On the eve of the 100th running, the nature of the event remains unaltered and continues to power what is one of the most famous races — and provides some of the most important innovations — in the world.
In 1958, participants of the Indianapolis 500 hadn’t yet discovered fear. With zero room to spare for hesitation in their one-seater bullet cars, drivers entered one of the most dangerous competitions in the world wearing nothing but a polo shirt, a pair of slacks, an open-faced helmet and a cool pair of Snoopy goggles.
Helmets weren’t required for the first 24 years of the event, and it wasn’t until 1959 that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway required drivers to wear fire-retardant suits. Injury and death were inherently accepted dangers of the high-speed culture.
“I’m not going to say racing is safe,” said Charlie Kimball, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver. “Any time you’re going that fast, there are risks involved.”
His version of fast might as well be Millennium Falcon light-speed to daily drivers. In the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911, the average speed was about 75 mph, but today it’s around 160 mph with top lap speeds circling 230.
On the eve of the 100th running, the nature of the event remains unaltered and continues to power what is one of the most famous races in the world.
“I think that’s one of the greatest things about INDYCAR,” said Kimball, one of two drivers on the INDYCAR Safety Committee. “They continue to look how to make the cars, the racing, the racetracks safer, and it’s always going to be a process. We’re always going to find new areas as materials evolve as the understanding of the science evolves and as the racing of the cars evolve.”
Studying new safety techniques and features on a track first makes their implementation into passenger cars that much more precise.
“There are so many things that have been perfected in racing,” said Donald Davidson, Indianapolis Motor Speedway track historian.
One of the oldest and most basic safety features in today’s automobiles has become synonymous with the Indianapolis 500. Ray Harroun’s Marmon “Wasp” is credited as the first automobile to use a mounted rear-view mirror.
In the inaugural contest, Harroun tested the mirror as a replacement for the then- standard passenger mechanic. He did this as a way to circumvent the rules regarding the mechanic’s secondary job as lookout and the reduced weight and streamlined shape helped him to victory.
In a vehicle, it was originally thought a more rigid exterior and frame would act as armor, but this hypothesis was dispelled.
In order to keep the frail humans inside these cages intact and protected from outside forces, certain parts of cars are now designed to succumb to pressure more easily. By learning where to place the purposely-deforming spots, known as crumple zones, one of the most important safety innovations has made it into every modern automobile.
“It comes down to the crash structure,” Kimball said. “On the nose of an Indy car, when you hit the wall, it’s designed to crush and absorb energy so that it isn’t transferred to the cockpit of the car. And in a road car, they have those deformation zones all over the car, so that in a crash, the people within the cabin of the car don’t absorb that energy. Those crumple zones are the
same concept and derived from the energy- absorbing crash boxes on racecars.”
Combined with high-density foam, carbon fiber tubs, the Head And Neck Safety (HANS) device and molded seats, this technology has greatly reduced any driver movement during a crash and thus reduced his or her risk. So much so that NASA uses INDYCAR crash data when designing its spacecrafts.
“An INDYCAR seat helped drive some of the space program design for seating and G-loading,” Kimball said. “All came from the fact that INDYCAR drivers were crashing and surviving without injury during these high-G impacts. So NASA came and said, ‘How do they do that?’”
Even more importantly, some car seat manufacturers like Dorel also use that data when designing the foam and padding used in child restraint systems.
Not all safety innovations are directly related to crashing, though.
“The tire companies learn a lot from tire technologies in their racing programs,” said Jeff Belskus, ’81, former president and CEO of the Speedway. “They continually apply that to the passenger car tires they produce.”
In addition to structuring cars to dissipate impact energy away from the driver, the walls surrounding the track are constantly evolving to do the same. After the Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System (PEDS) was found to create too much debris and torsional redirection in 1998, a new program was initiated.
IMS paired up with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and funded a project to create one of the biggest safety achievements in racing history, the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barrier. The “soft walls” are a combination of welded rectangular steel tubes, stacked 2-inch closed-cell polystyrene and a concrete wall.
“When you build safer racetracks, that definitely trickles down into safer roads and transportation corridors,” Kimball said.
Moments in INDYCAR Safety
1911: Rearview mirror is introduced.
1935: Helmets are required. Today, they are made of carbon fiber, Kevlar or fiberglass with energy-absorbing foam.
1959: Fuel-retardant suits are required.
1965: Fuel cells are required. Essentially, the foam that prevents combustion in empty portion of fuel tank.
2002: Steel and foam energy reduction (SAFER) barrier — a soft-wall design intended to absorb kinetic energy during impact — is introduced.
2004: Head and Neck Support (HANS) Device, a head surround and attachment that prevents forward and backward movement, is introduced.
IMS by the numbers
1909: Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built
257,325: IMS capacity
253 acres: Size of IMS’ infield
33: Cars in starting field
$50-230: Ticket price range for grandstand access in 2016
2.5 miles: Oval track’s length
0:00:37.895: Lap record
237.498 mph: Top lap speed
9.2 degrees: Banking slope
550-700: Horsepower from turbocharged V6 engines
Up to more than 4: Lateral G-forces
207.151: Fastest Average Speed in INDYCAR History (California Speedway 2003)