Getting to the heart of the soft wall

SAFER barrier

Dean Sicking remembers the moment well. It was December 2003, he said, and he was sitting in the grand ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan as a guest of NASCAR, taking in the final Winston Cup Series awards ceremony.

He recalls that Mike Helton, the sport's president, took the podium and announced that every high-speed oval track in each of NASCAR's top three circuits would install Steel and Foam Energy Reducing barriers for the 2004 season.

At the time, Sicking was director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and knew immediately that Helton's proclamation would provide a daunting challenge.

"I started looking into it, and it became obvious we were going to have to be somewhat selective in where we put it," Sicking told via phone from Poland. "There wasn't enough 8x8x3/16-inch steel tubing in the whole world to treat all the tracks, all the way around during that 2004 season."

As a result, they studied the accident history of each track, specifically logging locations where hard hits had occurred. Sicking noted that all injuries and fatalities were recorded and traceable, so he and NASCAR identified locations where those occurred.

They also took note of hard crashes from which the driver was uninjured. Then they adopted basic engineering principles, he said, such as tight-radius turns, and developed a basic installation philosophy.

From there, they began installing the barrier. Sicking, one of his colleagues, or former NASCAR safety head Steve Peterson visited each track and made certain each of those identified areas was addressed, Sicking said.

"We basically used the entire available supply of 8x8x3/16-inch steel tubing in the United States," Sicking said. "We used every available stick. As soon as Mike Helton made the announcement, the contractor went out and ordered every available supply he could get his hands on. We used up everything he ordered. And that was pretty much what controlled where we put it."

Sicking applauds NASCAR's effort in the first few years after the announcement and the aggressive approach taken to identify and pursue areas where SAFER was needed most. Sicking said his team carefully documented and identified what barriers should look like at each site and locations where it should start and stop.

They continuously monitored every race, he said, and whenever there was a hard hit that was determined to be sufficiently severe that a driver could get hurt in the future, they went to treat that location and every similar location at other tracks. They would write recommendation lists to NASCAR, which in turn would send recommendations to the track before the following season's sanction agreement, Sicking said.

"There was a lot of barrier added the first three or four years, I thought they did a great job," Sicking said. "Then 2008 hit, and things got more difficult in terms of financing, and their ability to pay us to be involved was finished. Our need to go out and get other resources -- we still have to pay ourselves and feed our families -- sort of distracted us."

First he was distracted, he said, then absent. In 2007 and 2008, Sicking said he wrote the performance standards for his industry. This placed him under immense pressure. It was all-consuming.

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