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Black boxes go racing

Utah firm awarded NASCAR contract to test crash impacts

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Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash at last year's Daytona 500 auto race left investigators unable to discover much detail surrounding the forces that occur in a 180 mph collision.

Now a Salt Lake company, Independent Witness Inc., plans to change the way future crashes will be analyzed.

On Wednesday, the company announced it had been selected by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing as the exclusive provider of incident data recorders, or "black boxes," to be placed on all NASCAR-sponsored vehicles beginning at next month's Daytona 500 and including NASCAR's Winston Cup, Busch Series, Grand National Division and Craftsman Truck Series.

Terms of the three-year deal were not disclosed. However, the company initially will provide 250 units for upcoming NASCAR series.

"These boxes can be an invaluable tool. It's all part of an overall move toward increasing safety on the race track," said Herb Branham, communications manager for NASCAR's Winston Cup Series and Busch Series.

The black box, dubbed "The Witness," weighs 2.5 pounds and is smaller in size than a standard videotape. The recorder is designed to measure the change in velocity during the impact of an accident.

"This contract represents a very large portion of our business," said Luther Perkins, president and chief executive officer of Independent Witness. "It's the intent of NASCAR to measure the forces at the time of impact, take that information and evaluate it to assist them in developing a safer sport for the drivers."

The battery-powered black box is mounted to a vehicle's frame near the driver and can withstand forces of up to 180 Gs. It also can sustain high levels of vibration and temperature.

When a crash occurs, the device records the date, time of impact and magnitude and direction of acceleration in three dimensions, including roll, pitch and yaw.

"We were able to compete with some very formidable competitors — Delphi Automotive, IST based in Michigan, and several other companies," Perkins said.

Initially, the recorder was designed to go into every car in America to assist in offsetting soft-tissue injury insurance fraud, Perkins said.

In addition to NASCAR vehicles, the recorders can be found in buses, taxis, police vehicles and corporate fleets across the country, including shuttles at the University of Utah.

The recorders retail at $499 each, but the ones outfitted for NASCAR are more sophisticated and pricier, said Dave Clark, Independent Witness vice president of sales.

The technology surrounding the data recorders was manufactured in Utah by Scott McClellan, Independent Witness founder.

A software database also was developed by the company and will be used to store NASCAR accident information.

Shortly after the Earnhardt accident it was determined that a left lap seat belt had broken at impact. Had Earnhardt's vehicle had a recorder, the degree of force when the crash occurred combined with other data could have determined if the lap belt was flawed, Clark said.

"Now I can design around that, and I can improve the harness for future drivers," Clark said.

Independent Witness employs 16 people and was launched in 1998. Besides the automotive industry, the company's technology is used in the packaging and shipping industry, seismic devices and military applications.

E-mail: danderton@desnews.com