Through almost 30 years of racing nearly every type of car, through two victories at the Indianapolis 500, through spin-outs, crashes and broken bones, Gordon Johncock feared one thing above all else: fire.
He has seen friends die in explosive crashes, felt the heat billowing across the track when a high-powered car slammed into the wall and burst into flames, leaving drivers dead or severely injured.
But the renovation of on-board fuel-storage systems, now made of a thermoplastic elastomer inner bladder, surrounded by polyurethane foam and packaged in a composite outer shell, has limited drivers' risks and significantly cut the potential for them to die on the track.
``When we got the fuel [storage] cells, that was the biggest single safety improvement I've ever seen,'' Johncock said Feb. 11 during a panel discussion at the Society of Plastics Engineers Global Automotive Safety Conference in Auburn Hills.
While racing fans marvel at the speeds, and at drivers' abilities to control their vehicles in excess of 200 mph, plastics has moved further into the forefront in technology used to enhance performance and protect drivers.
``These new materials have saved a lot of lives,'' said Bill Riley, vice president and chief engineer of Riley-Scott Racing, an Indianapolis race-car production house.
Drivers and car owners alike are taking note of safety improvements, although it frequently takes a devastating crash to force a real change.
Robert P. Hubbard, a biomechanics professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and James Downing created the specialized ``head and neck support'' - known as the HANS device - following a racing fatality in the 1980s. Made with carbon fiber, fiberglass and aramid fiber, HANS provides a connection between the helmet and the restrained driver's torso. In a high-speed crash, a driver's body is kept in place by a seat belt, but without HANS, the head can whip around, leading to a fatal basal skull fracture.
Through all of the 1990s, Atlanta-based Hubbard/Downing Inc. sold 200 HANS units. But last year, when three drivers died of skull fractures - including racing legend Dale Earnhardt - interest skyrocketed, and the company sold 1,500 of the devices.
``Even though the HANS device 10 years ago was a good idea, they've got to decide it's something that they want to deal with,'' Hubbard said.
Composites are in place throughout most high-performance race vehicles. Formula One racing saw its first carbon-fiber monocoque in 1981, said Richard Jeryan, staff technical specialist in the safety research and development department of Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co.'s research laboratory. He works with Ford's Formula One group. Now body panels, wings and the tub - the central structure holding both the driver and the engine - typically are produced in a composite sandwich of carbon fiber and aluminum, with some competitors also using aramid fiber.
Only one major race group, NASCAR, still uses predominantly steel-body cars.
Composites allow race-car makers and drivers to weigh the need for speed with safety, Riley said.
``With something like carbon fiber available, it really helps because you have lightweight materials that also are very strong, so you can really balance it,'' he said.
Racing technology can affect the general public beyond the fan base, Jeryan noted. Seat belts, improved seat frames and tubeless tires made their debuts on the track. New materials, production and processing used for composites on race cars today can carry over to passenger cars.
``Racing is the place where technology has been brought to the front,'' he said. ``There is some remarkable safety that's been demonstrated on these cars, despite some rather significant crashes.''
Enerflex Solutions LLC of Troy, Mich., sells the same energy-absorbing polyurethane foams - Enerflex Extreme and viscoelastic IntelliSense - used to protect the occupants of both race cars and passenger cars, noted Mike Morelli, sales and marketing manager.
A crash on the race track still can provide vital clues to the way the systems will work in a sedan, he said.
Henry Ford and other early pioneers looked at auto racing as a way to test innovations for their vehicles, said Parker Johnstone, who won six national sports-car championships and now is a broadcast racing commentator.
``They believed that racing was the best way to develop for the real world,'' he said.
In the driver's seat
Lear Corp., a Southfield, Mich.-based auto interior specialist, makes millions of passenger-car seats annually, but also is a specialized producer of composite racing seats for Formula One and other race cars. Its carbon-fiber and aramid-fiber Apex seats are molded to each driver's body. While holding the racer in place during a crash, the seat also can be removed in an emergency with the driver still in it, with its rigid form serving as a temporary back brace to keep the spine in place during transport.
With each crash, the company can learn how seating reacts in a collision, said Jim Masters, president of global engineering for Lear's seat systems division.
``These seats help [to] prevent injuries, as well as helping us learn from the track how to find ways to dissipate energy in any crash,'' he said.