Originally created 05/07/02

Soft walls hold up in first live test



INDIANAPOLIS -- Robby McGehee spun, hit the wall twice and nearly flipped his car.

On any other track, he could have been seriously injured.

At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year, McGehee most likely will get another chance. Protected by the new soft wall in turn three, McGehee limped away with small fractures in his upper spine and lower left leg.

He won't be allowed to return to practice for the Indy 500 for at least a few days, the Indy Racing League said Monday.

"The fact that I hit the wall that hard and I don't have a head injury is a testament that the safer wall worked," said McGehee, on crutches and wearing a soft cast on his leg.

McGehee hit the wall a little more than three hours into Sunday's first practice for the 500 after he lost control entering the turn.

The wall responded mostly as track officials expected.

The crash collapsed the bottom panel of the four steel tubes and gouged a second panel. Both were repaired on the track, although there was a 36-minute delay before practice resumed.

The walls, which are being used on the outside walls of all four turns on the 2 1/2 -mile oval, also appeared to work. Indy Racing League vice president Brian Barnhart said McGehee's first hit came with a force of 40 Gs, the second with a force of 72.7 Gs - far less than had been recorded in similar accidents.

Debris from the car was scattered across the track, but McGehee, with help, walked away.

"It was a hell of an impact," Gil de Ferran, a Roger Penske driver, said after seeing the crash. "Ultimately, he walked out of the car, injured, but he did walk out of the car. So he got away without much injury."

That much was by design when the IRL began its project to find a safer wall four years ago.

What researchers at the University of Nebraska came up with was a contraption that uses four steel tubes that are welded. The wall is then attached with steel cables and bolts into the concrete walls that line the track and the back of the steel. Between the two walls are 16 1/2 inches of hard foam.

The foam allows the wall to bend when it is hit, which reduces the impact on a driver like a shock absorber. The device got its first real test with McGehee.

"It was a very solid rear impact, and we really like what we see," Barnhart said of the wall, which is being tested on a race track for the first time. "It did not snag, it did not have a rebound angle, and the foam performed really well."

Crash tests were done with cars being towed on a pulley going between 100 and 153 mph and at angles of 20 to 25 1/2 degrees. But McGehee hit the wall at 218 or 219 mph and at angle of almost 90 degrees.

Yet the cables appeared to have been hardly strained, only a couple pieces of the foam broke off and everything else responded the way track officials anticipated.

"Everything held up pretty well other than a puncture in a couple of tubes," said Kevin Forbes, the speedway's director of engineering and construction.

Those were repaired while the track was cleaned up, which Forbes said took longer than it would have during the race because the crews wanted to inspect the damage and come up with race strategies based on information gathered from the wreck.

The accident - and performance of the new wall - overshadowed the rest of practice.

Last year's pole-winner Scott Sharp, of Kelley Racing, had the day's fastest speed of 227.571 mph. Sharp won the IRL's last race at Nazareth, Pa.

Seven other drivers, including defending champ Helio Castroneves, also were faster than Sharp's 226.037 pole-qualifying time of last year.

Castroneves, driving for Penske, was second at 227.408. Kenny Brack, the 1999 champ, had his own brush with the wall, scraping his car between turns one and two - where soft walls are not used. He was not injured.