Auto racing is a dangerous game,
but not as dangerous as it used to be

The front straightaway at Indy. Out of Turn Four it’s throttle up. Hitting 240 mph, you make time on the straight, or ‘tunnel’ as it’s called, where the grandstands tower over the narrow track. As you shoot through the tube, the roars -- from wind, crowd and engine -- are just background.

Indy Track

Turn One comes up fast, and through the violent vibration you try to steady the wheel, laser focused on hitting the narrow race line. Hit that line just right and you’re giving gas through the turn. That’s the goal, because speed wins at Indy.

But every once in a while a car misses the line. Maybe the driver screwed up or was bumped, or maybe a tire or some other part failed. A track built in 1909 for 1909 automobiles can be a tough ride at 2013 speeds in 21st century cars.

Whatever the cause, it doesn’t take a physics major to figure out what happens to car and driver upon impact with a concrete wall at 200+ mph.

Though a dangerous game, auto racing can be made safer, and it has. Over the years, Indy cars have been redesigned to absorb impact forces. They still mangle when crashed, but drivers are cocooned in their reinforced foam-lined cockpits with state-of-the-art restraints.

Driver safety extends past the car, too. Case in point: In 2002, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) debuted a barrier system at the Indianapolis 500 to cushion impact in the event of wall crashes. The SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier was installed on all four turns at Indy, with an improved version in place since 2003.

SAFER Wall SAFER modules, each 20 feet long, consist of steel tubes welded together, with steel splices connecting the modules to form the wall. The SAFER wall then attached to the concrete retaining wall, with polystyrene sheets placed between the two. The technology reportedly reduces the impact energy by as much as 50 percent. What does that mean? No drivers have been seriously injured during collisions with the SAFER barriers.

One of the most significant safety improvements to automobile racing in decades, according to IMS officials, SAFER barriers have been adopted across Indy Racing League tracks and at venues throughout all auto racing circuits. With so many safety improvements, drivers today can survive the violent car-wall encounters that claimed lives in past years.

The Right Repair in a Hurry
SAFER barriers have demonstrably increased driver safety, and making sure they continue to do so are the jobs of people like Bud Tucker. Tucker, a maintenance facility welder at IMS, is tasked with responding to crashes and repairing damaged SAFER walls.

Bud Tucker - Indy Welder
Getting the call, his crew rolls onto the track and into a chaotic scene, with cars – some wrecked, some driving by under the caution flag -- and parts everywhere, and maybe rescue vehicles, too. His crew’s job: Get repair trucks in position close enough to do the work while protecting the workers, get the equipment out, make good welds and get off the track.

To make those good welds quickly every time out, repair crews rely on equipment from Lincoln Electric, including what Tucker carries on his track truck, a Ranger® 305 G engine-driven welder and LN-25 Pro wire feeder. As soon as Race Control communicates a wall crash, the response team fires up the Ranger, according to Tucker, so that repairs can be made rapidly on the track

Bud Tucker - Indy Welder

To attach galvanized, painted repair plates to the damaged SAFER walls, crews make 3-in. horizontal stitch welds spaced 9 inches apart across the top and bottom of each plate. Vertical down welding is continuous on the leading edge of the plate to prevent a car from snagging the edge and tearing the plate off in the event of a future crash.

Tucker and his team know their job, and do it well. An Indianapolis native, he’s been around the Indy track his entire life, and race day still gives him goosebumps.

“To be working here, and assigned to the track and to repair of SAFER wall…there is nothing better,” he says. He sums it all up with a prideful boast: “I’m a welder at Indy.”

/ / /