Like many who watch NASCAR, I was under the impression that all immovable racing surfaces had been mostly covered by SAFER barriers. Turns out Daytona International Speedway isn’t, and last week we found out Atlanta Motor Speedway isn’t either. Then we found out, most tracks don’t have all of these surfaces covered by the system designed by engineers at the University of Nebraska and first implemented at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR says individual tracks are responsible for the installation of the safety system, and track owners and presidents say installation is time-consuming and expensive. Drivers want SAFER installed everywhere, and as a matter of consequence don’t really care who installs them as long as they’re present.
On February 21 during the Nationwide race at Daytona, Kyle Busch broke his left leg and right foot after his car went head first into an unprotected wall. There’s been no timetable for Busch’s return, but according to all the medical experts his recovery could take a significant part of the season.
Then, last week at Atlanta, both Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin crashed into an unprotected wall at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Thankfully, neither were hurt, but the angle of Gordon’s crash was particularly unnerving, and likely destroyed his car.
— Mike Vielhaber (@MVielhaber) March 1, 2015
"I knew it was a hard hit; I didn't expect it to be that hard," Gordon said after being checked out and cleared from the infield care center. "I got out and I looked and I was like, 'Oh, big surprise, I found the one wall here on the back straightaway that doesn't have a SAFER barrier. "I don't think we can say anymore after Kyle's incident in Daytona. Everybody knows they've got to do something and it should have been done a long time ago, but all we can do now is hope they can do it as fast as they possibly can and get it done.”
At least they can replace the car.
The solution to missing SAFER barrier is easy: NASCAR should mandate that SAFER barrier be installed on every surface a car can come in contact with while racing. Financing the cost of installation is expensive for track owners, especially if they only host one event per year, but reward far outweighs the risk in this situation. NASCAR should also take it upon itself to subsidize the installation of the system at every one of its national tracks.
This will be expensive, and it will hurt their bottom line, but what’s worse is if a driver becomes severely injured or dies as a result of crash that could have been easily prevented.
In the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death at Daytona in 2001, NASCAR required all drivers begin to use the Head and Neck Restraint System developed at Michigan State University and first adopted by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). That device has saved countless lives.
“We’ve always known, and since racing started, this is a dangerous sport. We assume that risk, but it’s hard when the fans get caught up in it.” Tony Stewart – February 23, 2013
IndyCar and CART developed a wheel-tethering system only after spectators were killed and seriously injured at Charlotte and Michigan this after years of watching wheels separate from cars and go bouncing down the track or outside of racing facilities like the tragedy of Wilbur Brink in 1931.
As humans, we’re slow to change anything until we’re forced to do so either by active desire, death, or legal action.
Today, many insist that danger and risk are the best parts of racing, and I agree. As an American, I always want to see cars go as fast as they can, hell, that’s been the bedrock of the Indianapolis 500 for 99 years, but don’t be stupid about safety. If all the great, or even good, drivers are concussed to the point where they aren’t allowed to drive, or are dead and cannot drive, then what do we have left in motorsports?
The expense of installing SAFER barriers is high, but so is the risk that a driver will be significantly hurt or worse, dead. And when that happens, all PR isn’t good PR. NASCAR should do the obvious and mandate that SAFER barriers be installed, and do the right thing and fund that installation if needed. The sanctioning body has more than enough money in the bank to handle this, and can have the tracks reimburse them through sanctioning fees.