Four-time champions wants to understand the most efficient way to improve track safety.
LAS VEGAS – Jeff Gordon reached out to NASCAR to discuss the current state of safety in the sport.
During his 25-year tenure in stock car racing, Gordon has seen a lot of improvements initiated at race tracks.
But last Sunday, when the No. 24 Chevy slammed into a stretch of unprotected wall at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it was not one of racing’s finest moments.
In the short term, Gordon appreciates tracks bolstering concrete walls with tires until SAFER barriers can be installed. That was the case at Daytona International Speedway after Kyle Busch’s violent wreck in the XFINITY Series race on Feb. 21. Atlanta Motor Speedway followed suit the next week.
But the four-time NASCAR champion, who has endured more than his share of accidents over the years, refuses to sit idly by and wait for change.
“It’s important to note that the tracks and NASCAR, I know they are doing a lot to put as much effort into answering the question what can we do right away? You see it here,” Gordon said. “You saw it last week. But there is only so much that can be done in a short period of time. That is what I want to see.
“I have a meeting with NASCAR next week. I wasn’t able to do it this week, but I have a meeting with them next week. I’m looking forward to getting together with them to hear a little bit more detail in that progress. I don’t want to allude to too much because I have just enough details to get myself in trouble by bringing them up because I don’t have the full scope of it. I would prefer to have the full scope of it. I think that the most important thing is just to continue to see progress.”
Why the delay?
Gordon finds it curious that despite the technology existing to install barriers around tracks since 2002 – and appeared at most tracks by 2005 – that more of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) walls have yet to be installed.
“The one thing that I would question is when did SAFER barriers start being put at race tracks and what was the plan for them to be complete and where are we in that plan,” Gordon asks. “I was under the impression when they started going in it was going to be a three or four-year plan to complete the SAFER barriers in every wall that needed to have a SAFER barrier.
My question is what is the time frame to have those built and installed? I think everybody knows it’s a priority, but it seems to be kind of pushed further a long since Kyle’s accident. Where were we prior to Kyle’s accident on that plan?
“I don’t think anybody expected them to have SAFER barriers around every wall day one. I think I’m realistic to know that they can’t just have it next week. It takes a while to manufacturer them. There are only a couple of groups or distributors or however you want to put it. The people that make them that are certified to even do it.
“My question is what is the time frame to have those built and installed? I think everybody knows it’s a priority, but it seems to be kind of pushed further a long since Kyle’s accident. Where were we prior to Kyle’s accident on that plan?”
Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns and operates Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the site of this weekend’s Sprint Cup race, anticipates significant improvements moving forward. Although Smith’s track principals meet annually with NASCAR to discuss safety initiatives, following Busch’s accident he acknowledged that SMI is “looking at every speedway” and “there is more urgency” to step up the process.
After Gordon’s crash at AMS, Smith reached out to the driver and apologized.
Every year we make additions to our SAFER barriers at speedways – every single year. And we’re looking hard at it right now – opportunities to make more improvements.
“I hate that he had a wreck at all,” Smith told Motorsport.com. “I’m glad he’s OK. I’m glad that it wasn’t an even harder wreck, but it’s difficult to anticipate everything. I think if you back up a few years and you ask drivers at that time or their spouses or anyone else in the sport and ask about safety, they will say, ‘Man, there’s been so many amazing advancements.’ And that’s great.
“Since then, we’ve found some opportunities to improve. Every year we make additions to our SAFER barriers at speedways – every single year. And we’re looking hard at it right now – opportunities to make more improvements.
"But it’s also one of those things that’s as easy as it might seem because the experts that I’ve read in some of the stories out there have given us the same feedback they’ve given us directly, that it’s not one of those “one-size fits all” or one-way solution on barriers and having improvements to those impacts on the walls.”
Crash test dummy
Gordon’s accident last week was just feet away from where the SAFER ended on the backstretch. His wreck here on the inside wall on the backstretch at LVMS in 2008 forced the track to reconfigure the gap and improve the surrounding area.
From experience, Gordon knows it’s better to hit something, anything whether it’s SAFER barriers, soft walls or even tires to absorb the blow from impact.
“I have hit a lot of them with and I’ve hit a lot of them without,” Gordon said. “What always comes to mind to me, literally, is when I hit a non-SAFER barrier wall I go ‘wow, what did I just hit? What was that?’ I’m always caught off guard by the impact and how severe it is. When I get out of the car my first thing is I want to see what I hit. Every time I have felt that it is because I hit something that was not protected with SAFER barrier.
"With a SAFER barrier wall, and this happened to me I think at Texas last year or the year before, I blew a right-front tire going into Turn 1. I was like ‘oh God this is going to hurt’. ‘Oh that wasn’t so bad.’ So it’s a huge difference.
“But I also understand there are angles that are better for hitting it. There are some that a tire type of barrier might be better for a straight-on impact. There are some where tires are not good for impacts because of how it grabs the car and wants to flip it over or spin it around and can propel it back out in traffic. To me, every area that they say ‘yes that wall would be safer with a SAFER barrier’ it needs to have a SAFER barrier and we need to know what the time frame is and when it is going to become a SAFER barrier.”