By on June 24, 2013

Picture courtesy Canberra Times

When Allan Simonsen crashed his Aston Martin in the opening minutes of LeMans and lost his life, it was a brutal reminder of the fact that auto racing has not, despite the vast amount of intelligent effort put into safety and crash survival, lost its power to end a driver’s life.

The precise mechanism of, and reasons for, Mr. Simonsen’s death are not yet known. However, on Sunday night noted racing instructor Peter Krause shared a new article that delves into the risks drivers face and offers reasoned, intelligent explanations as to how these things happen.

Written by Dr. James Norman, Race Car Deaths: The Medical Causes of Racing Deaths with Examples and Resulting Race Car Improvements discusses how drivers are critically injured and how those injuries can be prevented. It’s worth reading, even if you aren’t particularly concerned with competition, because many of these injury mechanisms also occur on the street. If you want to know how people are killed behind the wheel, this will explain that without hyperbole.

Some of my racer friends are extremely upset at the fact that the barrier at Tertre Rouge was pretty close to a tree and that the LeMans course doesn’t really measure up to F1 safety standards even though the cars reach F1 velocities. They have a point, but I don’t think it will ever be possible to take the risk entirely out of wheel-to-wheel competition. Speaking frankly, I wouldn’t want them to… but I’m still above ground, and I still have my choices, don’t I?

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15 Comments on “After The Tragedy, Some Thoughts About Racing Injuries...”

  • avatar

    I went to read the article, but it’s hard to take a writer seriously when they misspell a famous persons name MULTIPLE TIMES (Filepe Massa should be “Felipe Massa”)

  • avatar
    Lotus Matt

    Just doing a very quick calculation…in 2012 the death rate in the US was 1.09 deaths for every 100million miles. Taking the total laps completed for all cars in this years Le Mans: 15,059, multiplying it by the length of the circuit (8.469 miles) and then multiplying it by 27 years (last death during the race was 1986) = 3,443,436 miles completed since the last death during a race. Which means that racing at lemans is about 27 times more dangerous than driving on the street in the US.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s why it’s done by professionals getting paid to assume the risk. Also why people pay to watch it. You wouldn’t make any money trying to sell tickets to watch people drive on the interstate. It doesn’t matter how vehemently they deny it, people watch racing for the potential dramatic wrecks.

      • 0 avatar

        I saw the assertion about watching for the wrecks repeated many times, and never substantiated. It is even obviously problematic by slipping in an agreed-upon definition of “people”. Is there such an entity, and if yes, how is it defined?

      • 0 avatar

        I strongly disagree with this opinion. True race fans recognize that the drivers, team members, and circuit workers are real people, with families, children, and loved ones, just like the rest of us.

        Anyone who says their enjoyment of a race was enhanced by watching a serious accident happen is f’d in the head, if you ask me. I’ll never forget the sickening feeling I got when Greg Moore was killed, and Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident was quite clearly life-endangering even as it unfolded. I still haven’t seen an explanation of the accident that took Simonsen’s life on Saturday and it’s amazing that Ant Davidson’s wreck last year (and McNish’s the year before) did not result in someone losing their life.

        Sorry, but I must invoke No True Scotsman here; if you watch racing for the wrecks, you ain’t no race fan, period.

        • 0 avatar

          To be honest, I suspect that plenty of non-race-fans may have watched racing as boys for the crashes (at which time they could only work on being true Scotsboys). Considering the attention span of boys compared to the frequency of crashes, this made them non-race-fans pretty quickly. Also considering the attention span, it also was unlikely to change their attitudes on why anyone would watch racing.

  • avatar

    I don’t want to make light of this tragedy, but when I raced in SCCA we all accepted an inherent risk to this sport.

    I have seen someone die on track and heard of others. These people signed up for an activity like road racing with full awareness of the risk. It happens.

    The last thing I want is for additional legislation to kill the sport. Whether it is by costly additional requirements or because it is no longer fun to drive around in a safety bubble on track.

    • 0 avatar

      I saw someone die on the street (not the actual event, but right after). It was very disturbing, even today when I think back on it. I have also had too many friends die in car accidents in recent years.

      I fully understand & empathize with those who want legislation to prevent such. But I also have an icy enough sense of logic to recognize unintended consequences & cost/benefit relationships.

  • avatar

    I’ve looked at the replays I was able to locate, and to me it appears to be similar to Earnhardt’s incident at Daytona. The Aston did not appear to be severely damaged, but the angle and velocity of the impact looked like a head and neck injury were quite likely. It will be interesting to see what the investigation reveals from the perspective of personal safety restraints.

    And, as far as removing all risk, I just can’t see that. When you choose to race, you know and accept the risks going in. Just like riding a motorcycle, you know that your chances of injury or death are higher than the norm, but if you enjoy it, you do it anyway. That’s how life is lived.

  • avatar

    Possible improvements (especially for the street side):

    1) Blunt Force Trauma:
    Racing: full racing cage. Accept no substitutes.
    Street: Mostly gone, but I don’t think that even modern side bolstering will stop a suburban from coming through the drivers side.

    2) Penetrating Trauma
    Racing: Crash a ton of solidworks models until nothing launches at the driver (I doubt the software is even available to your spec miata and club racer levels, and the models won’t exist for anything not custom fabbed).
    Street: Same as racing, but don’t expect inspections to spot things that change for the dangerous. Obviously, every carmaker should have all the models and run through the guantlet.

    3) Spinal Cord Injuries / Base of the Skull Injuries
    Racing: Hans device.
    Street: Um, nothing? No idea if they even happen without a helmet. As far as I know, it is illegal to wear a helmet while driving a car (important for 3 wheelers and atoms) due to hearing obstruction. HANS appear to need a helmet and plenty of harness support. I think it took 20 years to get US drivers to wear a seat belt. You aren’t even going to get Volvo drivers to wear a HANS on the street.
    Motorcycling: HANS won’t work, but there are attempts to make similar inflatable devices (no idea if this means “airbag like” or “HANS like”).

    4) Sudden Deceleration Injuries with Internal Organ Disruption.
    Street: Crumple zones. To a lesser degree airbags.
    Racing: Is anything being done? Everything I see about racing safety seems to be to lock the driver in position and build an invulnerable cage arround him. This is counter to everything I’ve seen about surviving shock events (google MIL-STD-810 for examples of shock survival engineering). If this is actually what they are doing (I really haven’t looked), it looks like time for either two nested safety cages (with shock mounting between them) or more likely shock mounting the drivers seat* with a similar shock mounting on the steering wheel. This is easier said than done if you wish to avoid hammering the driver’s head/helmet on the roof (and would likely limit racing to even shorter and shorter racers).

    * I’d assume some sort of breakaway parts that hold him in place so that he isn’t sliding around every turn.

    • 0 avatar
      George Herbert

      In california, I think it’s no helmets covering the ears for street use, but nobody offers those as they’d not be legal for competition. (This opinion not backed up by rechecking the actual laws, so accuracy not guaranteed…).

      I’d almost make one, or cut the ear area out of a race-spec helmet, to get HANS for the road.

  • avatar

    I take there were no air bags in the crashed AM.
    Wonder if AB would have alleviate his injury?

    Or still many race car drivers didnt want ABS to be turned on too?
    I personally find ABS can pump the prakes so many times whereas I would be lucky to react at all.

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