Preventing another tragedy
Indy racing making many safety strides without HANS
INDIANAPOLIS (CNNSI.com) -- The inventors of a revolutionary neck brace that is supposed to prevent another Dale Earnhardt-like tragedy were honored at Indy.
Even so, when the green flag waves Sunday for the world's most famous race, about half the drivers in the 33-car field plan to shun the Head and Neck Support (HANS) device.
"I want to wait a little longer with it," said Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy winner and runner-up a year ago. "I'm comfortable where I'm at safety-wise. I know these cars are extremely safe."
Like NASCAR, the Indy Racing League has decided against making the HANS a mandatory part of its safety equipment, saying there's not yet enough crash data to determine its effectiveness.
Still, the 5-year-old open-wheel series has made abundant safety improvements on its cars, which will be racing at more than 220 mph (354 kph) -- about 40 mph faster than the stock cars.
There's extra padding in the seat and a 3-inch wide collar that adds stability around the head and neck. The steering column is collapsable. The sidepod has been shifted forward and increased in height, allowing it to absorb more crash force. A wheel tether system, strengthened again this year, is designed to keep the tires from flying off the car in a wreck, possibly causing harm to both driver and fans. The gear box was redesigned to provide additional flexibility in the rear of the car.
There's more to come: the IRL already has experimented with cushioned walls, foreshadowing a day when every track replaces concrete with a softer surface.
"The best thing we've got going for us," said Brian Barnhart, who runs the IRL's racing operation, "is we're very proactive and we're very reactive. You like to think in advance of what may happen, but you can't think of everything. You've got to be able to react to a problem. I think it's a good mix."
A.J. Foyt, a four-time winner at Indy, pooh-poohs all the talk about safety since Earnhardt's death -- especially the HANS.
"I would never let anybody tell me what to wear," Foyt said. "I don't think anything would have saved Dale Earnhardt. It was just his time to go."
The last driver killed in the Indy 500 was Swede Savage in 1973, when the race was governed by the U.S. Auto Club. Three other drivers -- Gordon Smiley, Jovy Marcelo and Scott Brayton -- have died in practice or while qualifying in the last 28 years.
In all, 66 people, including fans, have been fatally injured at the speedway.
While death has always been a part of racing, safety has come under increased scrutiny in the past year, which has seen four NASCAR drivers die in crashes -- all from similar head injuries. The most stunning blow to the sport came in February, when seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt's death hasn't changed the way the IRL goes about its business, Barnhart said.
"Safety has always been a priority with us," he said. "It's the No. 1 priority. That's no different since Earnhardt died."
On May 18, the Louis Schwitzer Award for technical advancement was presented to Bob Hubbard and Jim Downing, who invented the horseshoe-shaped brace that fits over the shoulders and around the neck, attaching to the helmet with two straps.
The HANS is designed to limit the whiplash effect that occur in a head-on crash. NASCAR drivers Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper all died from fractures at the base of the skull or related injuries.
"We've had no head or neck injuries with a driver wearing a HANS device, so the word is out," Hubbard said. "It's not that the HANS device is going to protect everybody from everything, but it's got a good record so far. The tide is turning."
IRL spokesman Ron Green said 15 drivers will use the HANS in Sunday's race and 14 won't. Four were undecided.
Sarah Fisher has worn the HANS all season and wouldn't think of getting in the car without it.
"It doesn't hinder or feel uncomfortable at all," he said. "It's a very comfortable device and it protects your neck and your shoulders and your back very well."
The rival CART series, which will have six of its regular drivers in the Indy 500, requires everyone to use the device at high-speed oval tracks. Formula One is planning to mandate the HANS device for its entire schedule next year.
Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indy winner, won't be wearing the HANS in this year's race.
"I want to very badly," he said. "I've tried it, it's uncomfortable and I'm looking for something else."
The safety measures paid off at Atlanta -- site of the last IRL race before Indy -- when 11 cars were involved in a spectacular, fiery crash. The only injury of note was Jack Miller's concussion.
"That was the most horrific accident I've seen in 35 years," Barnhart said. "We were very pleased with how the safety aspects of the car held up. But we're still learning from every accident."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.