Scott Fowler

NASCAR has no excuse to scrimp on safety

Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 54 Monster energy Toyota, and others are involved in a large on-track incident during the NASCAR XFINITY Series Alert Today Florida 300 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 54 Monster energy Toyota, and others are involved in a large on-track incident during the NASCAR XFINITY Series Alert Today Florida 300 at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Fla. Getty Images

It is inexcusable. Incomprehensible. Idiotic.

But it remains true that dozens of NASCAR tracks have the technology to make their facilities safer for their stars – the drivers – and yet have not done so.

The latest example came Saturday, when Kyle Busch slammed into an infield wall in the Alert Today Florida 300 at Daytona International Speedway. That interior wall was not protected by a SAFER barrier, commonly called a “soft wall,” which lessens the impact of crashes.

Busch climbed out of the car, alert but in obvious pain from a compound fracture of his right lower leg and a mid-foot fracture of his left foot. He went to the hospital on a stretcher. His pregnant wife was in tears. He is out of Sunday’s Daytona 500.

A remorseful Daytona International Speedway President Joie Chitwood III said Saturday night that his track would have a temporary fix in place for the Daytona 500 Sunday and would soon cover every inch of its inside and outside walls with SAFER barriers.

“The Daytona International Speedway did not live up to its responsibility today,” Chitwood said. “We should have had a SAFER barrier there today. We did not. We’re going to fix that. We’re going to fix that right now.”

“What happened tonight should not have happened,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “That’s on us. We’re going to fix it.”

But what took so long?

Chitwood and O’Donnell did not have a good answer for that. Kevin Harvick hit an unprotected wall at Daytona just last year, and right then the eventual 2014 NASCAR champion said firmly and repeatedly in interviews that soft walls should be mandated at Daytona.

Referring to Daytona’s highly publicized $400million renovation, Harvick also tweeted a year ago: “If you can spend $400 million on renovating your track you can afford a few more soft walls.”

The barriers are expensive, at a reported cost of $500 per square foot. That means it can cost $2.6million to install a mile’s worth of the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers. Tracks throughout NASCAR’s top series must install them at least in the corners, but NASCAR does not make the tracks install the barriers everywhere, and only a few of them do.

This unfortunately fits a pattern. NASCAR too often doesn’t do enough until an accident forces its hand. The sport got far safer for drivers after Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500 (SAFER barriers did not exist then). But most of the safety initiatives since then have been reactive to Earnhardt’s crash, not proactive.

Fortunately, Busch wasn’t hurt worse. His crash was nasty.

Several drivers took to Twitter on Saturday night to slam NASCAR and Daytona Speedway for not already having installed soft walls everywhere.

A sampling of tweets:

“It’s beyond me why we don’t have soft walls everywhere” – Jimmie Johnson.

“All we do is wreck at Daytona and that massive wall has no safer barrier? Unbelievable!” –Kasey Kahne.

“I’m genuinely furious right now. Any wall in any of the top 3 series without safer barriers is INEXCUSABLE. It’s 2015.” – Regan Smith.

Ty Dillon, who finished third in the race in which Busch was hurt, said: “I think we’re to the point now in NASCAR we should have SAFER barriers at a place like this. We’re going so fast. I think we could probably afford it.”

Yes, no matter the cost, NASCAR and the tracks can certainly afford it.

First, because it’s the right thing to do.

And second, because at some point, if SAFER walls aren’t installed everywhere, some driver is going to get killed.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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