Though these improvements have had a dramatic impact in the upper levels of the sport, safety is still lacking in many entry levels of racing, putting young and inexperienced racers at risk.
That will be the focus of the Youth Safety Conference, a new addition to the Safety and Technical Conference. The program is part of this week's International Motorsports Industry Show (IMIS), which takes place from Dec. 1-3 at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis.
The Youth Safety Program sponsored by the IUPUI Motorsports Engineering Program on Friday, Dec. 3, at the Indiana Convention Center will be led by Dr. Terry Trammell, who has more than 35 years of experience in medical service in motorsports and is a partner in Orthopedics Indianapolis, Inc. Trammell will lead the seminar and has assembled a panel of experts to present basic information about the need for and function of personal safety equipment for the novice racer.
"The reason for doing it is I felt there was a need to be able to explain to new racers, not just the very young, but the novice as well about the need and function of personal driver safety equipment," Trammell said. "I have noticed and taken care of people that really didn't understand what was available to protect themselves or why it worked or why it was necessary. Some of the comments that were made was this stuff is expensive but put it in the context this stuff is a whole lot cheaper than a trip to the emergency room and that is if nothing is really wrong.
"The real goal of the symposium is to change the future of safety in motorsports and the only way to change that is to educate the youthful driver so the attitudes and practices that promote safety are adopted today to so they carry them forward into the future."
There is no question the sport has gotten safer at the top levels and that has led to an atmosphere where people forget that auto racing is still a dangerous sport.
"When the FIA Institute for Motorsport Safety was formed the open cockpit group used to be laughed at saying we were spending millions of dollars to protect 22 people," Trammell recalled. "That is really what we were doing. The focus in that group was to drive it down -- get it down to the masses where there are lots more people and they are really exposed to a lot higher risks because the safety standards aren't as high. The thought is if you are only going 125 mph you aren't going to get hurt. Well, try that on the highway.
"What we intend to do is make it so when [young drivers] walk out of this -- especially their parents -- that if they spend the money on a proper-sized helmet it will cost less than the deductible for going to the emergency room or worse if you have a permanent injury. That goes from the head to the toes whether it be proper fire equipment, to how you pick your gloves -- not because they are gloves but how they work."
But that certainly doesn't diminish the costs for drivers and families looking to make racing safer.
While an adult racing helmet cost ranges from $800 to $1,000 the new youth helmet from Bell Helmets costs about $1,500 because it is carbon fiber and cannot be made from the same mold as the adult-sized helmet. Ten years ago, a HANS Device cost $1,500 but has come down a little in price since its introduction. A firesuit can cost $1,000 because it has to be made to fit the child, since an oversized firesuit does not provide proper protection.
Though the costs of keeping young drivers safe can be high, that has not seemed to detract from the popularity of smaller, entry-level series.
"It is expensive, but there was no lack of participation at these karting events or quarter-midgets. They are full house," Trammell said. "There aren't five kids racing, there are 50. There hasn't been a reduction in the number, but I don't think there is any more awareness in the risk."
A true proponent of racing safety, Trammell is a leading innovator in the care of massive injuries that have been suffered by drivers since he began 35 years ago. Trammell once said the two most determined patients he works on are race drivers and farmers. Both types of patients are known to suffer severe injuries, but their livelihoods depend on a rapid recovery.
"The horrible foot and ankle injuries that we had in the late 1980s and early 1990s all of those guys went back to racing or doing something and a lot of people with similar injuries wouldn't be walking because they wouldn't exert the effort," Trammell said. "The race driver mentality is tell me how long it is that I can get back in the car and will it work well enough to drive. The farmers are the same way because they plant in March and plow and plant. It doesn't matter; they have to do it so make it to where they can."
Dr. Trammell is also the man who saved four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears from having both feet amputated after the driver shattered them in a crash at Sanair Speedway in St-Pie, Quebec in 1984. The bones in Mears' feet were so shattered and small that Dr. Trammell described the reconstruction of the bone fragments like "stringing together beads." After the procedure, Mears went on to win two Indy 500 titles.
"Rick Mears was the first. What they wanted to do was amputate his feet," Trammell said. "That was the first outing and it just got worse from there how badly damaged can you be?
"The record holder for having things that looked the least like feet that I've ever seen is Davey Hamilton (an IndyCar driver who crashed into the fence at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001). There was nothing that resembled a foot at all when we started. Medically, it evolved to a real subspecialty and group that learned now to do it so now we have people that are expert at taking mangled feet and salvaging them."
Prior to that, a race driver with a badly shattered ankle or foot injury often had the bone fused together.
"They just didn't work," Trammell said. "Doctors took the attitude of let's see what happens. If it falls off, it falls off. There was no reconstructive focus. The technology wasn't there. Mears injury was in the 1984 and 90 percent of what took place with him was from hand surgeons. Nobody was doing that with the lower extremities. It was just beginning. The hand surgery people were much more skilled at reconstructing a badly mangled hand. They had lots of experience with it. The only thing that was different was we did it to the foot."
It used to be said that "You could pick an IndyCar driver out of a crowd by their limp." That has changed dramatically over the years.
"The cars have gotten much, much better over time," Trammell said. "In the 1992 Indianapolis 500 we had nine guys in the emergency room with extremity injuries from that year's 500 with two drivers already in there from practice. We had a full house and that is when the focus turned to stopping it. General Motors got involved and John Melvin tasked us to make it go away. So that started the real crash research in motorsports with the sled up in Warren, Michigan and the sanctioning bodies came along after Ayrton Senna got killed that we had to have an organized scientific approach to this. With the new IndyCar chassis at Dallara, they coming to us for the first time and having the doctor and the engineer asking how to get the car to work, where they want the driver positioned and the chassis and the padding and where you want the bulkheads -- things we have been talking about for years that have slowly evolved out of necessity, now they are giving us the opportunity to design it and then build the car around the driver. That is the opposite approach to how they did it in the past and made no accommodation for the driver size or anything else.
"Tony Cottman of IndyCar and Dallara and the people we are working with are taking the approach that we have this research and now it's how to build the car around the driver to make it safer."
As the NFL has taken a renewed interest in concussions, the Youth Safety Conference will also address that issue.
"At the lower levels of racing, there are a lot of things about concussions that are just coming to light," Trammell said. "You don't have to be unconscious to be concussed. A lot of football things with concussions and the ease they are occurring, a lot of that will be covered in the symposium because Jeff Horton is the chief of engineering for the IndyCar Series and has sons that play football. He took their football helmets and equipped them with some of the ear accelerator that we used for the drivers to see what the kids were generating and he noticed that any time their head loads got high from just regular play, the next few days they were wandering around in a daze and their school work suffered. These kids had concussions.
"One of the things that Dr. Steve Olvey is doing right now at the University of Miami is he took all the Hurricanes and instrumented their helmets and recorded to the sideline. When they hit their threshold it recorded on the sidelines and they came up with incredible information how hard these kids hit each other with the head loads. Now, that information is drifting down the scale so the parents are the ones you have to educate. If your kid comes off the field with this blank look on their face and think it's Tuesday when it is actually Saturday you have a problem.
"You have to know what to do with the problem and unfortunately a lot of pediatricians don't know anything about this and how to deal with it. Even the emergency rooms are not up to speed with the current information unless they are in a big center somewhere."
Trammell believes a proactive approach must be made to safety to keep the sport in existence. He wants to see the sport police itself rather than have the government or the insurance industry get involved.
"We've done a great amount of work and have remarkably improved the safety of the sport the last 20 years but it has to continue," Trammell said. "But that improvement is at the top level for the IndyCar drivers and the NASCAR drivers but how it has been disseminated to the lower levels is trickle down.
"You don't play baseball without your own glove. You don't go barehanded trying to play. That has to be the mentality to go play. You don't go racing unless you have the gear. The mindset that I'm not going that fast I don't need this. But if you are around fuel it is inevitable that the fuel is going to burn sooner or later and somebody is going to get burnt. There was a kid in his own go-karter, flipped it upside down on the tires and the fuel tank dumped and it caught fire and he was critically burned. He just had on a nylon jumpsuit that looked cute because nobody ever catches fire in a go-kart.
"If you think it might happen it probably will."
"I think it's been great for our sport to see the comparisons drawn to other sports that have been able to link together multiple championships. It's been awesome, a ton of fun. I could use some sleep, no doubt about that. It's been a busy two days. I'm looking forward to getting home, eat some turkey, hang out, and wear the couch out." -- NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on the media blitz after winning his fifth-straight title.
It's Jimmie Johnson's turn to be the headline act in Las Vegas when he is honored at Friday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champions Awards Ceremony for his record fifth-straight title.