INDIANAPOLIS — The history of Indy car racing has included many innovations that have improved racing performance.
From the days of Parnelli Jones breaking the 150-mph barrier at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1962 to Tom Sneva topping the 200-mph mark 15 years later in 1977, innovation helped break records and create milestones that thrilled the masses.
For the past 20 years, however, most of that innovation has been focused toward safety. The original PEDS barrier was installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1998 and when Arie Luyendyk crashed during an IROC race, it littered the track with debris and sent his car rebounding into traffic.
Although the PEDS was scrapped, further development led to the SAFER barrier that was installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the 2002 Indianapolis 500. Since then, SAFER Barriers have become vital elements of race courses all over the world and have saved countless lives.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Dale Earnhardt’s death in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500 led to the implementation of the HANS device.
The device keeps a driver’s helmet and neck in proper position during an impact and has virtually eliminated the danger of basilar skull fractures such as those that killed Earnhardt and others.
Despite the great reduction in driver fatalities, racing remains a risky and dangerous sport. Indy car driver Dan Wheldon was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011 and additional safety measures were added to the cars and to the tracks.
But it was Justin Wilson’s death when he was hit in the helmet by the nose cone off Sage Karam’s car at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway in August 2015 that spurred IndyCar into action with the latest safety innovation.
It’s known as an aeroscreen and according to IndyCar President Jay Frye, it’s going to be a game changer in terms of driver safety.
“To me this is a total industry-changing driver safety solution, it’s all of it,” Frye said after an Oct. 2 test of the aeroscreen at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We couldn’t be prouder of this. This to me is a game changer. This is big.
“The aero kit was obviously very cool. We got our identity back,” Frye explained. “We like the way it races, all that type of stuff, less downforce, more horsepower, that’s the direction, that’s all good. But I think this is something that will really change the complexion of the sport for a long time to come, so this is big.”
Frye used his NASCAR connections with Red Bull to help facilitate the aeroscreen concept.
The latest version combines a structure similar to the halo used in Formula One and the added safety benefit of an aerospace-material, canopy-like windshield that could greatly reduce the danger involved with some of these crashes.
The aeroscreen is a joint effort among IndyCar, Red Bull Advanced Technologies, Dallara, PPG Aerospace and Pankl Racing Systems.
When Frye was managing Red Bull Racing’s NASCAR operation from 2008 to 2011, he developed a working relationship with members of Red Bull’s Formula One effort, including Christian Horner, the team principal of Red Bull F1.
Earlier this year, Frye wanted to move forward with his driver-cockpit initiative, which at that time was a plexiglass windscreen. When tests did not produce the results Frye had hoped, he contacted Horner for advice.
“Through Christian and Jonathan Wheatley, who is Red Bull’s sporting director and team manager and also a really good friend, we started talking about this,” Frye explained. “We had been working on something at IndyCar for several years and couldn’t quite get it over the hump. I called them and they said they had built an aeroscreen for Formula One, but F-1 went with the halo, instead.
“Red Bull still had this piece. I asked if they could work on getting their piece put on our car. It evolved from there.”
The original Red Bull piece would not work because of the unique loads on an Indy car, but Red Bull Advanced Technologies developed a piece that is incorporated onto the Indy car roll hoop, making it stronger than the halo.
The current aeroscreen combines aspects of a halo with the extra protection of a windscreen to create a safety-redundant system of protection for the driver.
“It’s pretty cool that you have an F-1 team and Red Bull Advanced Technologies working together with IndyCar to have this on our car,” Frye said. “It’s motorsports working together where we have partnered with an F-1 team to come up with a total safety solution for us and it’s been a lot of fun.
“I’m a big believer we all need to work together for all of us to succeed.”