INDIANAPOLIS – When James Hinchcliffe slammed into a wall at more than 220 mph, he hit an energy-absorbing barrier that likely saved his life. One of auto racing's most important safety developments, its origins began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Tony George.
George watched replays of Hinchcliffe's accident and came to only one conclusion.
"That would have been just like Gordon Smiley if he had not hit a SAFER barrier," said George, referring to the fatal 1982 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying. Smiley was killed instantly when his car hit the Turn 3 wall and his body tumbled hundreds of feet across the track.
Hinchliffe wrecked Monday in almost the same spot as Smiley hit, only the concrete wall is now protected with a steel and foam barrier. His injuries were from a piece of the suspension breaking off and piercing his leg, rather than the trauma of an impact that registered at 125 Gs.
"He wouldn't be alive if not for the SAFER barrier," said 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan. "I really believe that."
Added Hinchcliffe team owner Sam Schmidt, who is a quadriplegic due to a 2000 crash at Walt Disney World Speedway: "I think that's the hardest impact we've seen here ... and, you know, to literally, walk away with no heart, no chest, no spinal cord, no bone breakage — it's pretty unbelievable."
SAFER barriers have been spotlighted following NASCAR driver Kyle Busch's crash into a concrete wall at Daytona in February. Busch broke his right leg and left foot, and returned to competition last weekend after missing 11 races.
Immediately after his accident, Daytona officials vowed to install additional SAFER barriers around the entire facility, and NASCAR began an inspection of all its national race tracks. Most will be installing additional soft walls by the end of the year.
NASCAR is often credited for the walls, but the series actually had a small role in their development and only after George's project was almost complete.
The project began in the late 1990s, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway created a safety committee. George's family has owned Indy since his grandfather purchased the dilapidated track after World War II and, while widely criticized by race fans for dividing open wheel racing, has always been quietly helping the sport.
George, who rarely grants interviews, recently joined IndyCar race director Brian Barnhart for a lengthy discussion with The Associated Press about the evolution of the SAFER barrier and IMS's role in the development.
George and Barnhart laughed at their memories of early prototypes and the comical testing practices they had — "We looked like the Clampets of 'The Beverly Hillbillies,'" Barnhart said. He recalled the first barrier system that went in for the 1998 Indianapolis 500, and how it didn't come into play until Arie Luyendyk crashed hard into the barrier during an IROC race that year.
Barnhart heard the impact and raced down to A.J. Foyt's suite, where the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner praised the barrier.
"A.J. said to me, 'I think your barrier just saved Luyendyk's life,'" Barnhart recalled. "Then he said, 'But there's (stuff) all over the track.'"
The impact had destroyed the barrier and littered the track with debris, leading the safety committee to deduce they had maxed out their ability to develop the wall. They turned to the University of Nebraska's Midwest Roadside Safety Facility for assistance.
"We realized the whole project was far and above anything we could deal with," Barnhart said. "So we got hooked up with the University of Nebraska and brought them as much information as we could with videos and examples and diagrams and told them what we wanted."
It took another four years of development and testing for the SAFER barrier to finally be finished, and it was installed for the 2002 Indianapolis 500.
The cost? "More than we thought," George said of a tab that ran into the millions.
It was money well spent, Barnhart said, and it took courage for George to install the walls.
"His decision to implement it and put it in for the Indy 500 in 2002 is one of the most important, critical and most difficult decisions," Barnhart said. "To implement something that at that stage was nothing more than a test for the biggest and greatest race in the world was full of risk. But it obviously has had nothing but upside and reward."
NASCAR wasn't on board with the project until that year, when a team of officials went with George to Nebraska to watch the walls tested with an actual stock car. Bill France Jr. attended the test and gave the project his blessing after witnessing the crash.
"It was already designed, developed, proven and paid for before NASCAR really approved it," George said. "They were approved by NASCAR for the Brickyard, and that's all. But once NASCAR came to that test, they stroked a check for half of what we'd invested in. When that stock car hit, that's when we had buy-in from Bill France."
George doesn't give an answer as to why he invested so heavily in the SAFER barriers.
"People argue today over who gets credit," he said, "who should get credit and who shouldn't get credit. It's obviously the efforts of a lot of people."
Ed Carpenter, his stepson and the only driver/owner in the IndyCar Series, doesn't believe George seeks credit or recognition for the critical safety element. Asked why George was committed to the project, Carpenter said the Hulman-George family has always been that way.
"It's been the culture of this facility, IndyCar, his family and what he is representing. Tony always feels a duty to do that," Carpenter said. "A lot of people give NASCAR credit for (the walls), but Tony would be the first to tell you it was everybody. Everyone worked together, and if it wasn't for NASCAR, it wouldn't be at all the tracks. Innovations like that, nobody needs credit. It's for the greater good, it helps everyone, and it's saved lives for sure."