Safety Improvements Timeline

For more than 100 years, fostering innovation and development in motorsports safety has been a priority for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s leadership and the teams and manufacturers that compete at IMS. Over time, many exciting breakthroughs have occurred and, despite the inherently dangerous nature of high-speed racing, many lives have been saved.

For example, the brick surface, one of the Speedway’s most treasured legacies that quickly lent the nickname “The Brickyard” to the venerable track when it was laid down in 1909, was installed in response to an acute need for greater safety.

When the original tar-and-crushed-stone surface proved too unstable during that first summer of racing in 1909, track co-founders Carl G. Fisher and James Allison took little time in deciding that paving bricks – more expensive but more robust than concrete – should be the surface of the future.

Another major innovation, for racing and the automobile industry in general, was crafted essentially out of necessity two years later. Ray Harroun and the Nordyke & Marmon team showed up for the inaugural Indianapolis 500 Mile Race with a single-seat car, the No. 32 “Wasp.” All other teams had two-seat cars which allowed a riding mechanic to be on board and serve as a second set of eyes. The cry went up that Harroun couldn’t see cars behind him, would therefore be a safety hazard when on track, and should be banned from the race.

Harroun and the team took a piece of mirror and framed it in steel, mounted it at the top of his range of vision, and what is believed to be the first rear-view mirror – in the history of both racing and passenger automobiles – was created.

Other “firsts” for racing that were perfected or came into being at IMS include the first use of a Pace Car (1911), what is believed to be the first mass rolling start of a race (1911), the first use of four-wheel hydraulic brakes (1921), the first installation of color warning lights (1935), the first mandatory use of helmets (1935) and the first use of crash-data recorders (1993).

As the 21st century dawned on the Speedway, arguably the greatest invention to protect drivers in a high-speed crash, the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) Barrier, was applied to the track’s four turns, in May 2002.

The SAFER Barrier (.pdf) is constructed in 20-foot modules. Each module consists of five rectangular steel tubes, welded together, to form a unified element. The modules are connected with internal steel splices, and bundles of 2-inch-thick sheets of extruded, closed-cell polystyrene are placed between the concrete wall and the steel tubing modules.

The barrier was developed by the Indy Racing League and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Midwest Roadside Safety Facility beginning in 1998. NASCAR joined in the development of the project in September 2000.

On Opening Day of the 2002 Indianapolis 500, the Speedway once again became the laboratory for real-life safety research and discovery. Robby McGehee became the first driver to hit the SAFER Barrier in practice. The severity of the crash could have resulted in serious consequences, but McGehee suffered only minor injuries. The barrier also was in place for the 2002 Brickyard 400 and United States Grand Prix, and every event since.

The SAFER Barrier was removed from the Speedway’s walls in August 2004 to make way for a complete repaving of the oval. A second-generation version of the SAFER Barrier was installed in spring 2005.

A timeline of Indianapolis Motor Speedway safety innovations and improvements:

1911: Inaugural Indianapolis 500 winner Ray Harroun employs what is believed to have been the first rear-view mirror on his No. 32 Marmon “Wasp.”

1911: Historians believe the 1911 Indianapolis 500 is the first time a pace car is used to bring the field to the green flag at a controlled speed, leading the pack for the first mass rolling start of a race.

1921: The Duesenberg Motor Company team, operated by Fred and Augie Duesenberg, introduces the use of four-wheel hydraulic brakes.

1925: Front-wheel drive is used at the Speedway for the first time on a privately-owned Miller entry, driven by Dave Lewis and Bennett Hill, that finishes second.

Early 1930s: Magnetic particle inspection (Magnaflux) of key safety-related components, such as steering shafts, is implemented.

1935: The first installation of colored warning lights (green and yellow) completed at the Speedway in time for the 1935 Indianapolis 500.

1935: Helmets are made mandatory, a first for motor racing. They were not required in European grand prix racing until 1952.

1936: First mandatory driver’s test is instituted, requiring that all new drivers show their skills at various speeds before they are allowed to practice for the “500.” The Rookie Orientation Program continues in the same spirit today.

1936: Inside concrete wall removed and safety aprons substituted.

1938: Pit wall constructed to separate crews’ work area from pit area, thus providing a safer working environment for crews during track activity.

1948: New emergency medical center constructed, expanded in 1972, and still in use today as the Clarian Emergency Medical Center with state-of-the-art trauma center equipment.

1957: Pit area is completely redesigned with safety in mind. A second wall is added, separating pit lane from the racing surface.

1959: All drivers required to wear fire-retardant uniforms, and roll bars are required on cars.

1964: New safety cable is installed on outer edge of entire track.

1965: Only methanol fuel – which is much less volatile than gasoline – is permitted in the Indianapolis 500. All cars are required to be equipped with a rupture-resistant fuel cell, and on-board fuel capacity is limited to 75 gallons. A minimum of two pit stops is required for each car (increased to three in 1968 and four in 1972).

1974: Onboard fuel capacity is reduced to a maximum of 40 gallons.

1979: “Packup” procedure established, whereby the Pace Car enters the track during cautions to regulate the speed of the field.

1991: Revolutionary energy-absorbing attenuator is added at pit entrance.

1993: Crash data recorders, developed by Delphi Automotive Systems, are placed in cars competing in the Indianapolis 500. This is the first application of this groundbreaking technology in motorsports.

1993: New higher outside walls and larger, higher safety fences installed. New warning strips and warm-up lanes installed.

1998: First version of PEDS Barrier (Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System) installed inside exit of Turn 4 in time for the 82nd Indianapolis 500. The wall consisted of 5-foot-long, overlapping impact plates made of polyethylene. Each plate contained two cylinders made of the same material and measuring 16 inches in diameter.

1999: The second-generation PEDS Barrier, PEDS-2, is installed inside the exit of Turn 4, replacing the PEDS Barrier. PEDS-2 contains an additional, smaller, polyethylene cylinder inside the original PEDS cylinder to add strength to the system.

1999: Debris fence added in North Pits, separating pit lane from grandstands and enhancing fan safety. Additional debris fence added south along pit lane in 2001.

2001: Race Control Camera System installed.

2002: Revolutionary SAFER Barrier energy-absorbing system installed in oval’s four turns, the first such installation in the world. The catch fence overhang is extended to approximately 5 ½ feet – the longest of any racetrack in the world.

2005: An updated version of the SAFER Barrier is installed around the Speedway following a comprehensive repaving of the 2.5-mile oval, pit lane and warm-up lanes in 2004.