1992, General Motors was looking for ways to decrease the number of
lower leg injuries to their Indy Car drivers. In their research, they
were lacking one piece of technology to help them do this: a way to
measure the force drivers were subject to in crashes.
They did, however, have a device placed in shipments of expensive equipment going oversees to determine how the cargo was being handled, and track when it was mishandled and by whom. With a few tweaks, such as an increased range of measurement, the company realized these devices could be placed in cars to measure the impact of a crash.
That was the beginning of the Incident Data Recorder, or "black box," in automobile racing.
Today, NASCAR supplies each of the cars in the three national racing series with an updated version of that recorder. In the event of a crash, big or small, NASCAR officials are able to retrieve the data and details of the crash, including the rate of deceleration when the car hits a barrier.
to Tom Gideon, senior director of safety, research and development for
NASCAR, the incident data recorder has not failed to collect information
on a crash yet.
"From 2002 to now, we've recorded over 6,000 incidents in the national series," he said. "All the vehicles in our national series -- which include Sprint Cup cars, Nationwide cars and Camping World trucks -- are required to have a crash recorder."
Since 2002, the accident data recorders have ridden along with NASCAR drivers. Teams are responsible only for the aluminum bracket that holds the recorder into place in that car. Before each race, a team of field investigators places a recorder into that bracket. Once a magnetic sensor inside the box detects it's been placed into the car, it goes into a state of readiness.
Because the units don't have an on/off switch, the magnet sensor helps to preserve battery when they aren't in a car. During a race, the device measures the acceleration or deceleration of the car 10,000 times per second. NASCAR officials remove the IDRs from the car after each race, recording information from those in cars involved in wrecks.
Once NASCAR extracts the data from a crash, the numbers are then released to the team whose car held the recorder. Teams use this information to determine how hard the car was hit, and whether the impact was big enough to cause damage to the seat and restraints. If so, the seat -- which can cost up to $12,000 -- will be fully inspected before being replaced or repaired.
NASCAR also uses these devices to reconstruct actual crashes to improve safety and to test new developments. Technicians are able to take the numbers from a wreck and, using a hydraulic cylinder and dummy model, examine the effects on the body of that identical force. They've even used these data recorders to test the Generation-6 car's improved roll cage by capturing the impact when a car is dropped upside down in the Research and Development Center parking lot.
"We're at all times looking for improvements to the car that we can validate, so that when we finally put it in the car, we're not worried that maybe we did something wrong," Gideon said.
In turn, those improvements have certainly validated NASCAR's requirement of the black box.