Officials at Charlotte Motor Speedway began taking steps to make their track safer last year, and those efforts that took on more urgency in February after Kyle Busch was injured in a wreck during the Xfinity race at Daytona.
Busch suffered a compound fracture of his right leg and a mid-foot fracture of his left foot when his car slid across the infield grass and slammed into an inside wall that was not protected by SAFER barriers.
Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood vowed after Busch’s wreck that Daytona officials would cover “every inch” of that track in SAFER barriers, a goal the man who created the SAFER walls believes will be difficult for Chitwood to achieve.
Experts say time constraints and demands on the materials needed for the Steel and Foam Energy Reducing system will make it nearly impossible for tracks to get the SAFER barriers everywhere they’re needed this season.
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But Marcus Smith, president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, says he’s proud of the safety measures taken at the 1.5-mile track, which hosts the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.
Since the start of 2014, workers have installed an additional 4,800 feet of SAFER walls and tire barriers – the equivalent of 16 football fields – at the Charlotte track.
Several of NASCAR’s top Sprint Cup drivers applauded the steps the sport has taken since Busch’s accident, but expect more to be done in the future.
“There have been some really positive things that come from a really unfortunate incident,” reigning Sprint Cup champion and current points leader Kevin Harvick said. “I know that there is a really big plan in place. You just can’t go out and just put walls up.
“I think the planning and the organization and everything that has gone through has been a full-court press since that day.”
A full review
NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway officials met with University of Nebraska engineers, who developed the SAFER barriers, in January 2014 to review the Charlotte track.
Speedway workers began implementing the engineers’ recommendations last year, but Smith said Charlotte officials decided to “go even farther” after Busch’s wreck at Daytona.
According to a track spokesman, approximately 2,900 feet of energy-absorbing SAFER walls has been installed in the past two years on the inside wall areas of Turns 1 and 2, the entrance to pit road and the backstretch, and along the outside walls near Turns 1 and 4.
About 1,900 feet of tire barrier packs have been installed on the inside wall areas of Turns 2, 3 and 4.
Smith said the only areas not covered at the Charlotte track are the outside wall along the backstretch, which engineers have said is not a high-risk area, and along pit road, where crews have to hustle over the walls for pit stops.
Dean Sicking, who created the SAFER barriers as director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at Nebraska, said tire barriers are less expensive than SAFER walls, which cost about $500 a foot, and can be installed more quickly.
But Sicking said tire barriers can be effective, particularly on straight-ahead collisions such as Busch’s.
“As long as you’re reasonably sure that there won’t be many glancing hits, then tire barriers are probably better,” Sicking said. “Once you start getting those oblique hits, then the tire barrier starts to fall down in a hurry.”
A ‘positive addition’
Charlotte officials fashioned the tire barriers from old race tires held together by thick, rubber conveyor belts that were used at rock quarries. Smith pointed out the environmental benefits of reusing the old tires and conveyor belts, although Sicking said new belts would do a better job of absorbing at the point of impact.
That said, Sicking called the conveyor belts a “positive addition to tire barriers.”
Sicking is now at the University of Alabama-Birmingham working on a football helmet design to reduce concussions. But he and his former Nebraska colleagues still consult with NASCAR.
Sicking says NASCAR needs to do “a concentrated study and detailed analysis” of every wall hit at all of its tracks over the past several years to identify areas where tire barriers and SAFER walls should be installed.
Complicating matters at each track are the unique wall angles along the straightaways and turns, as well as openings in walls that provide access to the track for safety and support vehicles.
“It’s hard to get the barriers built and in place in a short amount of time. I think in the second half of the year, you’re going to see a lot more SAFER barriers and different things happen,” Harvick said last week.
“I think the analysis of the different walls that have odd shapes and angles to them, with the tire barriers, and listening to the explanations of what NASCAR’s done to temporarily make those places better, is encouraging. It’s an ongoing process.”
A week after Busch was injured, Jeff Gordon hit a wall at Atlanta Motor Speedway that was not protected by SAFER barriers, prompting the popular driver to rip NASCAR for not doing something “that should have been done a long time ago.”
But Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes officials have made an effort to improve safety, despite the time constraints.
“Where they couldn’t fix the task completely due to timing, they’ve made some efforts to make it as safe as possible for us. So I appreciate that,” Earnhardt said. “Every time we have an accident, it really kind of kick-starts a new motive to do better and get safer equipment out there. And I think they’ve done a good job in response to what happened to Kyle in Daytona.”
‘We’ve got the best situation’
Smith, the son of Speedway Motorsports owner and longtime CEO Bruton Smith, is a former Legends Car driver who is friendly with many of the drivers.
Smith declined to discuss how much Charlotte Motor Speedway has spent on the SAFER walls and tire barriers. But he is pleased with the safety measures.
“We’ve put our best foot forward. I feel like I can feel really confident that we’ve got the best situation for all of those drivers that are going to be out there,” Smith said. “We’re friends. I respect them a lot. Our families know each other, so I wouldn’t want anything to happen to them.”
Sprint Cup driver David Ragan said he sustained a concussion at Watkins Glen in 2011 when he slammed into a guard rail at the road course in upstate New York. Ragan says the wreck made him appreciate NASCAR’s efforts to get energy-absorbing barriers on the walls.
“I think any time you hit the wall hard and you hit a SAFER barrier, you count your blessings for sure,” Ragan said. “I’ve seen some different, belt-type absorbent material they’ve put on some of the walls. That’s a step in the right direction.”
“SAFER barriers, that’s something that maybe takes some time to put in place and order. There may be a certain number of companies that install that. So I give thanks to Marcus Smith and his staff here for trying to be creative.
“Just doing something is better than nothing at all.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson