How SAFER Barriers Came To Help NASCAR Drivers Survive ‘The Big One’

Jeff Gordon raced long enough to become a four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion. Michael McDowell hung around long enough to become a Daytona 500 winner. Danica Patrick survived long enough to become a national motorsports personality.

In large part, each of them and dozens of other racers have Tony George, the late Bill France Jr., and Dr. Dean Sicking to thank for their health and good fortune.

More on those “dozens of other racers” later, but for now….

Right from the start, in February of 1948, the midwives of NASCAR worried about keeping speeding cars apart from spectators. Back then, the men used just about anything imaginable: sand dunes, wooden fences, highway guard railing, sheets of plywood, stacks of tires, and water- or sand-filled barrels. Sometimes they got lucky and things worked; sometimes they didn’t and there was tragedy.

In most cases, track builders simply poured a thick concrete outer wall to restrain cars and added chicken-wire fencing to contain debris. And while that generally kept cars and spectators from one another, the cost was often a damaged car (an acceptable risk) or serious injury or death (unacceptable on all accounts). There’s still risk, of course, but not like then.

“There should never be a risk of death for spectators sitting and enjoying a sports event,” says retired Xfinity and Cup Series driver and former NASCAR official Brett Bodine. “Keeping spectators safe from a car getting in the stands or from debris should be everyone’s highest priority. The sport has spent a lot of money in the past 20-some years doing that, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.”

Perhaps inexplicably, NASCAR and its member tracks seemed satisfied with concrete walls until the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500. That tragedy accelerated the oft-described “safety revolution” that had quietly begun the previous year with the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Tony Roper after they hit concrete walls. Many of racing’s most important safety advances came within a year of those fatal accidents, and it is notable that Earnhardt was the last driver killed in a NASCAR national series event.

“A lot of our injuries came from cars hitting walls,” former NASCAR president Mike Helton said recently. “We were beginning to learn that the (kinetic force) of the car changing direction so quickly created a spike the human body had to survive. We had to do something to deal with that spike.’’

In January of 2003, less than two years after Earnhardt died, NASCAR opened its Research and Development Center near the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 60,000-foot facility houses a complicated laser-equipped inspection station for pre-season car certifications and an “autopsy room” to examine in infinite detail the remains of cars involved in serious accidents. For example, Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Ford and Ty Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet went there after Newman’s 2020 Daytona 500 crash and Dillon’s 2015 Coke 400 crash at Daytona International Speedway.

It may surprise some to realize that IndyCar led the march toward the creation of life-saving “soft walls.” In May of 1998, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway experimented with PEDS (Polyethylene Energy Dissipation System) along the inside wall between Turn 4 and the inside pit wall. PEDS was a fish-scale-like installation of thick polyethylene cylinders and plates developed by former General Motors engineer and IndyCar safety advisor John Pierce of Wayne State University.

His system was unintentionally tested that August, when two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk went viciously head-on during an IROC race. (The protected area was not touched during that year’s Indy 500). His car was destroyed and he suffered a mild concussion, proving to some skeptics that PEDS or at least a PEDS-like technology might work. But the system was quickly dismantled and abandoned because it had flung Luyendyk’s car back toward oncoming traffic.

Seeking a partner to help advance their sport, IndyCar president George recruited NASCAR executive France Jr. to join him in approaching the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. There, between 1998 and 2002, Sicking and his MRSF staff created the SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) barrier to cushion exposed concrete walls on speedways.

The UNL team married four 20-foot, horizontal strands of high-strength, tubular steel skin with bundles of energy-absorbing, closed-cell, polystyrene foam. The foam bundles were wedged every few yards in the 30-inch gap between the outer steel skin and the concrete wall. In theory as well as reality the foam barriers absorbed the kinetic energy from contact and dissipated it along the walls. The concept is to absorb the force from the impact and create more time for the body to react and decelerate. That slower deceleration reduces g-forces, thus lessening the chance of death or serious injury.

The SAFER barrier proved so promising in testing that all four corners of IMS were protected for the 2002 Indy 500 and Brickyard 400. With far more tracks to deal with, NASCAR needed until 2006 to

Some of the most remarkable tests I’ve ever seen were at the University of Nebraska,” Helton said. “They’d take a car on a cable and hit a wall at 200 mph, with test dummies and cameras and data recorders. We learned a lot from that, but it was tough watching those cars hit those walls out there while we were trying to figure out what we had to do.”

Because of SAFER barriers (and, to be fair, the HANS device), dozens of NASCAR drivers have survived frightening head-on hits in recent years. Among them: Newman and Dillion at Daytona Beach; McDowell at Texas; Patrick at Daytona Beach; Gordon at Charlotte, Las Vegas, and Pocono; David Reutimann at Watkins Glen; Cody Coughlin at Daytona Beach; Matt Kenseth at Talladega; Jimmie Johnson at Pocono and Charlotte; Brad Keselowski at Atlanta; Miguel Paludo at Daytona Beach; Kyle Larson at Talladega and Daytona Beach; Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Fontana; Casey Mears at Dover; Colin Braun at Atlanta; and Kyle Busch at Talladega.

There’s an 11-minute video on YouTube titled “NASCAR’s Worst SAFER Barrier Crashes.” It features 24 accidents featuring Cup, Xfinity, and Truck drivers going into SAFER barriers. At some point during almost every clip you’ll hear a variation of these words from one or more of the broadcasters …

“WOW!!! What a lick… thank God for SAFER barriers.”

Indeed.

Source: Read Full Article