INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - The IndyCar series is putting focus on driver safety and has launched a full investigation into Sunday's accident in Las Vegas that killed 33-year-old driver Dan Wheldon.
Preliminary findings will come within a few weeks, the auto racing organization said, and its CEO, Randy Bernard, said he hopes those findings will lead to improved safety measures.
"We've got a lot to do, and we don't have any time to mess around," Bernard told The Associated Press on Wednesday night.
"We need answers."
One local race engineering expert said something positive has to come out of the accident.
"We will never make motorsports 100 percent safe," said Pete Hylton, former competitive racer and now director of the IUPUI motorsports engineering program "But we'll never make many aspects of our lives 100 percent safe."
Hylton is the archivist and historian for the Sports Car Club of America and the author of two books, "Ghost Tracks: A Historical Look at America's Lost Road Racing Tracks" and "Sports Car Club of America 60 Years in Pictures."
He also created the motorsports engineering degree at IUPUI six years ago. The program was fully recognized as a degree program four years ago and continues to offer the only motorsports degree in the country.
Hylton talked Wednesday about the technological advances that have been made in motorsports over the last few decades.
"Safety has probably been the biggest technological driver of the last decade," he said. "If we look back, some of the major changes in the sport have come about because of tragedy."
In 1955, a horrendous crash at the 24 Hours of Le Mans killed 83 spectators when a crash on the track caused large parts of racing car debris to fly into the crowd. The driver, Pierre Levegh, was also killed. Another 120 people were injured. In terms of human toll, it is considered the most catastrophic accident in motorsports history. It brought about improved barriers between racetracks and spectators.
In 1964, a fiery seven-car crash on the second lap at the Indianapolis 500 killed two drivers, Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. Partially in response to media pressure, USAC mandated that cars carry less fuel and crafted the rules to effectively eliminate the use of gasoline, effective for the 1965 season. This resulted in a change to methanol, a less volatile fuel. Another response to the crash was the1965 introduction of the Firestone "RaceSafe" fuel cell.
The 1994 death of Formula One Racer Ayrton Senna and the 2001 death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. ushered in a new focus on energy absorption.
"Those have been approached three different ways," Hylton said. "The driver's safety gear has been changed, all the major racetracks in this country now have energy absorbing barriers - sometimes referred to as the 'safer barrier' - and we're also designing energy absorbing capabilities into the racecars."
The driver safety gear comes in the way of a head and neck support – or HANS - device. The purpose of the device is to stop the head from snapping forward in a crash, without otherwise restricting movement of the neck.
The energy absorbing barriers help diffuse otherwise deadly situations, too.
"That takes the energy of the car when it impacts the wall," Hylton said. "Instead of hitting a solid, rigid barrier, you're now hitting a flexible barrier with energy absorbing material between the flexible barrier and the rigid back-up support."
The cars are also being made with energy absorption technology.
"So the driver is protected by a rigid structure, but parts of the car are not as rigid anymore and are actually designed to absorb energy in the crash," Hylton said.
Hylton went on to say that he has all confidence in the engineers reconstructing the Wheldon crash, and when the cause is determined, if it's something that can be improved upon with new safety features, that will be done to help the sport and the drivers.
Speaking about Sunday's crash, Hylton said: "The fact that everyone else either walked away or was dismissed from the hospital within a day is evidence of the safety factors that we have integrated into motorsports in the last decade."
And IndyCar CEO Bernard said that investigation is already top priority.
"We must continue to move forward with a thorough investigation; fortunately, that has already begun, and we have the protocols in place to get this done," Bernard said. "This was a tragic accident, and IndyCar needs to understand everything possible about it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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