The speeds attained on the 2.5-mile track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week during practice and qualifying runs for the May 24 Indianapolis 500 shot past 230 mph, obliterating every record in oval track racing. Straightaway speeds surpassed 240 mph, rivaling the takeoff velocity of the Concorde. By Sunday, Roberto Guerrero, driving a Lola-Buick, had won the pole position for the 500 with a four-lap average speed of 232.482 mph, shattering the previous qualifying record of 225.301 mph set by Emerson Fittipaldi in 1990. By raising the mark by more than 7 mph, Guerrero made the single largest leap in the track record in 20 years.
Along with those speeds came 13 crashes, two of which were so violent that it seemed impossible that the drivers could have survived. On the afternoon of May 6, in the middle of the second turn, water from a broken line began spewing from the right side of Rick Mears's Penske-Chevy. Mears's tires skidded, and the car slid 320 feet before striking the wall and going slightly airborne. The car spun 3� times before flipping over and sliding upside down for 730 feet, as sparks flew from the roll bar behind Mears's helmeted head, which scraped along the track as well. The crash appeared to be calamitous, perhaps fatal. Yet Mears emerged with only a fractured left foot and a sprained right wrist.
A day later Nelson Piquet was coming out of the fourth turn when his Lola-Buick spun and struck the wall head-on. The car then scraped along the wall for 60 feet and spun twice before stopping on the front stretch. Piquet was not as fortunate as Mears had been. His left foot was almost severed—"pulverized to the point that it wasn't recognizable," said Dr. Terry Trammell, who operated on Piquet for six hours. Piquet also suffered a compound fracture of his right ankle. Still, had it not been for the remarkable safety features of today's Indy Cars, the injuries to Mears and Piquet almost certainly would have been much worse.
Imagine a football player receiving a kickoff deep in his own end zone and one second later spiking the ball in the opposite end zone, and you have some idea of how fast—352 feet per second—drivers are going at the Speedway these days. Now picture that player, at that velocity, colliding with an immovable defender, and you have a slight sense of what it's like to hit the wall at Indy.
Mears called his escape from more serious injury "a credit to Nigel Bennett," a British engineer and the designer of Mears's Penske car. But Bennett called Mears's escape "a bit of the luck of the draw." They were both right.
Mears's crash was a classic example of the paradoxical rule of thumb that the worse an Indy Car crash looks—with pieces of the automobile flying every which way during a long skid along the wall—the better off the driver is likely to be. So, when an Indy Car smacks a wall at 200 mph, the angle of impact has an enormous effect on the severity of injury. "If you hit the wall at an oblique angle," says Bennett, "and the accident goes on for some distance, the energy has a lot of time to be dissipated. When you hit at a blunt angle, that energy has no place to go." Mears luckily struck the wall at an oblique angle. Piquet unluckily hit it head-on.
Luck aside, drivers who crash at Indy survive to race again because of design features in their cars that get better virtually every year. Beneath the skin of a typical Indy Car, the driver sits strapped into a rigid cocoon (box, page 22). This cocoon, called a tub by those in the sport, is surrounded by other parts of the car—bodywork, radiators, suspension—that are not nearly as strong. In an accident, these parts absorb energy as they are crushed, broken and torn away. As a car disintegrates, often nothing remains intact but the tub, encasing its fragile human cargo.
However, because Indy Cars have open cockpits, drivers are vulnerable to parts that fly loose, especially wheels. Says Bennett, "Sometimes a wheel can get knocked back into the cockpit, and what looks like a fairly insignificant accident can do damage to the driver." That is precisely what happened to Guerrero during a tire test at Indy in September 1987. A wheel broke loose from the car and flew back into his cockpit, striking him in the head. He was in a coma for 17 days.
Besides the tub, the Indy Car's most important safety component is its fuel cell, a flexible, self-sealing bladder whose design is an outgrowth of Vietnam War technology. Made of heavy-duty rubber material, the 40-gallon cell is nearly rupture proof. "We don't get fires these days," says Bennett.
Safety advances have had to keep pace with the engine and bodywork technology that has enabled these 1,550-pound machines to reach speeds of 240-plus mph. Indy Cars keep getting faster, not only because of increases in power—the engines now develop 700-plus horsepower—but also because of improvements in tire technology and aerodynamics. At the Speedway all this technology is put to the test on a track that was designed in 1909 for cars that did not average even 90 mph in the first 500, held in 1911.