BUSCH: Tracks embrace soft wall technology

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Safety in NASCAR has long been an issue volleyed about the experts. After the institution of mandatory head and neck restraints in September of 2001, the focus on safety turned to a new soft wall technology developed by a...

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Safety in NASCAR has long been an issue volleyed about the experts. After the institution of mandatory head and neck restraints in September of 2001, the focus on safety turned to a new soft wall technology developed by a team of University of Nebraska engineers.

The steel and foam energy absorbing barriers introduced by Dr. Dean Sicking and Ronald Fuller won the prestigious 2002 Louis Schwitzer award for excellence in exploring and developing new concepts in auto racing technology.

"The total emphasis is on driver safety," commented Sicking. "We put in thousands of hours with computer models and on the test track to develop a barrier that would decrease peak forces applied to the car by elongating the impact event, which allows the occupant restraint systems more time to operate optimally and reduce driver injury."

Indianapolis Motor Speedway became the first track to install the safe wall technology last year, but since then many other tracks on the NASCAR circuit have been exploring the possibilities of having the foam and steel barriers at their facilities.

Recently, Richmond International Raceway announced their plans for installation of the soft wall system were in progress.

Richmond becomes the first short track to be fitted with safe walls. The crash absorbing structures will be placed in two 1,100 foot sections on the outside walls.

Safety at Richmond came into question after Jerry Nadeau suffered critical injuries in a May practice crash. Nadeau's driver's side hit registered as one of the nastiest "g-force" crashes since NASCAR began using data recorders which automatically register velocities, deceleration rates and the impact angles of crashes.

Three of the other most severe wrecks also were recorded at Richmond, spanning all three of NASCAR's premium leagues. Derrike Cope (Busch), Sterling Marlin (Cup) and Bobby Hamilton (Truck) were all involved in separate incidents where "g-force" readings registered at 58 "G's" and higher.

"We're proud to be one of the first tracks to have the system installed," said Doug Fritz, RIR President. "The installation of this state-of-the-art safety system is an example of Richmond International Raceway and International Speedway Corp.'s ongoing commitment to driver safety."

RIR is not the only track getting with the program. New Hampshire International Raceway also stated their intention to move to the steel and foam energy absorbing barrier system.

"We are very pleased to announce that following Dr. Dean L. Sicking's recommendation to NASCAR, we will be installing the SAFER barrier at New Hampshire International Speedway. It is our plan to have the SAFER barrier in place for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Sylvania 300 weekend this September," stated Bob Bahre, Chairman of the Board at NHIS.

In 2000, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were both killed in separate crashes in the turn 3 wall at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Talks are also underway at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Homestead is in the midst of a $10 million reconfiguration project which includes adding 20- degrees of banking to the 1.5-mile oval. Homestead-Miami Speedway President Curtis Gray commented that they were planning on putting in soft walls either this year or in 2004.

"We are just waiting on NASCAR for approval of the timing," said Gray.

Most drivers' feel like the time can't come too soon. Driver of the No. 8 DEI Chevy, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. applauded NHIS for making the change.

"I think, the sooner the better for all these race tracks we go to," said Earnhardt. "I can think of a few more who need it. I can think of a few more tracks it would be as important as there. At New England they've done everything we've asked of them as a racetrack. As far as a racetrack goes, it wouldn't be on my top ten favorite places to go but as far as what they've done and how many times and things they've tried; they've invested so much into the surface of the racetrack and different ways to try and improve it and what not, where a lot of tracks won't go that extra mile. A lot of tacks are more concerned at how pretty the place looks or how convenient it is to get in and out of it and the rest of the racing surface can go to hell pretty much.

"I've got to say on their part they do an excellent job of trying to make improvements. I'm pretty happy for them and as far as Richmond, it's a great racetrack. I've seen some pretty impressive crashes there, some pretty high G-force crashes there, and most recently with Jerry's injury I think its sped the pace up just a little bit to get the soft wall technology at these racetracks."

Earnhardt also stated that while the energy absorbing works for some tracks, further contemplation is needed before some facilities on the circuit make the change.

"Is it something that is correct at this point to put at all racetracks?" pondered Earnhardt. "I don't think anybody really pushed that issue. And am I doing more damage by putting it at my racetrack than not having it at all? Just from a visual standpoint it seems to do the job, but you don't know if its going to do the same job everywhere you put it.

"I would like to see it at some of these other racetracks particularly the flatter tracks. Those are the tracks where if you do have a problem you don't lose quite as much speed before you impact the wall, actually somewhere like a Homestead or the flatter racetracks like Pocono. I don't think it's quite as necessary to put Daytona, Charlotte or Atlanta at the top of the list. I'd like to see any kind of improvements on these tracks as soon as you can get them. But the flatter racetracks are the ones that are more detrimental right now to injury and crashes that cause such injuries as we saw with Jerry. I think the sooner they can get them at those places the better."

The soft wall announcements serve as confirmation that NASCAR continues to move forward with implementing ways to protect their drivers as they rocket around the track at 150+ mph. It is a sign that the sanctioning body continues to grow and embrace new and exciting methods to not only put on an awesome show for the fans, but make it a safe haven for their competitors as well.

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About this article
Series Automotive , NASCAR Cup , NASCAR XFINITY , NASCAR Truck
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Derrike Cope , Bobby Hamilton , Adam Petty , Sterling Marlin , Jerry Nadeau