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  • Philippe de LESPINAY

Racing Goes Safer on Missionary Work

August 22-24, Worldwide Technology Raceway, at Gateway Motorsports Park


The second annual Vintage Indy Registry event "Open Wheel Icons" (run in conjunction with the #IndyCar race), gathered 28 circle-track racing cars of a wide spectrum of types and racing eras, mostly Indy type cars from the 1920s to the late 1990s. This was an opportunity for me to bring and drive my fearsome 1972 Eagle- Offenhauser turbo, a sister car to the one that set pole at that year’s “Indy 500”, setting a new qualifying speed a full 18 mph faster than the previous year, a record that will likely stand forever.


My volunteer crew with 1952 Indy-500 winner’s daughter, Toddy Ruttmann on left.

The weather was rather clement for this time of the year, while rain had been predicted but only fell on Thursday morning, not hampering the process. Humidity levels were also quite reasonable. After making sure that everything was well with my car, as its complex fuel and oiling systems require a long pre-starting procedure before being ready to operate, I was able to inspect the other cars and talk to several of their owner-drivers, making note that a very small number of them was using any kind of a frontal head restraint device. Several were also wearing frankly inadequate personal fire protection, while others had multiple-layer, SFI rated suits, but often with inadequate underwear such as cotton/polyester tees under their suits. Inadequate shoes and gloves were also being used by some.


Now, vintage Indy and circle-track racing cars are not driven at full speed, and the organization imposes speed limits on their events, controlled by hand-held radar guns. But as we have seen in recent incidents, it does not take much speed to create accidents in which the drivers were frankly lucky to escape with only a few broken bones, while destroying historically important machinery.


Vintage Indy Registry’s management strongly favors improving the passive safety of the drivers, and have benefited from our own advice in this regard since 2016, encouraging us in our mission of persuasion to enhance the drivers’ personal protection against not only the very high fire risk (most of the cars burn methanol), but also against heat stress and the possibility of basilar skull fracture even at relatively low speeds, under 100 mph.

It has also been a mission of mine to discourage the use of any racing suit bearing the SFI 3.2A/1 rating, because even with adequate underwear, the time for third-degree burn to the skin is simply too short to allow a fire crew to reach a car on fire and a driver in distress. Vintage Indy Registry is actively working on improving their own safety regulations, and we are grateful that they are actually, good listeners.


28 Indy and sprint cars on the grid, with AAR-Eagles in the front row.

I was at least able to demonstrate to a good number of (mostly older) racers, the poor permeability of their own garments and the consequences of such (heat stress illustrated by a high level of perspiration), encouraging and persuading some to shop for better stuff.

Fire resistance of some of the garments I saw, are also in question. As an example, I was shown a $30, supposedly “Nomex” shirt (the wholesale cost of the actual material by Dupont to the garments manufacturers exceeds that price!), marketed by a company that is rather popular in oval-track racing circles, and of which I was able to cut off a small piece of excess material, which I promptly set ablaze with my lighter (I carry a small lighter and small tweezers in my took kit, just for such demonstrations). From looking at his facial expression while I demonstrated the total inadequacy of the garment from actual fire protection, I think that the shirt’s owner will be looking for something more adequate in the near future.


I was also able to meet with several of the paramedics working the track with American Medical Response, inviting them to join our foundation. We had a great conversation, in which they were wishing that they would be allowed more comfortable and permeable garments. I truly hope that they will.


The event itself went well, with only two notable incidents. In the first on-track session for the vintage cars, twice Indy-500 winner, Al Unser Jr., was driving a 1982 Eagle-Chevrolet when a serious oil leak from a failed crankshaft seal caused a catastrophic engine failure, but prompt action on the part of track management was able to red-light the track, so no one slid off into the outer wall from driving on the oily surface. The second incident was truly silly but shows how everyone must pay attention: a set of ear defenders was left on one of the car’s body, and dropped on the front straightaway as the car accelerated from its first slow lap under yellow. As other cars ran over the obstacle, pieces flew all over and yes, another red

light and another aborted session. The last session went very well with no further incident, allowing me to exercise our own machine that ran beautifully.


10-time “Indy-500” racer John Martin, Chuck Jones, two-time “Indy-500” winner Al Unser Jr. and Philippe de Lespinay

This is the second event I attended with this organization and I was impressed by their owners’ very open minds regarding our suggestions and their efforts to improve the safety levels to insure that such events will continue, incident free. We all hope so.

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