Richmond wreck highlights need for further improvements
by Mike Neff
An accident in Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond International Raceway once again highlighted the fact that improving safety in professional motorsports is a never-ending fight.
On lap 302, Jeff Gordon was tagged in the left rear and spun into the inside wall, where he hit driver-side first. The impact knocked the wind out of Gordon, but fortunately didn’t cause serious injury. He was lucky to have walked away uninjured, in that the portion of wall he hit was not protected by a SAFER Barrier, so that the full brunt of the impact was absorbed by Gordon’s car — and ultimately his body. In the modern era of stock car racing, it is truly unacceptable to have any section of wall exposed to the racetrack that is devoid of some kind of energy-absorbing device to lessen impacts from vehicles that find their way into them.
In the early days of NASCAR, there were all sorts of barriers utilized to keep cars within the confines of the racing area. Hay bales were some of the first “devices” utilized, followed by used tires. Eventually, tracks employed corrugated steel guardrails, which were generically dubbed “Armco barriers.” These were useful for short tracks that were the predominant venues in the formative years of racing, but as track sizes and speeds increased, Armco barriers became less effective to the point they were replaced with concrete walls. While the concrete walls were far more successful at stopping cars from leaving tracks at high speed, they took a tremendous toll on the drivers. As early as 1991, Smokey Yunick developed a “soft wall” using old race tires, plywood and canvas, but the people who made decisions about installing such a device dismissed him and his revolutionary product.
The beginning of the development of the SAFER Barrier — which is now utilized at all of the oval tracks that host NASCAR touring series races — was in 1998. The barriers were first installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002 and, because of the expense, were only installed in the locations that were most susceptible to receiving an impact from a racecar. Eventually, the soft walls were installed at all of the tracks but, as was the case at Indy, the expense prevented track owners and operators from installing the impact-absorbing barriers on every retainer within a venue.
In 2008, Gordon was involved in a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he hit an angled portion of inside walling on the backstretch that was so violent it knocked the transmission out of his car. By the time the series returned a year later, Speedway Motorsports, Inc., had installed SAFER Barriers in the location where Gordon made contact.
If drivers have proven one thing in the 60 years of NASCAR’s existence, it’s that they can find a way to impact any section of fencing — regardless of how unlikely the scenario may seem. The outside walls of a speedway are the obvious locations for SAFER Barriers, but there are walls on the inside of the tracks (and on some sections of straightaways) that are currently not covered with the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction Barriers. Gordon’s impact Saturday night was the latest instance where one of those unprotected walls had a very good chance to injure a driver. The accident should be enough proof for track owners to spend the extra money needed to cover all exposed walls with the soft-wall technology.
There is no question that there is a major expense involved in putting SAFER Barriers in place at a racetrack. Dustin Long, a journalist with the Virginian-Pilot.com, quoted Dr. Dean Sicking — one of the innovators of the SAFER Barrier at the University of Nebraska — who said that when the barriers were designed some 10 years ago, the price of installation was $300 per foot. However, serious injury, or the death of a driver, is a far greater price to be paid than a few thousand feet of steel and foam totaling half a million dollars.
NASCAR has mandated HANS devices, kill switches, even designed an entire racecar with the express purpose of keeping competitors safe in a sport where no one is ever totally safe. The time has come to take that one step further and require all tracks on the national touring schedules to have SAFER Barriers or some other form of energy-absorbing device on all walls that are exposed to the racing surface. The potential for loss of life for something that can be so easily remedied is simply inexcusable.
Ultimately, the idea is to have every track operator — possibly with subsidizing from the sanctioning body — install SAFER Barriers at all NASCAR-sanctioned facilities. For now, though, NASCAR and the tracks that host touring-level races must step up to the plate before the next superstar is cut out of a car and Mike Helton is forced to step up to a microphone to make the hardest announcement he’s ever made in his life.