May 15, 2014

The Motorsport Safety Foundation: improving safety in tribute to Sean Edwards.

Safety is not sexy.  Titans of the sport, like Jacky Ickx are infamously quoted saying too much safety takes away from the challenge of motorsport.  Unfortunately, this attitude lingers among fans and drivers to this day.

But the challenge of motorsport is cheating physics, not cheating death.

There have been accidents  pivotal in changing both the public and the governing bodies attitude towards safety standards:  the Imola week end of 1994 for Formula One,  the death of Dale Earnhardt for NASCAR in 2001.  Much work was done with great success at the very top of the sport,  safety improved tremendously in the years since.   But there is still so much to be done.

2011, Dan Wheldon was killed in an accident whose circumstances were widely predicted.  In 2013 we lost first Allan Simonsen at Le Mans and later in the year, Sean Edwards during a private coaching session in Australia.

These fatalities were due to in part to complacency and bad circuit safety design.  Simonsen's car impacted a tree inches away from a single guard rail on the outside of Tetre Rouge,  Shocking to think that in 2013, at arguably the world's most famous circuit, this could have happened.

But it was the death of Sean Edwards that really touched and shocked so many in the Motorsport community and hit home for so many who do coaching at any level, from pro to track day.  It seemed so banal,  a passenger in a car that went off and hit a less than optimal tire barrier.  There are so many tracks where safety is less than optimal.

The loss of Sean was also shocking because he was so active online,  He was aways on Twitter, on instagram, on iRacing, he loved to share and we loved to peek at his growing career.

In 2013 he was racing in North America with Momo/NGT,  the same team that looked after Carlos' Axis GT3 cup,  where he partnered with team boss Henrique Cisneros.
It makes perfect sense that, as a tribute, Henrique started the Motorsport Safety Foundation, an organization which seeks to identify safety issues and solutions, in part through an online forum.

Cisneros discussed the goals of the Foundation and his memories of Edwards with Axis.  I encourage you to leave thoughts and comment about the subject here but, especially, to join the discussion on the Motorsport Safety Foundation's forums or Facebook page.

Axis of Oversteer: You started the Motorsport Safety Foundation in memory of your teammate and friend Sean Edwards. Tell us a bit about Sean and what the goals of the Foundation are.

Henrique Cisneros:  Sean was one of those drivers that simply extracted performance from a car in a way that would leave other pro drivers with their mouths open. He was an amazing talent to watch and truly a Porsche specialist.
He was also an amazing friend and mentor not just to me but to so many drivers around the world. He had a passion for coaching and was always trying to pass on his knowledge to others. It was always easier said than done because overlaying your lap data over his was always a humbling experience and it would knock any cockiness out of you instantly!
Unfortunately, Sean left us all too soon doing what he loved best. He died in a tragic accident coaching from the passenger seat at a Queensland Australia racetrack. Although there were several factors that lead to his passing, ultimately the main reason for his death was a sub-standard safety barrier that could not properly dissipate the energy of the crash. After his death, we formed the Motorsport Safety Foundation in his memory with the simple mission to improve track safety standards. We are focused on fixing simple issues that can prevent another driver, crew, marshal or even fan from serious injury or death.

A.o.O.:  Racecar safety has been in the news, especially with it being the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Italian GP at Imola. That horrible week end prompted the largest rethink of safety in a generation, but safety is not just for the very top of the motorsport ladder is it?

H.C.:   Well, the biggest issue in motorsport is that safety is mostly only present at the top. As you descend down each rung of the ladder, safety standards and codes quickly disappear and there is no oversight. In fact, as a simple example, most tracks in the United States do not require the use of a Head and Neck restraint system. Some sanctioning bodies do require them for races but at unsanctioned events, you can drive the same track without any safety gear on. National minimum safety codes do not exist for insurance purposes and tracks can operate without any barriers if they wish.
However, the blame is not on the track operators or sanctioning bodies but on the lack of safety education of the drivers themselves. As long as the drivers keep driving without proper fire resistant accessories and restraints, tracks do not have an incentive to improve as well. Drivers are not really aware of how safety barriers work and what should be the minimum necessary at any given corner so they can’t demand an upgrade if they do not understand how the current barrier is insufficient.
We do not have a safety rating system for tracks so we can’t make an informed decision of whether you will be safe or risking your life when you drive at a track. We don’t know what level of fire suppression they have, how many safety workers per mile, what the medical facilities are like or the distance to the nearest trauma center. These are all factors that should influence our decision to race at a track but this information is not available and actually not disclosed for liability purposes.
The biggest hurdle we have as a Foundation is getting past the legal liabilities that tracks have to manage which many times can paralyze safety upgrades.

A.o.O.:  But still, we see amazing shunts and drivers always seem to walk away unharmed, are we getting complacent?

H.C.:  It is my personal opinion that safety standards are excellent at all top level racing. The new cars are engineered very well, the top FIA rated race tracks have been designed to the latest technology and best practices so we do see some amazing accidents where people simply unbuckle themselves after rolling several times and they walk away. However, what we fail to see is the majority of the races which are not televised.
These are cars that are many times modified by the drivers themselves racing at tracks which simply can’t afford to spend the funds necessary to really catch up to today’s top standards. Safety barrier costs can be as much as $1,000 per foot of barrier.
Because of this fact, we have started an initiative called Adopt a Corner where we aim to help racetracks at raising the funds necessary to upgrade their safety barriers. Through crowdfunding platforms and corporate donations, we try to raise the funds needed in exchange for giving the corporate donors the advertising space on the new barriers and race track billboards for an extended period of time.

Its important to separate track safety and car safety as well. New cars are improving every year, equipment is improving every year. However, the adoption of the new technologies is what is taking a bit longer. It is proven that lighter carbon helmets coupled with a head restraint reduces the probability of neck injury but drivers still make the conscious decision to buy a heavier and cheaper helmet and not wear a restraint yet spend 5 times more on a set of tires that will only last a day.
In the US, buckling your seat belt is the law because its proven that it saves lives yet tickets are still issued every day over it. Maybe the solution has to be stricter rules imposed by insurance companies that mandate drivers to have a minimum standard. Just like we have to sign waivers or we can’t race, we need to take it further and have mandatory equipment checks as part of the waivers. The waivers need to be signed by the driver and the scrutineer.
Whatever the changes, they need to be pushed for from many sides.

A.o.O.:  The foundation is actively looking to give a platform to those directly involved in the sport, drivers especially, to voice their concerns… but who is you interlocutor on the regulatory and implementation side?

H.C.:  The website has a forum where many of these issues are discussed and debated in an open and transparent manner. Many times, the solutions can be found right on the forum. If someone contacts us asking for help on a matter that is more complicated in nature or requires the coordination with other organizations, the foundation will then create a project for the specific task.
We have an extensive database of industry experts which we rely on to work through the safety issues collaboratively.  We always include the race track operators to participate along with marshals, track designers, drivers, etc to get a complete 360 degree analysis of the problem and work as a group on the solution. Once the solution is found, if the funds needed are minimal and the tracks can cover the cost, then we move to the approval by the appropriate sanctioning body depending on the class of racetrack.
If funding is necessary, then we proceed to design a fund raising campaign that will try to capture the generosity of the local community of drivers, marshals, businesses and perhaps larger corporations to raise the funds for the upgrade. Everything we design will always be approved by an unrelated third party.

A.o.O:  What do you say to those who say: motorsport is dangerous, if you don’t like that don’t do it and that too much concern for safety ruins “the show”?

H.C.: When Sean passed away, the most common comment was “well, that’s racing unfortunately”. I think most people say this because the advances in safety have happened in a very steep curve and the technology at the top is amazing and at the bottom is still possibly decades away from catching up.
We are still racing in extremely dangerous environments and the Motorsport Safety Foundation is dedicated to help speed this upgrade process up as much as possible. I definitely do not see most GT tracks reaching Formula 1 safety standards in the next ten years simply because of cost. Most oval tracks will never see the likes of a SAFER barrier like NASCAR any time soon.

I disagree wholeheartedly that safety ruins the show. What makes racing an amazing show is the racing, not the crashes. A close battle between rivals will have you on the edge of your seat for many laps but a crash will last 10 seconds and ruin the next 10 minutes of racing because of the yellow flags. The fact that you replace a 2 row tire barrier with a 4 row or 6 row or an engineered safety barrier will never affect the “show” but it might save the life of the person putting on the show. I even argue that safer tracks lead to better racing and more risk taking by drivers.

A.o.O:   Tell us a bit about your racing plans in 2014.

H.C.:  For 2014, I am personally focused on racing the TUDOR United Sports Car championship in a Porsche GT America with MOMO NGT Motorsport. I also have a 3 driver Porsche Supercup team racing in Europe as the only American entry in Supercup under the name MOMO Megatron.

1 comment:

  1. Dead people are not sexy either. I like safety and I don't think it kills the challenge of motorsport


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