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The Science of Safety

by Guy McCardle

October 17, 2011

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Donate The world lost a great race car driver with the death of two-time Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon yesterday. His wife lost a husband and his two beautiful young boys lost a father. He was only 33 years old. Wheldon was driving one of the safest cars on the planet when he was involved in the fiery 15 car high-speed crash that took his life at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The Dallara IR-05 was built specifically to be driven in excess of 230 mph and protect its driver in the event of an accident at high speeds. It has a carbon fiber chassis that was designed to break apart during a collision and absorb the forces of a series of massive impacts while keeping the cockpit surrounding the driver intact. The chassis type that Wheldon was driving had been used in over 100 races and covered more than 500,000 miles in competition with just one previous loss off life, and few major injuries.

The walls at Las Vegas Motor Speedway are composed of a steel and foam energy reduction, or SAFER, barrier. They are sometimes referred to as soft walls. SAFER barriers are built with polystyrene foam to help absorb the impact of a crash. They have been credited with saving several lives since their introduction at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002.

Unfortunately, Wheldon's Dallara IR-05 never made contact with the SAFER barrier. He became airborne, and going over 220 miles per hour his car slammed into the catch fence above the wall which is designed to keep vehicles and debris from leaving the confines of the track. The impact tore the protective roll hoop above Wheldon's head completely off of the car.

Ironically, Wheldon was working as IndyCar's official test driver in the weeks leading up to the Las Vegas race. He was helping to develop an all-new Dallara race chassis set to debut next season. Known as the IndyCar Safety Cell, it was designed to offer even better head protection than the current car and has side pods that extend beyond the rear wheels to allow the cars to bump into one another more than they can now without causing an accident like the one that set off the chain reaction in Las Vegas. The pods are also supposed to help keep the car from being launched into the air.

People who knew him say that Dan Wheldon was a great race car driver, but even a nicer man. It is a shame that his children will never got to know him. May he rest in peace.

by Guy McCardle

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