LOUDON, N.H. - New Hampshire International Speedway has undergone a change designed to upgrade the quality of racing.
The next alteration could improve driver safety.
The speedway has been a focal point of safety concerns since 2000, when Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed in separate accidents. Those deaths led some drivers to push NASCAR to install soft walls before they returned to the track.
But when the Winston Cup field takes the green flag today (2 p.m., TNT) in the New England 300, the walls will remain unchanged two years later. In fact, the only revision is a wider racing surface in the turns, which drivers hope will make passing easier.
That doesn't mean energy-absorbing walls will never be here. Track owner Bob Bahre is waiting for NASCAR's permission to install the same system currently in place in the turns at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Through testing sessions, most Winston Cup teams have seen the SAFER barriers at Indy and were briefed by NASCAR about the walls. From that, some are glad the walls aren't up yet in New Hampshire.
"We were educated to the walls that exist at Indianapolis and based on the knowledge that I have now, as opposed to before that meeting, it makes sense that the walls aren't here," driver Ricky Craven said Saturday. "The only thing worse than not having the walls here would be having walls here that didn't work or having walls that weren't beyond the testing stage."
NASCAR is adamant that more testing is needed before the SAFER barrier can be used at tracks other than Indy.
For that, the drivers are thankful.
"You have to really commend NASCAR and everyone working in this area for waiting until they have everything exactly like they want it before we start it at other race tracks," said defending New England 300 champion Dale Jarrett. "They're looking for perfection, and we should appreciate that. I know there is still a lot of work to do."
Robby Gordon has seen the SAFER barrier up close, racing in the Indianapolis 500. His teammate in that event, P.J. Jones, crashed into one of the walls during a practice session, and Gordon believes the barrier saved him from significant injuries.
"He got his car turned around going into Turn 1 and backed it into the barrier," Gordon said. "The speed he was going and the angle he hit, it did flick him back across the track, but the G-load (shock) was not that big. It didn't even break the gearbox on the car, and he backed it in."
But soft walls will be forgotten today, when the focus will shift to the track surface.
Bahre spent about $200,000 on the change, and drivers still don't know what the effect would be.
Among those most interested is four-time and series champion Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner at New Hampshire.
"It's still a really narrow groove," Gordon said. "I appreciate the effort that was put out to make a wider, side-by-side racing groove, but I don't know if it's going to happen or not."
Gordon's concern is that attempting to pass on the new lower line will cause the car on the inside to slide up and push the outside car out of the high line.
"It's going to be really interesting to see how it unfolds because guys are going to have to be careful about making their moves," he said. "I think there's going to be a lot of fighting for position and if you go down there to make a pass, I think there will be a lot of sliding and people getting knocked out of the groove.
"That's going to make a lot of guys mad."
Gordon knows plenty about that. He got into a shouting match after one race here when Jarrett objected to Gordon's propensity for racing on the apron - part of which is now the reconfigured portion of the turns on the low-banked oval.
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