GM Racing Technology: Safety
The Science of Safety
Tom Gideon manages the GM Racing Safety Program, using GM biomechanical research and technology to validate safety equipment.
Safety in racing spans a wide spectrum, from protective apparel and restraint systems to vehicle
construction, track design and emergency response team training. GM Racing instituted the Racing Safety
Program to advance the science of racing safety on all fronts.
The Racing Safety Program is a key element in GM Racing's research and development program. Since its
inception in June 1992, the safety program has expanded from its initial focus on Indy cars to encompass
stock car racing, sports car racing, drag racing and off-road racing.
Gideon conducts safety seminars at tracks, educating racers on proper shoulder harness and seat belt installation, roll cage padding and head restraints.
"Beyond winning races, transferring technology to GM products and training young engineers, there
is one thing that is vitally important," said Mark Kent, director of GM Racing. "That's the
safety of every driver, team member, official and spectator. Our concern extends far beyond the
individuals and teams using GM products."
GM Racing engineer Tom Gideon manages the GM Racing Safety Program. Gideon worked previously on
production car safety, including early air bag technology, before he joined GM Racing in 1992.
"Safety is our No. 1 concern," said Gideon. "Our job is to do everything we can to make
the driver safe, the car safe and, to the extent that we can, the spectators safe. It's a never-ending
process, and we intend to lead by example."
Tests conducted by the GM Racing Safety Program have shown the value of a net inside the vehicle to provide additional support for the seat and driver during an impact.
The safety seminars conducted by Gideon for all competitors regardless of manufacturer affiliation at
selected NHRA Summit Sport Compact Drag Racing Series events are an example of GM's leadership. These
seminars educate racers on the fundamentals of safety, such as proper shoulder harness and seat belt
installation, roll cage padding and head restraints. Videotapes of crashes and sled tests are shown to
illustrate how safety equipment can improve a driver's odds of avoiding serious injury in an accident.
First steps: data recorders and dummies
GM Racing is focusing on the role of seats and restraints in motorsports safety. Using data from actual incidents, the forces produced in an accident are reconstructed in the laboratory to test the effectiveness of safety devices in reducing the risk of injury.
GM's motorsports safety program began when GM Biomedical Research scientist Dr. John Melvin and GM
Racing engineer John Pierce were searching the globe for "black boxes" to support the newly
formed racing safety program. Early attempts at racing accident reconstruction had shown that only limited
results were available from analyzing photographs, videos, tire skid marks and mangled race cars.
Accustomed to working with detailed data from highly instrumented production vehicles subjected to barrier
tests at GM's Milford (Mich.) Proving Grounds, Melvin and Pierce realized that this kind of data would be
critical to making recommendations for safer race cars.
One of the key responsibilities of the GM Racing Safety Program is to test the effectiveness of safety equipment under controlled conditions.
They found a battery-powered impact recorder manufactured by a Michigan company that was used to
monitor shipments of sensitive equipment such as supercomputers. Recognizing that the device could be used
to obtain data in a race car crash, the pair submitted their idea to Indy car officials. The crash
recorders were formally approved by the United States Auto Club for installation on Indy cars competing in
the 1993 Indianapolis 500, and were made mandatory for all Indy car races later that year.
Information from the data recorders helped to define the structural behavior of Indy cars during an
impact, helping race car designers develop safer structures. The result was an immediate reduction in
serious foot and leg injuries.
GM pioneered the use of data recorders in auto racing. Introduced in open-wheel racing in 1993, the recorders provided the first accurate information on the effects of a crash. This data was then used to develop sled tests for instrumented crash dummies.
Crash data provided a clear picture of the loads that a race driver is subjected to during a high-speed
impact. Detailed analysis of selected race car crashes allowed GM scientists to develop baseline impact
sled test conditions for studying driver protection using GM's advanced Hybrid III dummies to simulate the
forces on various parts of the human anatomy. More accurate test conditions assisted in evaluating the
performance of driver protection systems, such as interior padding, restraint belts, seats and head and
neck restraint devices.
GM Racing took the initiative in acquiring and analyzing data from race car accidents. Recognizing the
significance of their findings, GM safety specialists began sharing their crash recorder experience and
procedures with safety personnel from Ford Motor Company. This example of rival car companies working
together as partners on safety matters has been a common element of the GM Racing Safety Program.
High-speed photography revealed the astonishing effects of high-g deceleration in the first sled tests of racing restraint systems conducted by GM Racing in 1993. Note the severe extension of the crash dummy's neck.
In 1998, Melvin and Pierce were named winners of the Louis Schwitzer Award for using data from impact
recorders to enhance safety for drivers competing in the Indianapolis 500. The award is presented annually
by the Indiana section of the Society of Automotive Engineers for innovation and engineering excellence in
race car design.
"This was a team effort, like a racing team," said Melvin. "The knowledge gained from
the motorsports safety program is going to allow engineers to design passenger cars much more effectively
to protect the occupants."
Although accidents can never be completely eliminated from racing, GM's Racing Safety Program is
reducing the risks for drivers, teams, officials and fans.
Release Date: September 20, 2005