Originally created 05/12/02

Are 'soft walls' the answer?

ATLANTA - Officials at NASCAR are impressed with the early success of the soft walls at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but not enough to endorse the safety barrier for the rest of the tracks on the stock car circuit.

One raceway, the New Hampshire International Speedway, is ready to install the panels that are designed to absorb some of the energy in a crash. All it needs is NASCAR's blessing.

Track owner Bob Bahre was at the University of Nebraska to watch the panels, called the SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction) walls, in action during some of the testing. But when he heard the impact of IndyCar driver Robby McGehee with the third turn wall at Indianapolis last Sunday was greatly reduced by the soft walls, he quickly decided he wanted them, too.

"It looked to me like it could work," he said. "It's a lot of dough, but if it's going to do the job, who cares?"

The barriers would cost about $300,000 to put up at Bahre's 1.058-mile oval, a speedway where Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin both died in separate accidents in 2000.

New Hampshire was criticized for having long, fast straightaways and sharp turns. Both Petty and Irwin were killed when their throttles stuck at the end of the backstretch and they hit the third turn walls a full speed.

In the off-season, Bahre re-configured the turns to make them wider and more sweeping in an effort to make the racing more competitive.

Soft walls, he said, would make it safer.

MCGEHEE'S INITIAL 219-mph impact was measured at 40 Gs, according to the data recorder inside his car. The car spun and struck a second time at 72.7 Gs. Those hits, according to the Indy Racing League, were nearly 50 Gs less than a similar crash a week earlier before the walls were installed.

NASCAR is watching the soft walls at Indianapolis with a lot of interest. So far, no other speedway other than New Hampshire has plans to add the barriers, and NASCAR is continuing to monitor the situation.

"If this is it and if it works, everybody will jump on it," said Ed Clark, general manager and president at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "There are some questions we all have: Will the same application work for all situations? Some speedways have flat corners; some have high banks.

"I'm glad progress is being made. It says work is being done. I'm also encouraged by the improvements in the seats and all the guys wearing head and neck restraint systems. It's all good news. We're getting closer."

NASCAR worked with the IRL on soft wall development. Several race teams donated cars that were crashed into different forms of barriers to help arrive at the current component of metal tubes and bundles of polystyrene.

"Everything has really elevated the level of knowledge of what happens when a car crashes," said Gary Nelson, who oversees NASCAR's new research and development department. "Now we have a long way to go, but we're very excited to be part of it and we're looking forward to the next steps."

TWO QUESTIONS NASCAR has with the barriers are "pocketing" and the time it takes to repair one of the barriers.

Nelson said a 3,400-pound stock car often embeds itself into a soft wall rather than bouncing off, much like a golf ball hitting a soft green. That creates a harder impact since the car comes to a more-abrupt stop. Impacts with the soft walls at Indy _ there have been four since Sunday, including an impact Friday afternoon involving rookie Alex Barron _ all have resulted in cars caroming off the barriers without "pocketing."

NASCAR wants to be convinced their heavier cars will do the same.

When McGehee hit the wall last Sunday, it took speedway officials nearly 25 minutes to repair a hole in the barrier. That's not feasible for NASCAR, since such delays could add another hour onto most races.

"It's a real factor when you have a three-hour or a three-and-a-half-hour television window," Clark said. "If you have to replace three or four of those, it takes you out of your television window."

NASCAR HASN'T TALKED to any of the other raceways on the circuit about soft walls, Clark said.

"I haven't been contacted by anybody about it," he said. "You'd think if they were developing it, they'd tell you to keep an eye on it. We've kept up with it on our own."

Driver Jeff Burton said soft walls, much like the evolution of the head and neck restraint systems of a year ago, is an idea that's certain to become NASCAR law in the future.

"If the stuff works, it's only a matter of how fast can the manufacturer get it to us," he said. "As quickly as they're spitting it out the door, we ought to be installing it.

"I think drivers in general would like to have a better wall system than concrete. We want something that will absorb energy, that will help our car absorb energy instead of it being transferred to us. I can't imagine anybody not wanting it."

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.


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