America's biggest race, the Indianapolis 500 could witness the debut appearance of the latest in 'soft-wall' technology, an idea that started some years ago but looks to have finally found a home in 'The Greatest Spectacle on Earth.'

Soft-wall applications to the four turns of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval may be made before the start of practice for this year's 86th Indianapolis 500, said Brian Barnhart, Indy Racing League vice president of operations last week.

The decision will be made whether to install the new safety technology after two final testing sessions at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, Barnhart said. Opening Day for the Indianapolis 500 is May 5th.

"We're awaiting results of the two upcoming tests," Barnhart said. "They'll be done before the month of April is over, and we're anticipating those results will go well.

"If they do, we're certainly looking forward to the possibility of being able to install these walls at the Speedway. Mel Harder (Indianapolis Motor Speedway vice president of operations) and Kevin Forbes (IMS director of engineering and construction) are preparing the walls now."

The shock-absorbing soft walls are an evolution of the original PEDS barrier that was attached to the inside wall exiting Turn 4 in 1998.

The PEDS barrier was found to have some defects after it was struck at full speed by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk during the 1998 IROC at Indy race. Still, Barnhart believes the PEDS barrier possibly saved Luyendyk's life. In 1999, Japanese driver Hideshi Matsuda, in a practice crash before the Indianapolis 500, impacted a second-generation PEDS barrier in the same location of track.

With the assistance of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, the Speedway, under the leadership of president and CEO Tony George, continued its development of an energy reducing wall attachment that could help lower the risk of driver injury in a crash.

Under the direction of Dr. Dean Sicking and Dr. Ron Faller, the soft-wall program progressed to the point that by September 2000, George and Barnhart were ready to include NASCAR in the development. Because the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a multi-purpose motorsports facility, the soft wall needs to withstand crashes by 1,550-pound Indy Racing League cars and 3,500-pound stock cars raced in the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400, respectively.

"We met with (NASCAR president) Mike Helton and brought NASCAR into the loop," Barnhart said. NASCAR assigned Steve Peterson to work with the Indy Racing League Technical Director Phil Casey, PEDS designer John Pierce and the Nebraska engineers on the project.

The crashes are simulated on an airport runway set-up. The vehicles are propelled by cables to a creditable speed and then released to travel free the final 15 feet into the barriers. The cars, Barnhart pointed out, are heavily instrumented with impact data recorders in the front, middle and back of the chassis.

Barnhart received an encouraging report April 9 after the 17th in the series of test crashes. There are two more test crashes scheduled for late April.

"We're very pleased," he said. "If the results are positive, we're hoping and anticipating having soft walls at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next month."

Because of time restraints, soft walls only would be installed in each of the four turns at this time. Barnhart noted the soft walls are designed to provide their best protection at the most prominent impact areas in the corners and then taper down on the exits to allow running cars to take their normal grooves up to the concrete for maximum speed.

"We'll have them in the area where the majority of the accidents take place," he said. "Our whole goal is to reduce the forces seen by a driver."

The Nebraska tests have shown that it will not be necessary to replace one of the 20-foot sections following a crash, Barnhart said. "This is something we're very proud of," he said.