Safety Constantly Evolves

I’ve seen the crash in person and once on the internet. I’ve caught a few of the photos of the event while scrolling through my timeline on Twitter or on Instagram. I have no desire to watch that crash ever again (and since we’re here, can we not include this on the highlight reel for next season like Scott Dixon Indianapolis 500 crash we keep seeing?). At the base of the crash, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Robert Wickens got together at Turn 2 during the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Wickens then rode the SAFER barrier for the briefest of moments before getting up into the catch fence, and well he spun like a top along the fence before coming back down to the ground. Simultaneously, though secondary, James Hinchcliffe and Pietro Fittipaldi got together, and Takuma Sato was also collected up during the incident.

People smarter then me will be going over data beyond belief including telemetry, the cars themselves, the velocity data from the earpieces, and the pictures and video of the accident. While they’re doing the job they’ve educated for and been trained for – allow me to provide my thoughts. Everything involved in the crash did what it was supposed to do.

Safety Set Up

The first step in the crash safety was the SAFER barrier. SAFER standing for Steel and Foam Energy Reduction is a composite of steel tubing with industrial foam between the steel components and the concrete wall of the track. The job of the SAFER barrier is to absorb the kinetic energy of the crash and dissipate it along the wall with the goal of lessen the injuries to the driver and keep the car from going back into the road. I hesitate to put any sort of math in this, but kinetic energy is ½ of the objects mass times it’s velocity (aka it’s speed) squared. So it’s no how heavy the object is, but how fast the object is going that’s important. It is twice as important. I believe the SAFER barrier did it’s job, it’s unsure how quickly Wickens was going at the time of the accident, but had he not ridden the SAFER barrier, if only for seconds, he would have gone up into that catch fence with a higher velocity then what he did and judging from the damage to the fence: it would have been worse.

The catch fence, the big safety feature everyone is looking calling for changes. The main job of the catch fence is to prohibit debris from leaving the race field and catapulting into what may be a crowd of spectators. It works by the fence deforming without breaking, with the energy load transferring to the poles. In this incident, the fence did prohibit most of the debris field from leaving the track. It should also be recalled that prior to the catch fence, a car with that trajectory would have left the track field entirely. Also hitting the fence again removed some velocity from the car.

The car itself did what it was supposed to do. Those cars are engineering marvels both to obtain aerodynamic perfection, but also as a level of safety for the driver. The tub is reinforced and projects the driver from intrusion, and from what I’ve seen – the tub was intact. The car also is built to break apart in such an accident, again releasing velocity. It’s horrible to watch, seeing pieces of the car rip apart, but that is exactly what it is designed to do. Pieces of the cars littering the track mean that the cars were losing velocity.

Finally, enough cannot be said about the AMR safety team, the quickness and thoroughness of the response – amazing. There were four cars and drivers spread throughout the distance between Turn 2 and Turn 3. There was a huge debris field, and there were cars actively driving through the race track (they did quickly red flag the race, which was an excellent decision). The AMR team responded perfectly as they have been trained to do, and I am always in awe when I watch them work.

Before we look towards the future and what should happen afterward, let’s remember that four out of five drivers are awake, alert, and moving under their own power(*).  Besides a lot of stiffness and soreness, no one else was seriously hurt – and at one point Wickens’ car was spinning above RHR’s car so close is sheered the top camera pod off. Also, the race continued, they fixed the track and cars got back out on it. Why? Because the safety things in place really did their job. Now the series needs to determine what to do moving forward. 

Next Steps

Safety is always advancing in this sport. After something like this, there is always such a call for immediate changes, but safety doesn’t work this way, and when a change to safety is forced it may result in unintended consequences. I recently finished the book “Black Noon” which discusses the lead up to the 1964 Indianapolis 500 and the issues surrounding that race, which was the first time they red flagged an Indianapolis 500. Sometimes its things that we as fans can see (such as the windscreen and all the testing we’re watching) and sometimes it’s not. I would recommend the documentary “Yellow, Yellow, Yellow” which follows the Homaltro (now AMR) safety team. Besides discussing the layout of the team and what all they have to do, it also discusses the off-season and all the testing that happens in the offseason. If I can offer the next steps it would be: safety is always evolving. They are working on the windscreen and the protection that will provide. The SAFER barrier has already gone through one evolution and now I imagine the catch fence is the next thing to undergo heavy changes. 

Finally, I feel the need to comment on the debate raging on the internet who should and should not be providing information. I think it’s simple in cases like this the order is (in the appropriate hierarchy): the individual’s family, the medical staff involved (meaning personnel from the hospital), the individual’s team, or the sanctioning body. We as internet users, should only retweet or share things that are official. Someone saying they heard it – not shareable. Someone said they heard it directly from someone in that list, and named the source, shareable. Why you ask? Why does it matter if someone heard something and you share it without any sort of verification, meaning the person shares their primary source? Things get really frantic after something big like this happens. Misinformation gets out, people hear one thing but misheard it or misunderstood it. I spent the race sitting next to a nurse with critical care and trauma experience (aka my amazing co-host) and she and I had many conversations in hushed tones because of the experience she had…but you probably didn’t notice we didn’t tweet anything out about it – because as great as she was…she didn’t have any firsthand knowledge(*).

The need for information is real and desperate in the moments after an event. Sitting in those stands during the red flag, all we wanted to know was what was how were the drivers doing. We saw four out of the five exit their cars under their own power, but about thirty minutes post-crash we had only heard from two out of the five. Abby will have an amazing perspective on this and we’ll post and link when it’s available but here’s the deal: it takes time. Any emergency procedure takes time. We’ve discussed that my father had double-lung surgery, and at the time he briefly mentioned that within six hours after his surgery he had emergency surgery afterward. From the time I got the phone call from my mom calling me back to the hospital till my father went back into the OR room, two hours passed. This was him already in the hospital where everyone had a good idea what the problem was. Talking with Abby this past week I asked her what all happens when someone is brought into an emergency room following something like a bad car crash and here was the list of what needs to happen:

  1. Physical assessment which includes reflexes, neurological check (involving sensation, pulses, movements, following commands, and answering questions like “where are you”)
  2. Doctors and nurses physical and visually inspect all of the body 
  3. X-rays are taken (even if they were somewhere else) 
  4. CT Scan and MRI happen (it will take 45 minutes for a full-body MRI) 
  5. All the scans and x-rays must be read by a radiologist 
  6. Then consults happen which may include trauma surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, neurosurgeon, and an intensivist

It’s not something that happens within twenty minutes, it’s at least two hours. 

Gateway is coming up quickly, we’ll be on the road Thursday evening for St. Louis, but as we celebrate another great racing opportunity I know everyone who loves this sport will continually be sending love and thoughts and prayers to Robert Wickens’ and his loved ones around him.  

Thanks for reading, and hope to see some of you at Gateway. Say ‘hey’ and if you want to chat more about this in person I would love to do that. 

* Quick note, don’t dog Hinch for not wanting to speak to the media or being on social media. Think about your best friend, they were in a crash with you, you don’t know how they’re doing, and people want to have a serious conversation with you or have you answer questions about how you’re feeling – not the right time

* I do want to point out, without showing you the proof, she was right    



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