Track-blocking, multi-car accidents are not uncommon. Drivers need to maintain high attention. There are warning devices on the market to help escape serious problems.
Auto racing requires heightened awareness. The exhilarating speed pushes the issue of reaction time. Stationary objects become a blur when passed at high speeds. The world inside the cockpit of the car becomes very small. There may be trouble around the next bend and your senses need to pick up on it.
Tragic on-track incidents have again brought the need for safety to the forefront. In the minds of many, the idea of driver protection means better fire-retardant apparel, better seats and restraints, and helmets. There is a clear need for all that, but there is also a need to look at what's being done to prevent the accidents.
Some accidents are avoidable when there is proper warning. Drivers need to be alerted at the first possible instant. The instinct then kicks in to allow the driver to control his or her situation. More information means a greater likelihood of avoiding a crash.
The better-known systems of alerting drivers involve the senses of hearing and sight. One system utilizes a tone to alert the driver of an on-track incident. A second system calls for the activation of a cockpit-mounted warning light.
The purpose of this article is to educate, not endorse. Each system has its merits, and its use can be best determined by the user.
The Visual Side
The Race Safe System utilizes...
The Race Safe System utilizes an amber light on the dash to catch the driver's attention. Photo by Racing Electronics
Firsthand experience played a role in the development of the Race Safe System built by Rick Martell in Brewerton, New York. "I ran dirt Modifieds in the '70s and '80s and was piled up in an accident under caution," Martell says. "We knew something like this didn't have to happen. My brother is electronically inclined, so we starting working on a system. We finally got what we were wanting after two or three years of experimenting."
The Race Safe System utilizes a cockpit-mounted amber light. There is also a green light indicating power (early systems had a red light for the times the track conditions were red-flagged, but that is no longer used). Installation is simple and can be completed in minutes. Some drilling will be necessary to mount the system, which comes fully charged.
After developing the system, Martell approached Glenn Donnelly of DIRT Motorsports about utilizing the system. The forward-thinking Donnelly put the system to use in those cars. The series now utilizes warning systems of the individual tracks for its tours.
For the 2003 season, the ARCA RE/MAX Series has made the Race Safe System mandatory for all competitors. Bruce Silver of Racing Electronics was contacted by the sanction to find a warning system. "I've been familiar with Race Safe for about 15 years because of the DIRT Modifieds," Silver says. "We're the official communication service of ARCA, so they asked for information or advice. We're there at the races, so we'll help provide the service."
"We had to create a market because it wasn't there," Martell says of the start. "A lot of people said we didn't need it. I've seen tapes of people getting hurt or getting killed because of accidents under caution. We did need it."
Much of the attention has been directed at the individual tracks, and facilities using the system read like a "Who's Who" of short track racing. Some tracks make it mandatory, while others are only willing to suggest drivers make the commitment. The cost of the individual system has been kept low despite the fact they are not mass produced. Racers can expect to pay $399 for a unit.
Photo by Racing Electroni...
Photo by Racing Electronics
"It works best when everyone has it," Martell says. "If your light comes on, you may be reluctant to back off for fear the guy behind doesn't have a light and may plow into you. The systems are guaranteed for a year. In some of these cars, you're going to spend $1,000 or $1,500 fixing crash damage that you might have been able to avoid with the system."
Martell holds patents on the system, which has led to legal battles, including an ongoing suit with a corporate rival. The chips are programmable to flash or remain steady, set to the desires of the safety coordinator. The current ARCA system flashes for five seconds, remains lit for 20 seconds, and then is turned off. The newest lights use a display of 13 LED segments that are four times as bright as before while taking little draw from the battery.
Martell has heard the criticism of stray signals and inadvertent triggering of the light. "You can't get a fault trigger. The light won't come on unless we trigger it. I've had people tell me they could trigger our system, but nobody has been able to do it because they can't. Our transmitter is the only way to turn it on."
The transmitter in race control can also activate lights in the pace car, safety vehicles, or portable beacons to supplement the track's caution lights. Martell offers a program to provide the tracks with the transmitter at no charge.
Martell is an auditory specialist by trade, but chose to go with a light rather than a sound to alert drivers. "It can be too noisy in a race car," he says. "Sometimes it's so loud the driver can't hear the radio-and he may also have someone talking in his ear, like a spotter. When I was driving, I could never hear when under acceleration."
Even though Racing Electronics specializes in verbal communication equipment, they understand the ambient noise factor. "We've had to develop special headsets to help the drivers hear inside the cars," Silver says."The ambient noise can be a factor in a driver's performance."
The Audible Side
David Skeen developed the idea of an audible driver-safety system while working with the Invader Super Vee team in the late '80s. This car had a system that allowed engineers to monitor gauges through the use of audible tones. During the running of an open-wheel race in 1991, Skeen witnessed a driver going completely around the course to become involved in an accident that had happened just behind him on the previous lap. It gave him the idea that a driver warning system was needed.
The Audible Alert System, marketed through Invader Technologies of Morrison, Colorado, was developed and patented, with extensive testing done at Colorado National Speedway. "We wanted to make sure this system was going to work," Skeen says. "There have been plenty of accidents that could have been avoided and lives could have been saved. We wanted to get a system that had value to a driver sitting in a race car, because that's the life that can be protected. It's something that should have been out 20 years ago."
Efforts are underway with sanctions and racetracks to implement the Audible Alert system. The system was also tested by the PPI Motorsports Winston Cup team of Cal Wells III.
"Ricky (Craven, PPI driver) thought it had potential, and everyone that Audible Alert has come into contact with has liked it," says PPI Motorsports General Manager Jeff Huber. "I sincerely believe that NASCAR is taking a good look at it."
The Audible Alert System sends...
The Audible Alert System sends a tone to the driver to warn of an accident to be avoided. Photo by Invader Technologies
PPI conducted a private test of the system at Homestead-Miami Speedway during a General Motors testing session.
Using the latest wireless technology, small receivers are placed in each car, which alert the drivers of hazardous track conditions. The system can also be used to signal a return to green flag racing, which can improve restarts. "It's like having the same spotter for every driver on the track," Skeen says. "Unlike radios, all of the drivers receive the same benefit without any opportunity for abuse or advantage.
"The spotter is following the driver during competition. It is the job of the spotter to keep an eye on the car and he is not always going to be as easily aware of what's going where his driver isn't. We can wire the spotter to cover the back end of the driver. When the spotter hears the tone, he can look forward for the situation. We can also develop a separate tone for fire."
Skeen says the system is designed to eliminate the secondary accident. Tracks purchase the transmitters, which are activated by a track official. The responsibility for the receivers rests with the competitor, though some tracks may want to lease them to their drivers.
Skeen sees advantages to utilizing the ears more than the eyes. "You notice a tone quicker than you will a light," he says. "We use low-band CB frequency to get the tone broadcast." The company adds that warning lights continue some of the risks already contributing to the problems. Drivers may be focused on racing action and not notice the yellow lights or flags of the track. Lights can be burned out or insignificantly placed around the track.
The Audible Alert System is compatible with radios, eliminating an "either/or" situation, making it possible to absorb a double layer of safety. It will also work in places where radio communication between driver and crew is not allowed.
No idea that utilizes the infallible human will be perfect. While there may be some imperfections (depending upon interpretation), the clear and present danger is lack of action. High profile accidents lead to a heightening of awareness as to a need for improvement. These two products offer an opportunity to take that step before the next accident leads to financial or human loss.
All parties agree. This is not a "dollars and cents" issue, but an issue that transcends that. It's an issue of saving lives. Doing nothing results in nothing. Installation of a driver alert system can make a difference.