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Safety innovations soften Brickyard's bite for drivers

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Saturday, May 25, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS — When rookie Conor Daly climbed out of his Dallara-Honda with only his ego bruised after hitting the wall in Turn 3 during practice for this year's Indianapolis 500, it was another example of how safe open-wheel racing has become.

After the 1973 Indianapolis 500 crash that killed two participants and a crew member, IMS officials were determined to avoid such a catastrophic incident.

So they implemented several changes — including soft walls, better helmets and smaller breakaway fuel tanks that were no longer installed near the cockpit.

Also, USAC officials reduced the amount of boost, slowing cars down 8 to 10 mph.

“As the qualifying periods went on, the true race fans didn't particularly care about how fast the cars were going,” IMS historian Donald Davidson said. “They only wanted good racing.”

Former speedway CEO Tony George helped launch the development of the SAFER (steam and foam energy reduction) barrier at IMS like the one that spared Daly serious injury.

“Tony George didn't get the credit he deserved for coming up with the SAFER barrier idea,” said 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones. “NASCAR picked up part of the tab, so they acted like they did it.

“We had these cars spinning in Turn 4 and coming off in the infield and hitting the wall. And that's when they started developing the soft walls.”

Regardless, the Brickyard, while still largely unpredictable and unforgiving, is significantly safer with the development of better engineered cars designed with aerodynamically improved packages that create far better grip, especially in the corners.

“The safety aspect of the sport has been a work in progress from the day I started,” Mario Andretti said. “You have to have a strong sanctioning body to enforce rules. It was something that unfortunately got our attention after a fatality.

“So much progress has been made over the decades and now year to year. It'll never be over. The fact that the sport has reached a certain level of safety insures the sport.

“It's important to show the sport can survive,” Andretti added. “The companies that spend millions of dollars to support this sport don't want to go to funerals. That in itself dictates a certain responsibility that we can be as safe as we can be.”

“The sport is 1,000 percent safer now,” said four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt, who owns the No. 41 Honda that will be driven by Daly in the 97th Indianapolis 500. “In the past, I'm not sure if Conor would have been able to race on Sunday.”

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