Sometimes good things do come in small packages. Or in this case, boxes.
A 2-pound box, roughly 4 inches long by 4 inches wide and 2 inches high, could revolutionize Winston Cup racing. Bring it into the 21st century, where it belongs.
This device will provide crucial data to assist engineers in building safer race cars and, eventually, vehicles for consumers. It also will help scientists understand the effects of extreme g-forces on a driver's body.
For nearly a decade, this technology to analyze accidents in auto racing has existed. General Motors tested these accident data recorders (ADRs) before the United States Auto Club approved their use in Indy cars for the 1993 Indianapolis 500. A year later, the boxes were made mandatory in CART races.
That was seven years ago.
Last week, as part of NASCAR's great safety reformation, president Mike Helton announced that ADRs will be installed in all Winston Cup cars -- and in Busch Series cars and NASCAR-sanctioned trucks -- by the beginning of next season - 2002.
The obvious question: Why did it take NASCAR so long? The answer has been debated many times since Dale Earnhardt was killed in February at Daytona, and there's no need to carry it any further.
No, a black box in the car would not have prevented Earnhardt's death. But if these boxes had been in Cup cars even two or three years ago, chances are the cars would be safer right now, and that some of the drivers who were killed still would be here.
Finally, at its own speed, NASCAR is moving ahead. The sanctioning body is conducting a study to determine which type of ADR best fits the needs of drivers, teams and its three major series.
Will NASCAR go with a self-contained box that could run on a five-year battery, or a box that relies on the car's electrical system to function? How long should the box record information? Should the box record only the initial g-spike data, or should it be multifunctional and calculate every hit on every position of the car?
"Part of the problem is if competitors are trying to use them for their advantage," says Winston Cup director Gary Nelson.
That has been NASCAR's greatest concern in delaying the implementation of ADRs -- that teams might gain an unfair advantage by rigging the boxes to acquire data that would boost performance. NASCAR allows teams to use telemetry, but only during testing sessions. Sensors are placed all over the car so that data about tires, shocks, fuel mileage and much more can be collected and analyzed.
Now NASCAR officials must decide the type of data that should be gathered to reconstruct an accident without giving teams the means to use their own applications through the sensors.
NASCAR officials are concerned that some teams already have sensors in their cars during races, and one engineer says he receives 30 calls a week from parties who want to discuss traction control.
But NASCAR shouldn't be paranoid about teams incorporating high tech bells and whistles into ADRs. Scott Badenoch, manager of vehicle performance for Delphi Automotive Systems, says there are alternatives.
"If NASCAR doesn't want microchips in the cars -- and these devices are microchip-laden -- we can make the box completely separate from the cars so it is totally self-contained and on its own power," Badenoch says. "It's better. It's more economical. And we can avoid the problems Robby Gordon had where the (TV box's) battery caught on fire if we run it off the car's battery."
Delphi's primary interest, says Badenoch, is occupant safety. It makes air bags and auto sensors, and it has an acceleration sled and can do high-horsepower computerized data analysis.
"Last week, we performed seven crash simulations for NASCAR just to make sure we did everything right with the design (of the box)," Badenoch says. "We had a dummy the size of Jeff (Gordon). We tried it with the HANS, without the HANS. We tried it with the Humpy bumper. We tried all these things and gathered data to understand what we could do to improve occupant safety.
"That's just the first step because we can completely reconstruct these accidents and break them down. We're working together with NASCAR to create the safest racing."
NASCAR hired Joe Garone, former general manager of PPI Motorsports, to head its new technology center in Conover, N.C. One of Garone's first tasks, in addition to assembling a staff, will be the selection and implementation of the black boxes.
"The ADR won't make the cars safer, but it will give us data to see the actual loads placed on a car," Garone says. "It's all about building a database so when the cars hit a barrier, we can make them as safe as they can be. And it gives us something after a crash to study the loads."
Because no ADR was in Earnhardt's car, it cost NASCAR an incredible amount of time and money to recreate the crash.
That shouldn't be an issue beginning next season. Now NASCAR has its choice of boxes. Badenoch says a basic box can relay how fast the car is decelerating forward and how fast it is turning sideways and up and down. And it can gather yaw rate (a car's deviation from its intended course) at vehicle speed.
A more sophisticated box, which can provide data on what the driver experiences at the time of the crash, throttle position, brake position and steering, would require external wiring from the car. That, NASCAR worries, might allow teams to take advantage of the system.
With the boxes used in Formula One, engineers can record what happens 20 seconds before and after a hit, a system that probably is more sophisticated than NASCAR needs.
But simply being able to record the g-force spike, which can be done with the basic box, will give engineers a baseline for improving safety.
The hardware is ready to be installed. Let's move forward with the decision.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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