INDIANAPOLIS -- Jeff Ward hopes he'll be too busy racing to notice the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's new ''soft walls.''
''As a driver, we probably won't even know they're there,'' the 1999 Indy 500 runner-up said. ''There's probably a certain comfort level knowing that they're out there.''
On Wednesday, four days before practice opens for the Indianapolis 500, speedway officials released details about the new energy-absorbing walls in the four corners on the 2 1/2-mile oval.
''I think it's another step in the progression of race-car safety,'' said Ward, who has three top-four finishes in five Indy 500 starts. ''You look back at the helmet, at seat belts, and I think soft walls are another step in that progression.''
The Indy Racing League and NASCAR have spent four years working with researchers at the University of Nebraska to create a wall that helps reduce the impact of a crash.
The wall is comprised of four steel tubes welded together in 20- foot sections. Bolts in the concrete wall and on the back of the new device hold the wall in place.
Between the concrete and steel are 16 inches of hard, pink foam, spaced 10 feet apart. The foam acts as a shock absorber, allowing the wall to bend, thereby reducing the force. The soft walls extend 20 1/2 inches from the concrete walls but are out of the racing line.
''Obviously, this is a very exciting time,'' said Brian Barnhart, IRL vice president for operations. ''But there is some sense of uneasiness or nervousness because we're entering some unkowns.''
The ''soft walls'' are the third such device tried at Indianapolis. The PEDS system was used on the inside wall of turn four in 1998, but it was taken down after Arie Luyendyk caromed back into traffic and scattered debris across the track during an IROC race.
A second PEDS system was used the next year, and it worked better when Hideshi Matsuta tapped the wall.
Researchers, though, still detected flaws.
Now, after three more years of development and 18 crash tests, the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) wall will be tested live for the first time.
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