Race car drivers don't set out to be collectors of crash data. Minivan drivers don't think about track safety while backing out of the garage.
But automakers are using race crash data to improve safety in passenger vehicles. At the same time, technology from production cars is helping at race tracks.
Safety is one of the few areas where there still is a link between race cars and production cars. Other bonds, such as direct links to production cars, have been broken as racing series move to common engine and body specifications and a ban on advanced electronic controls.
NASCAR engines still use carburetors, which disappeared from road cars years ago, said Pete Spence, former director of Toyota Racing Development.
On the other hand, open-wheel race cars use high-tech materials such as carbon fiber bodies and ceramic brakes that are too expensive for virtually all production vehicles, he added.
But using crash data recorders in several race series has given automakers the tools to make racing and production vehicles safer.
Ford Motor Co. and auto supplier Delphi Corp. supply data recorders for race series.
Delphi can take data from a crash recorder and work with them at the company's safety test center in Vandalia, Ohio. The center has a hydraulic test sled that can generate a force equivalent to two Boeing 747 jets at takeoff.
One area of emphasis at the test center has been how crash forces affect a person's head and neck, said Glen Gray, manager of racing technology. Rapid neck movement was cited as a primary cause of death for NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500 race in 2001.
In the Indy Racing League series, every driver is required to wear earpieces that include accelerometers to measure head and neck movement. If the force of a crash exceeds a predetermined limit, warning lights on the side of the car alert rescue workers to use extra caution when getting the driver out of the car.
"The military and other sports have come to us because they are interested in the g-loads and what affect they have on a person's head," Gray said.
The research has led to most racing series, including NASCAR, IRL and Champ Car to require drivers to wear head and neck restraints.
Limits on gear
But the challenge for automakers is to find ways to improve protection for occupants without using such devices as a head and neck restraint, said Priya Prasad, manager of safety r&d at Ford.
Prasad said using crash data from racing helped Ford develop side-impact airbags for cars.
"In racing, we saw that in side impacts a lot of the crash force went into the driver's shoulder," Prasad said. "That is a good path because the shoulder is very strong."
Race car drivers also benefit from a tight-fitting cockpit and cushioned helmet that limits body movement. So side-impact airbags were designed to fill the space between the door and body to limit movement and cushion the head, Prasad said.
Another lesson from racing is the importance of spreading crash forces over the body. Prasad said researchers noticed that even though race drivers were subjected to high forces from crashes, there were few chest injuries.
The reason, Prasad said, is because racers use a five-point safety harness to keep them from moving and to spread the crash forces.
That information has prompted Ford to research putting four-point seat belts into production vehicles to better protect occupants, Prasad said.
A four-point belt would have two straps across an occupant's chest, compared with the one strap of today's three-point belt systems. That would be a benefit particularly for older people, Prasad said.
But the key challenge is to design the belt system to be comfortable when worn and easy to use, Prasad added. It also would require new seat designs to ensure that an occupant doesn't slide under the belt in a crash, in a motion known as "submarining."
In this year's IRL series, Delphi is expanding its safety work beyond the drivers to include track safety workers.
The auto supplier tapped into technology used on production vehicles to protect rescue workers and improve performance.
Delphi equipped the rescue trucks used in the IRL with two cameras. One camera faces forward to view and record the crash scene. Workers watch the rescue later to critique their performance.
Another camera, similar to the backup cameras available on several luxury cars and SUVs, looks rearward to monitor rescue workers in the back of the truck. It also provides the truck driver with a view of the track as cars approach.
Delphi is developing a camera system for ambulances that will give doctors at the track's medical center a live view of the driver as he or she is being removed from the car and transported. That would help doctors better prepare to treat an injured driver, Delphi's Gray said.
But that system faces the challenges of reliably and securely transmitting those images wirelessly, Gray said.
Many race series already have video coming from in-car cameras for TV broadcasts. But the broadcaster pays to keep helicopters circling above the track to capture the in-car transmissions and relay them to the ground. Gray said that is an expensive system that Delphi is trying to improve.