classes are among the safest, statistically speaking. But how do those top classes stack up against the other sanctioning bodies? NASCAR, CART, F-1?
Very well, thank you. Obviously, when you have numerous cars sharing the same track simulatenously, the accident rates are much higher in those other motorsports. Each one of them though, features the top of the line cars of their type; there are no amateurs, no home-built cars, no "backyard" engineering. The very best equipment that money can buy, or even envision, is available to those racers.
The budgets for safety equipment alone, in Formula One for instance, probably exceed the total annual budget of an NHRA fuel car. Your carbon/carbon brake system has 200 miles on it? In the rubbish bin. The wheels (at $1500 each) have 200 miles on them? The rubbish bin. The helmet and fire suit have twelve hours running time? Rubbish bin. And on and on it goes. The computer designed, carbon fibre tubs that form the chassis of the F-1 and Indy cars (at $500,000 each) are not expected to last longer than half a season. Quite often, far less than that. In every situation, cost is not a consideration. Whatever it takes is not just a motto, it's a way of life.
Every single nut, bolt, washer, etc.etc. is examined minutely. Absolutely no stone is left unturned. So why on earth are those open-wheel cars so unsafe to drive, so prone to leaving drivers crippled and, tragically, all too often, dead? (A side issue, that we simply don't have room or time to explore right now, is the increasingly frequent catastrophes involving spectators at these events. Sad and senseless as those tragedies are, an examination of their causes will just have to wait). The basic design of the Indy/F-1 cars, with their short wheelbases, rear-mounted engines and lack of a roll cage are the primary culprits.
Read that last statement again: "lack of a roll cage". Too simple? What on earth can the reason be for not mandating proper driver protection in those cars? Looks? Tradition? Visibility? The single hoop roll bars in the cars are nothing more than a convenient lifting or towing point. They provide virtually zero protection to the driver's most important piece of equipment: his head. What about the almost bullet-proof construction of the tub surrounding them? Yes, it does a good job of providing side-impact protection; it's even lessened the severity of foot, ankle and leg injuries. Lessened, not eliminated though, as any chassis design that has the driver's feet within 18 inches of the front axle is ludicrously dangerous when a frontal impact with very solid objects is always a serious possibility.
Okay, smart guy, have you got any answers? No, I don't, other than to suggest the obvious. Why can't they install roll cages? Why can't they move the driver further back from the front axle? Yes, I realize the cars would look substantially different, but wouldn't they be a whole lot safer? Think back thirty years to the time when front-engine dragsters were the only ones running.... who thought we'd make the changes -- all for the better -- that we've made over the years? Tradition is fine, but only to a point. A far better tradition is one of keeping drivers safe, keeping them alive, not in perpetuating a mistake at the cost of people's lives.
This whole issue is far too complex and technically demanding to be solved by myself. And simply writing about it will do nothing other than provide a bit of food for thought for a few people. At this time, I would like to invite any (serious) suggestions for ways that motorsport safety can be improved, specifically in the premier open-wheel categories. Let me know what you think, why I'm wrong in my thinking, or better yet, what can be done to make those much needed improvements.
In the meantime, next time you're looking at your own race car, look at it through the eyes of a tech inspector. Look for the flaws, look for the areas that can be improved, then do something about it. Remember, safety begins at home. My home and your home.
Tomorrow: something completely different. An exclusive report on how a Canadian drag racer played an integral role in the setting of an FIA European Top Methanol Dragster ET and MPH record at last weekend's Santa Pod Raceway "European Finals". It was truly an international effort; a Finnish racer and crew, an American chassis and engine and, what turned out to be the key piece in the puzzle, a Canadian tuner. Stay tuned for our report on how Mission, BC's Bob Haffner ended up in England and how the whole chain of events occured. We'll even be able to give you some exclusive pictures of the happenings within a few days. You won't want to miss this one.