by Lynne Huntting
Jeff Horton, the Indy Racing League's director of engineering, is also in charge of the certification process for the IndyCars at each round, a job he's held for the past six years.
Horton wears a blue IRL shirt, indicating that he's a full time employee, overseeing the safety inspection process. On race weekends, his staff is supplemented by weekend warriors, who wear red shirts. For the Indy 500, there are up to 50 inspectors, as compared to the 12-15 who attend the regular IRL races and take up but a small proportion of the two 56-seat corporate jets it takes to transport the IRL staff.
Horton's 22 years of experience include engineering work with Buick, Chevrolet, and Mercedes-Benz, before he went over to 'the other side' and became chief inspector for the Indy Lights series and then IRL. He jokes that it was the theory of who better to oversee scrutineering than someone who used to push the envelope. During the 'month of May', however, he reckons that he's at the track pretty much 24/7.
The IRL has a thorough inspection process, which includes cars being presented for scrutineering before the weekend begins, before and after qualifying and, again, after the race. For the Indy 500, after a car is cleared to qualify on the 'Tech Rack', a technical inspector is assigned to go with the car. The League does not comment on how many cars fail the process, although Horton would say that it's less than with NASCAR, which is very public in announcing cars, teams, or drivers who don't pass.
Before the cars go through scrutineering, they receive a safety inspection. Among the things checked are the yellow caution light, which is on the dash or steering wheel of each car so that a driver knows immediately when the course is under caution. The lights are activated by race control.
New last year were the blinking red rain lights on the rear of the car, which also can be remotely activated. They are used for cautions on ovals, which don't run in the rain, and can be used as rain lights on street or road courses, which do.
Helmets are also inspected and, if passed, receive a sticker. The foam interior is inspected to insure it hasn't deteriorated, and the exterior, to check that it hasn't been penetrated. The IRL works with the helmet manufacturers, many of whom are on site or close by the Speedway, so helmets can be repaired. Otherwise, they are sent back to the manufacturer. Most drivers carry more than one helmet, however, all of which must conform to the Snell 2005 standard.
Each driver is also required to wear ear accelerometers, which are worn in each ear and wired to the helmet for speech and to the crash box under the dash, below the driver's legs. Inside the custom-made ear pieces are wiring circuitry and a speaker. The ear sensors were introduced in 2004, and later were adopted by Champ Car, and then NHRA. Now all the NHRA Pro Classes use the sensors and also crash boxes.
After an accident, Horton's team performs an accident investigation. Results are not publicly released from accidents such as that suffered at Indianapolis on Fast Friday by rookie Alex Lloyd, when he crashed hard into the wall. The group catalogues damage and graphs information from the crash box, which is downloaded into a secure private database, along with photos of the damaged car. The information is then available for IRL doctors to view. The data is used to future define sled testing. When a driver was not injured, the data is used for the sled test to determine why the car worked the way it did. Sled testing is done at Delphi facilities in Ohio, or at the nearby Cape facility in Indiana.
The IRL has its own, very expensive, THOR advanced crash test dummy - THOR-FT standing for Test Device for Human Occupant Restraint - Frontal Technology -designed for the National Highway Traffic Safety Research & Development department. The IRL uses it to test next generation safety systems and works closely with Delphi at its Vandalia facility.
Horton said that the IRL has a good budget for safety and testing, which uses the SAFER walls and full-sized cars. This is done at the University of Nebraska, where Dr Dean Sickling is the director of the famed Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. Sickling, along with Dr Ronald Faller, Dr John Rohde, Dr John Reid and John Holloway, developed the SAFER barrier and won the 2002 Louis Schwitzer Award for contributing to ,and significantly improving, driver safety at the Indianapolis 500. The award is presented annually at the Brickyard during the second week of qualifying, and is for engineering innovation and excellence at the blue riband race.
This year, the IRL introduced paddleshifters and variable assist steering racks for its IndyCar category, which further increase driver safety. The paddleshifters are mandatory at all IRL races, save for the Indy 500. Paddleshifters were made optional for Indy so that one-off teams would not be required to have the financial burden of installing them. That was instituted pre-unification, but all cars present in the first week of practice have them. The steering racks remain optional.
The Brickyard is the only IRL racetrack where the Panoz chassis is allowed, because of its ability to faster cool the hot burning ethanol fuel down the long front straight. There are only two Panoz cars entered - for American Dream Racing and PDM Racing, both yet to name a driver. These teams are on the 'short' programme, meaning they run only the second weekend of qualifying.