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Engineers Receive Schwitzer Award

   The 36th annual Louis Schwitzer Award was given May 17 to the team of University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineers who developed the SAFER Barrier.

   Dean Sicking and Ronald Faller headed the team of engineers. John Rohde handled the detailed design work, including the specifics of track installation and repair. John Reid was the team’s modeling expert, and James Holloway managed testing for the program.

   “The total emphasis is on driver safety,” Sicking said. “We put in thousands of hours with computer models and on the test track to develop a barrier that would decrease peak forces applied to the car by elongating the impact event, which allows the occupant restraint systems more time to operate optimally and reduce driver injury. We’re very pleased with how the SAFER Barrier has performed so far.”

   The Louis Schwitzer Award, named after the dynamic automotive pioneer, is presented annually in conjunction with the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. It recognizes those individuals with the courage and conviction to explore and develop new concepts in auto racing technology.

Making SAFER Races
Energy-absorbing wall used at Indy 500 race
by Kelly Bartling


     After more than three years of research and painstaking documentation of 20 crashes, researchers at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility were at Indianapolis Motor Speedway May 1 to see the first installation of an energy-absorbing wall. Their international breakthrough was announced at a news conference and featured in news reports around the globe.

     The barrier technology, used on the speedway turns for the May 26 Indianapolis 500, is a huge feat for the engineers at Nebraska.

     The technology is a wall safety enhancement that could make this dangerous sport safer, the UNL researchers said.

     “We’re trying to make impacts less strenuous on the drivers in the racecars and reduce the potential for serious injuries,” said Ron Faller, research assistant professor at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. Faller, facility director Dean Sicking and John Rohde, associate professor of civil engineering, were in Indianapolis to unveil the barrier in the much-anticipated announcement just weeks before the Indianapolis 500 race.

     The barrier system, named SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) by the Indy Racing League, works as an energy absorber, dissipating the impact energy and distributing it over a longer distance of the wall without propelling the vehicle back into the high-speed traffic. The system has an outer steel skin formed with structural steel tubes welded on top of one another to form an impact plate. Underneath is as much as 14 inches of energy-absorbing plastic foam in polystyrene blocks spaced behind the steel skin to absorb the impact.

     “The overall wall system is designed to attenuate some of the kinetic energy coming in from the impacting vehicle and mitigate the severity of the crash had it contacted a concrete wall,” Faller said. “The impact should be less severe when it contacts our energy-absorbing wall.”

     The project began in January 1999 when IRL officials asked the roadside safety group to assess the high-density polyethylene barrier then in use at Indianapolis. From there, UNL engineers created an alternative design using the steel-on-foam technology and IRL asked them to continue with the prototype and test the design. While the engineers were in the design and testing phase, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt was killed in a wall-impact crash, increasing public interest in the technology. NASCAR officials had earlier joined in the development and research.

     Faller said 20 vehicles have been crash-tested at the facility’s test site at the Lincoln Municipal Airport. The tests included 12 race cars—including Winston Cup cars and open-wheeled Indy-style race cars—at speeds of as much as 150 miles per hour at varying impact velocities and impact angles against the new energy-absorbing barrier and regular concrete barriers, which were used as control measures. The data from the tests were analyzed and provided to IRL and NASCAR officials.

      Jim Holloway, a research associate engineer of civil engineering and the crash site director, oversaw all 20 crashes and the data collection and management on each.

     “We’re studying the forces out there, the dummy data and then all the photography during the wall impact,” Holloway said. “Whenever you’re developing a product to make it safer, you have to have data. And of course in real races they don’t equip these vehicles with high-speed cameras nor the number of accelerometers used in our crash-testing program.

     “That’s exactly what these tests are for, to prove the benefits of our system.”

     Holloway and the safety facility’s team of more than 30 engineers and staff used as many as 18 high-speed cameras operating as fast as 500 frames per second to capture every split second of the crash impacts.

     “These impact conditions are critical because in order to do a comparison you must have similar impact conditions, with the angle, the speed and the weight of the vehicle, to compare,” Holloway said.

      Actual cars costing as much as $200,000 were used in the final phases of the research.

     “This is from the Penske team, it’s the No. 2 car with driver Rusty Wallace,” Holloway explained at a test in April. “It’s a real car and was racing this year. We need to know structurally the strength of the car, is it one that they’re using now, has it had safety improvements … that all becomes a factor in this testing.”

      The energy-absorbing barrier design can be modified between races to accommodate different race car styles, open-wheeled and stock, which is important because some racetracks run different styles of cars on the track on different weekends. The design allows track operators to add or subtract layers of foam depending on the car style. The track operators did the installation, which was checked May 1 by the UNL roadside safety team. The SAFER system may be under consideration for use at other racetracks throughout the United States.


Midwest Roadside Safety Facility crew members conducted two sets of crash tests at the Lincoln Municipal Airport prior to installation of the SAFER barrier system at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

During the first test, a concrete wall with no support was used.


Researchers examine the first car before it was crashed.


A car crashes into a concrete wall without SAFER technology during the first crash.

Researchers look at the first car after it was crashed.



The SAFER wall, built by UNL researchers, was tested in the second round.


A car crashes into a concrete wall with SAFER technology.


Researchers study the second car, which was driven into a wall featuring the SAFER technology.

Safety facility director Dean Sicking discusses the crash test results with onlookers.
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