The Indy 500 is known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but keeping drivers safe in one of the most dangerous sports—as well as the 300,000 fans watching—is a spectacle itself, powered by decades of scientific innovation. Indiana’s life sciences industry helps provide the framework for that innovation; engineers, doctors and safety experts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have pioneered everything from the now standard SAFER barrier on the track to tiny accelerometers that analyze drivers’ head impacts. Home to the only motorsports medicine fellowship in the world, IMS is again the nerve center this year as experts collaborate to standardize the next lifesaving innovation.
While mostly “behind the scenes,” the medical care for drivers and spectators on race day is a marvel, but these same physicians who oversee the Indy 500 also lead a safety committee that has created many of the safety features now standard for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Dr. Julia Vaizer, the deputy medical director for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, says a large portion of the motorsports medicine fellowship is improving safety for motorsports in general. She was part of a recent BioCrossroads Frameworx event on the topic.
“A lot of changes that have happened to the cars came from a safety committee that’s formed by a group of engineers, physicians and drivers,” says Vaizer, the first fellow in the world’s only motorsports medicine fellowship, which is based at IMS. “Each incident that happens gets analyzed, no matter the degree or severity of it.”
Just one example of how this collaboration has given birth to innovation is the use of accelerometers; these tiny devices are now integrated with both earpieces the drivers wear to communicate with their team, “because the ears are the closest we can get to the brain,” says Tim Baughman, senior director of track safety and medical services for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. The accelerometers measure the G-forces exhibited on the driver’s head at the moment of impact along several different axes.
“And we compare that data to the data we get from the axles of the car to get an idea of the driver’s positioning and the amount of force that was exhibited; should we be concerned about some sort of deeper injury like a concussion that would not be evident immediately?” says Vaizer.
A new technology the safety team is now pioneering centers on collecting biometric data from drivers while they’re racing. Baughman says IndyCars have long had “black boxes” that record various data points during a crash, but now the technology is also collecting biometric data from the driver. However, these boxes have been limited in the amount of data they can collect, because their footprint had to remain small in the racecar. Baughman says new data modules have just been installed on all IndyCars and Indy Lights cars that can transmit the information in real-time, rather than store it.
“Now we can collect more data from the car—not just the speed or how much brake was being used—but we’re now getting into drivers’ biometric data; the driver’s heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature,” says Baughman. “And now we can transmit the data real-time from the moving car that’s going 220 miles per hour. We’re right now on the edge of being able to pull all that information.”
Baughman notes body temperature is even more important now with the addition of the Aeroscreen, which was mandated beginning in the 2020 season. The titanium frame encloses the driver in the cockpit as a protection from flying debris, but as a result, “[drivers] have less airflow hitting them, so regulating their body temperature has become a challenge.”
“I hope soon we pull up to an accident scene, and we’ll instantly see the driver’s heartrate, respiratory rate—all their vitals. It’s all part of that overall health picture that helps us determine what we need to do to save that driver’s life,” says Baughman. “Getting that live data stream on these drivers is going to help us continue to build our database on how to improve care and diagnose specific injuries that occurred during accidents.”
In addition to advancing safety technology in motorsports, the team also provides medical services for every event at IMS, of which the Indy 500 is the biggest, and travels with the racing teams to all major NTT INDYCAR SERIES events.
With some 300,000 spectators, IMS becomes the second largest city in Indiana on Indy 500 day. IMS has also pioneered medical care for major events; when the track reopened post World War II, a hospital was built onsite—”the first infield care center built at a racetrack ever,” says Baughman. The same building houses the high-tech infield care center today.
With such a storied legacy, it’s perhaps not surprising that physicians are clamoring to be part of the world’s only motorsports medicine fellowship. The next fellow has been chosen, and applications from around the country are already pouring in for 2024.
Vaizer says every physician, EMS provider and AMR INDYCAR Safety Team member she works with is “exceptional at what they do” and “very passionate” about motorsports medicine.
“This is the epitome of, ‘I can’t believe they pay us to do this,’” says Vaizer. “Despite this being my fourth [Indy 500] and how integrated I’ve been as part of the team, that feeling has never passed—it’s this overwhelming sense of belonging, anticipation and excitement. Everybody is there because they love it, and that energy is everything.”
The medical staff that respond to an INDYCAR crash wear the same Nomex protective racing suits as the drivers; Vaizer says it’s just one example of how motorsports and medical teams work together to improve emergency care for the drivers.
Baughman says in the late 70s and early 80s, IMS and Methodist Hospital created a “trauma center” for Indy 500 race day before the term even existed and helped “set the tone” for the development of trauma centers nationwide.