IndyCar driver Justin Wilson clearly remembers the anxious thoughts rushing through his mind as he waited for help to arrive after his car went airborne in a qualifying crash at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last August.
“At first, I thought I was just winded badly and I thought it would go away and I would be able to continue driving,” said Wilson, who will drive for Dale Coyne Racing this season.
“But it didn't go away, so I pulled the car off and that's when it really sunk in that I was in trouble and this was serious. Nobody realized it because the car was still intact and it looked like I broke a gearbox or something. I wasn't panicked, but nobody was coming to help. I couldn't get out of the car, and I couldn't breathe, and I got a bit concerned. It was like someone had hit me over the back with a baseball bat and I sat there gasping for air.”
Wilson's car left the track at about 190 kilometres per hour as he exited turn one in Mid-Ohio, and then became airborne when it hit the lip of an escape road. The car then slammed back down after getting more than a metre of air. Three G-force spikes were recorded during the crash: the initial hit that threw the car into the air was 70 times gravity, the landing was 65 times gravity, and a second bounce was 50 times gravity, any of which could have caused the driver to break his back broken.
The English driver was diagnosed with a 50 per cent compression fracture to his fifth thoracic vertebra, which is between his shoulder blades. Wilson didn't need surgery to repair the damage because his vertebrate compressed evenly, and doctors determined it would heal with rest. His season was over.
Because of his 6-foot, 3-inch height, Wilson must sort of slouch inside the cockpit to make sure his head isn't too high. He hopes that a similar accident this year won't end in broken vertebrae, thanks to safety features incorporated into a new Dallara chassis that will run its first race later this month in St. Petersburg, Fla.
When it comes to vertical hits, the new chassis will be safer for most. The advances in back protection in IndyCar are the end result of about eight years of work by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Terry Trammell.
“If all my drivers were 5-feet, 8-inches tall and weighed 170-180 pounds, we could protect them. The problem is we get them all sizes, from really small to Justin [Wilson] who's sticking out of the car,” Trammell said.
“It takes about 20Gs vertically to break your back; if you weigh 70 kilograms and you fall one metre, which is about the height of a bar stool, and land square on your butt, you will break your back most of the time. So, it doesn't take much.”
IndyCar drivers have the late Paul Dana to thank for much of the safety features in the new Dallara DW12 chassis, after the driver volunteered to be the guinea pig for many of the tests used to come up with the new configuration. Dana died in an accident during warm up for the 2006 Indy Racing League season opener.
While the research has identified how much energy absorption is needed, being able to get the right thickness under every driver in the series proved difficult. While the old car didn't have room for enough foam to prevent serious injury in crashes like Wilson's for drivers taller than 5-foot 8-inches, the DW12 gives the safety team more leeway.
“The new car will have more room for foam in it, but not as much as we need in order to say it will prevent anybody from having this problem,” Trammell said.
“We know how much energy we need to absorb in the foam, and how much travel there has to be in it to do that. But we haven't been able to come up with the foam that will do that [for every driver]and not be too thick.”
The foam used is the same stuff that goes inside crash helmets.
The pressing problem is hard front-end hits, when back injuries can be caused by motion in the middle of the spine due to the way the drivers are strapped in the car. High-G front hits are the kinds of accident that often cause severe, career-threatening injuries.
After years of research, Trammell understands the mechanics so well in front-end collisions that when Penske's Will Power crashed into the side of another car in a high speed accident at California's Infineon Raceway in 2009, he correctly identified the vertebra affected by looking at the video and studying the data from the car. Dr. Trammell called the hospital and let the emergency physicians know what they were dealing with before the hospital had a chance to X-ray Power's back.
Vitor Meira also broke two vertebrae in a front end crash into the wall in the 2009 Indianapolis 500, while Bruno Junqueira fractured vertebrae so badly in a similar accident in the same race four years earlier that he needed to have titanium rods inserted along his spine to repair the damage.
Ironically, one of the reasons that spine factures have increased is advances in other areas of safety, especially the fact that a car’s chassis is much better at protecting the driver than it was two decades ago.
“It used to be that if you hit forward, you didn't hurt your back because it crushed your feet up into your knees,” Trammell said.
“The chassis never absorbed enough energy to get to your back. Probably the [reason for]so many spine fractures is that the chassis is so good now that we rarely see deformation of the tub, so we don't have those other kinds of injuries any more.”
While Trammell and his team are on the case, the drivers understand that no matter how hard IndyCar works to make things better for their backs, there's always a chance something will go wrong.
“My accident was a pretty strange deal where the car took off and landed and for whatever reason I broke my back doing it,” Wilson said.
“Hopefully, the new car will help that, but you can't fix everything. There is always something unforeseen that can happen and that's part of racing. There's just so much your body can take.”
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