Scott Fowler

Job won’t be done until NASCAR tracks have padded every wall

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch (18) hit an unprotected wall at Daytona International Speedway in February and broke multiple bones. It took him three months to return to racing. This photo was taken a few hours before Busch’s accident at Daytona on Feb. 21, which renewed calls for NASCAR to mandate “soft walls” in its top series.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch (18) hit an unprotected wall at Daytona International Speedway in February and broke multiple bones. It took him three months to return to racing. This photo was taken a few hours before Busch’s accident at Daytona on Feb. 21, which renewed calls for NASCAR to mandate “soft walls” in its top series. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

I am not an engineer. But I do believe SAFER barriers save lives.

I am not an expert on NASCAR’s finances. But I do know that the star drivers are the sport’s biggest asset and that assets have to be protected.

I am not an alarmist. But I can’t understand why that, if you have the technology available to make something safer, you don’t commit to it completely and save more people from getting hurt or killed.

Bottom line: The tracks that host NASCAR’s biggest races still aren’t moving fast enough to get the energy-absorbing SAFER barriers everywhere they need to be.

Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of many tracks that are working on the problem and installing more barriers of various kinds to cushion concrete walls to keep drivers safer.

But I don’t think the sport as a whole has the same sense of urgency that it once did, when Dale Earnhardt’s death was fresher. And that’s inexcusable.

Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Darrell Waltrip – a former driver good enough to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and now one of the leading television analysts in the sport.

“You can halfway fix something,” Waltrip said when we talked by phone recently. “You can take a little bit of technology, and you can apply part of it. But here’s my simple fix: If there’s a wall that is facing the racetrack, that wall should have a SAFER barrier on it. Why do you have to wait until somebody hits something and go, ‘Wow! Oh, we never thought a car would hit there?’”

I pointed out that SAFER barriers (commonly called “soft walls”) are estimated to cost $500 a foot. That means it can cost $2.6 million to install a mile’s worth of the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers.

“There’s no excuse,” Waltrip said. “If you know something will save someone’s life, or keep somebody from getting hurt, there’s no such thing as ‘Cost Prohibitive.’ It might be ‘Effort Prohibitive’ or ‘We Don’t Want To Do It’ prohibitive, but cost should not be a factor.”

For the past decade – in part because of Earnhardt’s death in 2001 after he hit an outside wall on the last lap of the Daytona 500 – tracks throughout NASCAR’s top series have been obligated to install SAFER barriers at least in the corners.

But NASCAR does not make the tracks turn every inside and outside wall into a “soft wall,” even though high-profile drivers such as Jeff Gordon have also advocated that approach. Instead, tracks evaluate the issue on a case-by-case basis along with NASCAR and engineers from the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which makes recommendations on which walls at each track are most likely to be hit and would most benefit from soft walls.

The problem is most acute at superspeedways of 1.5 or more miles, because cars reach faster speeds there and there is more square footage to cover. Tracks have been improving their coverage steadily, but parts of walls remain unprotected at most every large track. Gate and fence configurations also can pose a problem.

A spokesman for Charlotte Motor Speedway said the track has installed 4,800 linear feet of additional SAFER wall and tire barriers since the first quarter of 2014. That is significant – 4,800 feet is the length of 16 football fields if you don’t include the end zones. Other tracks owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. have also been making safety enhancements.

Michigan International Speedway just added a lot of SAFER barriers, too, with more planned. And drivers as a whole compete in a much safer environment than they did in 2001 when Earnhardt was killed, in large part because of better seats and head restraints. No driver has died in NASCAR’s top series since Earnhardt in 2001.

Still, accidents happen.

The day before this year’s Daytona 500, in the Xfinity Series opener, Kyle Busch hit a wall at Daytona International Speedway that was not protected by a SAFER barrier. Busch broke his right leg and his left foot and missed three months of racing. (Busch has returned to the track and will race in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600).

Remorseful Daytona president Joie Chitwood III apologized that night in February at a news conference, saying the track did not “live up to its responsibility” and that it would “fix the problem.” He said every inch at Daytona will eventually be covered with SAFER barriers.

There was an emotional outpouring in support of Busch right after his accident, as several drivers took to Twitter to berate NASCAR and Daytona for not already having installed more soft walls.

A sampling:

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

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

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

Since then, though, human nature has taken over and the issue has died down because we haven’t had another high-profile driver hit a wall and get hurt.

But it is only a matter of time.

This is all about time, really. Race tracks and NASCAR are acting like they have a whole lot of it to spare.

They don’t.

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

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

  Comments