Indy car, 1996. Two short case studies, Jeff Krosnoff and Mark Blundell.
The 1996 Indy season had many spectacular incidents, but two stood out from all others, the death of rookie Jeff Krosnoff, and the escape of Mark Blundell.
Jeff Krosnoff was one of the upcoming stars of Indy car. An experienced racer, coming into Indy from five years in the Japanese Formula 3000 series, and three LeMans 24 hour races (2nd overall 1994). He began a successful racing career in 1983 and had graduated from UCLA with a degree in psychology in 1987. 1996 had been a difficult year for him. He was driving in an uncompetitive car, powered by rookie Indy engine maker, Toyota.
The accident occurred on the 92nd lap out of 98, at the Toronto Molson-Indy in Canada just after the start-finish line, at the fastest section of the track. The track was an 11 turn temporary street circuit. Coming down the straight at over 180mph (~290kph), Krosnoff made wheel to wheel contact with Stephan Johansson, flipping his car into the air. The car went airborne into the fence, a steel catch fence similar to the catch fences on the Calder Park Thunderdome. The car spun along the fence, disintegrating as it went, see right. The impact deflected the fence back far enough for the car to hit a tree behind the fence. The car continued along the fence, impacting a concrete light pole on the outside of the catch fence, although protected by a concrete barrier at track level. Krosnoff was killed instantly upon impact with the light pole, the front of the car shearing off and exposing his legs as the car disintegrated. The engine and transmission continued on past the incident and landed on another competitor, Emerson Fittipaldi, who escaped injury. Several spectators were hit with flying debris and a track corner worker, Gary Avrin, was killed. While a little unclear, the photo above, figure 42, shows Krosnoff's car at the moment of impact with the light pole. It also shows the length of straight over which the cars were able to reach such high speeds. The concrete barrier protecting the light pole and the corner workers can be seen in front of the catch fence. The race was halted due to the accident being so severe and close to the designated race end.
The CART safety team was on site quickly but could do little to revive Krosnoff who had suffered massive head, chest and skeletal injuries in the impact. He was pronounced dead on arrival to hospital. The CART safety team is acknowledged as one of the best in the world, consisting of 29 professional staff and six specialist vehicles that follow every race of the CART series. Three custom made fast response vehicles, a supply vehicle, a pickup fitted with a Lear jet engine to blow the track clean and dry, and a $1 million US mobile trauma and physical therapy unit on a semi-trailer, ensure the best possible chances for injured drivers. All the driver's medical records are kept in the medical centre to be instantly available wherever the race may be.
The Coroner's report into the accident directed blame at no individuals or organisations, but outlined a set of recommendations aimed at reducing the impact of a similar accident in the future. These recommendations included "additional debris fencing on barriers in designated locations around the track". The recommendation of debris fencing 'on' the barriers would avoid an object such as the light pole being able to be hit by an airborne car. The Coroner recommended that the corner workers were protected behind safety fencing in specially designed safety cut outs. This would have prevented the death of Gary Avrin, who was hit either by debris, or the car itself, a finding unable to be made by the Coroner.
The lucky escape of Mark Blundell earlier in 1996 in Brazil, was considered by many who witnessed it to be a miracle. While travelling at around 200 mph (300+kph), the brakes failed on his Pac-West Reynard Indy car on lap 10 of the race, putting him into the concrete wall without slowing down at all.
The track is one of the roughest and most treacherous circuits in the Indy calendar. The point where the brakes failed was at the entrance to a relatively slow corner, from one of the fastest points on the circuit. The cars need to take off 90-95mph before entering the corner. Had Blundell felt the brakes going before the corner, he would have stayed high on the track and merely slid around the wall. He, however, had no warning that his brakes had failed and had pulled out from the wall as he entered the braking area. When the brake pedal went to the floor with absolutely no effect, Blundell had a split second to decide how to take off some speed before the impact that was inevitable. The only option was to hit his teammate, Mauricio Gugelmin, who had already slowed for the corner. He aimed his car at Gugelmin, but missed. He tried to spin the car, but was carrying to much speed for the front wheels to grip. Blundell hit the wall at around 270kph, at quite a high angle. The black box recorder in the car was analysed after the accident and measured a peak deceleration of just over 100g.
As he sat in the car, helpless, as the concrete wall approached, Blundell thought his time had come. " I took my arms back, off the wheel, and folded them across my chest. I tucked myself down. I said to myself, ' I am not coming away from this, I am not coming away from this'. I was so aware of what was going on. The speed: I just could not believe that I would walk away. It was me and that concrete wall. I knew I was not getting out of this one…..'This is it', no other thoughts came."(Motor Racing Australia, p37). The impact came and went, the car came to rest and Blundell started to get light headed. He thought he was dying but refused to let it happen. He undid the seatbelt, stood up and climbed out of the wreckage. As he began to walk across the track, all of a sudden the pain of his shattered ankle reached his brain and he collapsed on the track, struggling to breathe from his badly bruised lungs. He then realised he was still alive. As he was being taken to the medical centre by the CART safety crew, his only thoughts were to tell his wife he was OK, and to tell his teammate that his brakes had failed. Blundell put the accident down "as one hell of a reality check". People who had been in the sport 15-20 years could not believe that he had survived the accident, let alone walked out of the wreck unaided.
The car disintegrated on impact with the wall, absorbing energy as it went. The speed of impact was substantially higher than that which killed Ayrton Senna, bit the angle of impact was slighter. The front wheel and suspension came around the side of the cockpit and punctured the fuel cell, the cockpit, already quite small, was two inches narrower than it should have been. The seatbelts, which were of world standard, had stretched four or five inches, a factor which would have reduced the peak deceleration on his body, although it would have exposed him to the risk of head injury on the front of the cockpit. The engine separated from the chassis and continued along the track, an unavoidable problem which leaves the car with less energy to dissipate, resulting in faster deceleration for the safety cell containing the driver, and thus subjecting the driver to even higher forces. This is, however, more desirable than the engine trying to crush the safety cell from behind. The chassis coped suprisingly well during the impact. Recent safety regulations had increased the strength of the safety cells that contained the drivers, especially the front section of cockpit, making the cockpit both roomier and stronger. A lot of work had been done to strengthen the front of Indy cars since the accident in 1995 on the first lap of the Indy 500, where Stan Fox, was left hanging off the front of his destroyed car. (See Figure below). "A new 'energy management device' to support the head and neck under massive force"(Sunbelt Indy program, p50) had also come in to the cars that very year. All of the above factors worked together in some way to save Mark Blundell.
In 1997 and 1998, Blundell used a special seat, one of the new regulations introduced in 1997. It meet all the requirements for padding alongside the drivers torso. It is made from kevlar and lined with compressed polystyrene and trimmed with fireproof NOMEX. The lining of the seat was almost identical to the lining of a standard crash helmet, protecting and supporting Blundell's back. This seat saved him from back injuries in a practice accident in 1997 when he slammed the concrete wall backwards at 140mph.