SI Vault
Kenneth Rudeen
October 19, 1959
At Lime Rock, Connecticut the sports car road track has an ulterior purpose—to serve as a laboratory and testing ground for better highways
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October 19, 1959

Racing For Safety

At Lime Rock, Connecticut the sports car road track has an ulterior purpose—to serve as a laboratory and testing ground for better highways

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Something big is happening, in a small, beginning way, in the lovely old Connecticut town called Lime Rock. There, in the magnificently wooded southern heights of the Berkshire Hills, 105 miles from Times Square, lies a 1�-mile road-racing circuit. In just three years of operation it has won an admirable reputation as a site for sports car racing—but there is much more to Lime Rock than racing alone.

The course was laid out not only with the idea of providing maximum racing interest and driver and spectator safety, but also with these broader aims: that some day the lessons taught by the racing cars in their swift rounds might yield valuable returns in highway safety; that some day the course would be a center for driver training—ordinary, average man, woman and high school kid driver training; and that this new way of training people to handle and understand their automobiles might spread countrywide.

Under the direction of a notable American road-racing driver, John Fitch, and with the cooperation of the famous Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory, members of whose staff in one form or another have been studying problems of transportation safety for nearly two decades, Lime Rock is beginning to fulfill these ambitions.

Under the guidance of Fitch, one of the handful of American drivers who has excelled in big league postwar road racing in Europe (his trophies include an especially noteworthy one earned for winning the grand touring division in Italy's exhausting thousand-mile Mille Miglia in 1955), Lime Rock has been abuzz with activity. From the outset the track has offered a rewarding challenge to amateur sports car drivers, who have competed there in a regular series of SCCA-sponsored national and regional events. But Fitch also paved the way for professional road racing by organizing the first such event in September of last year, a development that culminated in the history-making victory of Indianapolis Winner Rodger Ward, whose midget racer defeated a strong field of road-racing machines. Previously, he had introduced a novel Little Le Mans event bringing European economy and gran turismo cars together in endurance contests. The automotive testing program he developed recently induced Chevrolet to bring its new rear-engined Corvair to Lime Rock for an exhaustive workout, and has, in the past, included tryouts made by a consumer organization for its reports as well as tests of new braking systems. The Lime Rock race-training program also accommodates driving schools in which novice drivers of racing clubs practice en masse under the surveillance of their experienced club officials.

Like all responsible racing men, Fitch wants the sport to be as safe as it can be. Although he believes that road racing has a creditable safety record in the U.S., he also feels that this record can be greatly improved. And since the heart of the racing safety effort lies, as he sees it, in developing nonlethal crash barriers and putting these and escape routes for the racing cars where they are needed, he believes that Lime Rock may well be the laboratory from which will emerge the solutions to some of the pressing problems of conventional highways.

"In this day of marvelous electronic computers and earth satellites," Fitch says, "it is shocking to realize that almost nothing is positively known about the dynamic behavior of road vehicles. The first to admit it are the engineers now designing our new federal highway system.

"In racing, as on the highways, three factors are involved in any consideration of safety: the cars, the drivers and the roads. At present, as much as we might want them, we cannot hope for further important advances in safety through refinement of cars or through closer regulation of drivers. In racing, for instance, attempts have been made to reduce hazards by regulating engine sizes and other technical means—they were famous failures. Paradoxically, as engine size—and weight—diminishes, lap speeds steadily increase. As for the human element, there are many difficulties in seeking a solution. Nobody can foretell a driver's reaction to an emergency until he is confronted with one. There are many poor drivers, as we all know. And even experts make mistakes.

"The real point is that the result of a mistake should not necessarily mean a disaster. To my way of thinking, only the third factor, the road system itself, gives hope of real accomplishment. The big problem is to bring a vehicle that has left the road to rest at a rate of deceleration within human tolerances. A secondary but related object is to prevent the vehicle from overturning.


"If you break down the problem this way the search for a solution is not overwhelming. However, the routine engineering solution of moving mass versus static restraints—speed versus brakes, for instance, or roadside barriers—will normally produce an answer that ignores the dynamics involved. That is why an analysis of the tumultuous action of the race course is so valuable. Here we must accommodate cars of different weights, mass distributions and speeds striking barriers at all kinds of different angles—either in a straightforward way or spinning—and we must also take into account such unpredictable elements as flat tires or damaged suspension systems."

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