Getting to the heart of the soft wall

SAFER barrierJonathan Ferrey/NASCAR/Getty Images

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.

"I'll be honest with you, I got distracted from it and sort of dropped out of that [SAFER] process in 2007," he said. "I feel like I let NASCAR down. I was writing the performance standards for my industry. You just can't imagine how much pressure that was putting me under. So I basically was not very responsive for them for a long time while I wrote those standards. And I wish I done a better job then. History is what it is."

These days Sicking is a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and is a leading developer of football helmet technology as post-concussion concerns run rampant throughout the United States.

"The paradigm shift we put into NASCAR with SAFER, we're going to do again with football helmets, in terms of performance standards," he said.

Nearly a decade later, the debate rages on whether NASCAR-sanctioned tracks should have more SAFER barriers than are currently installed.

Protect your assets

It could be argued that NASCAR's Sprint Cup driving corps is the most valuable asset in the industry.

Turn on the television, and every advertisement for every racetrack includes a personal driver endorsement asking fans to buy tickets to the race. As well it should. Every NASCAR brand-mark advertisement includes one or more driver statements and myriad driver-centric on-track moments. As well it should. Drivers' names and likenesses adorn T-shirts and hats and koozies and camping chairs and bumper stickers.

You don't see many "NASCAR"-branded items on fans' backs. You see " Kevin Harvick, Budweiser No. 4 Chevrolet"-branded items. You don't see many "Daytona International Speedway"-branded items. You see " Dale Earnhardt Jr., National Guard No. 88"-branded items. For every Monster Mile-branded hat, there are thousands of Tony Stewart-branded hats. You get the idea.

The drivers are the show. NASCAR in recent years has collected reams of consumer-survey data that proves this. And the sponsors, tracks, television partners and, most certainly, the sanctioning body leverage the driving corps' popularity and distinct personality to max capacity.

Leveraging key assets is what business is about. Promoting and cultivating key assets grows business. Common sense says to protect those assets.

So why -- how -- then, can NASCAR and its tracks possibly not protect the drivers to the utmost degree? They think that they are.

I visited Harvick at his home within the past month and broached this sentiment with him. He asked me to take out my notepad and grab my pen:

"The greatest asset in NASCAR is dead," Harvick said, referring to Dale Earnhardt. "Do we really want to go down that road again?"

It is a valid question.


NASCAR's latest-model race car, the Gen-6, is its safest machine ever. The seats and helmets are safer than ever, too. Even the concrete walls that circle the racetracks are the safest they've ever been.

But there remains plenty of exposed concrete all over the Sprint Cup Series. And drivers, racing with a new rules package and traveling at record speeds, seem to be hitting those exposed areas more and more often.

Denny Hamlin broke his back at Auto Club Speedway in 2013. There was no energy-absorbing SAFER barrier at his point of impact. It was later installed there. Harvick emerged from a last-lap crash in this season's Daytona 500 frustrated that the wall he hit had no SAFER barrier.

The following Friday in Phoenix, Harvick told reporters he'd like to see Daytona International Speedway allot some of the $400 million it is currently spending on an upgrade to its grandstands for driver safety.

"It shouldn't even be a debate," Harvick told us then. "I guess they're just waiting for something else to happen, and then they'll fix it."

Harvick's point is that a reactive approach is unacceptable and could ultimately lead to a devastating outcome for a competitor. Many of his peers echo his point. So why doesn't every inch of every track at NASCAR's top three levels have SAFER barrier technology installed? And should it, even?

"I understand that question. I'm not trying to dodge it," said Talladega Superspeedway president Grant Lynch. "I was riding around Talladega [in April] -- and we're putting some more [SAFER barriers] up, and I'm looking at the inside wall and I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, I'm going to have to get [SAFER barriers] everywhere.

"Does it need to be there? I don't know the answer to that. That's why we've always gone to experts to advise us on that. And by 'we,' I mean the sport. Not just [International Speedway Corp., which owns Talladega], but NASCAR."

That progression is the prevailing approach throughout the industry: Wreck occurs; University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineers investigate and make suggestions to NASCAR; NASCAR requests track improvements; track reacts.

It is a polarizing approach.

Nebraska's role

NASCAR told it introduced SAFER barrier technology in 2002 after it had debuted at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The previous year, its most famous and beloved star, Dale Earnhardt, died in a crash on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500. No driver has died in a Sprint Cup Series race since.

From the beginning, NASCAR's chief advisers on the need for, and installation of, SAFER technology are a team of safety engineers located at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sicking originally led the team.

Sicking, in collaboration with NASCAR and track officials, took the aforementioned comprehensive look at where accidents were likeliest to happen at each track. They considered track geometries and potential trajectories for errant vehicles.

In NASCAR, that meant starting with the outside walls in the turns.

If you ask experts at Nebraska, SAFER barriers should not line every inch of every track. Bob Bielenberg, a research associate engineer at Nebraska, told his team has had those conversations with NASCAR, and it was quickly decided that wasn't an efficient methodology. He offered an analogy:

"We come from a highway-safety background, and one of the questions we get a lot is similar to this: What's the one thing we could do that would cut down on fatalities and accidents by a huge number?" Bielenberg said. "And one of the things we tell them is we could limit everybody's driving speeds to 30 mph. You cut your fatalities and serious injuries down almost overnight, to a tenth of what they are now.

"But operationally that doesn't make a ton of sense. We're not going to tell everybody to stop driving above 30 mph. It's not very practical for the driving public and causes lots of other headaches. That's kind of analogous to the SAFER barrier simulation [in NASCAR]. Sure, we could ring the tracks in SAFER barrier. But in the end, that's not a very efficient solution for the tracks. It's not very good for operations in a lot of ways. And there's other considerations that factor in there with the other safety aspects on the tracks."

Among the operational challenges that stem from adding SAFER barriers everywhere, Bielenberg said, are compromised openings in walls used for moving safety vehicles and personnel in a timely fashion. He said that infrastructure changes might be required to support the barrier all the way around the track.

On certain tracks, he said, that would be quite difficult. He explained that installing SAFER barriers isn't merely bolting the barrier in front of the wall. Rather, he said, the wall must have a certain capacity, and extra paving is required in the area in front of the barrier and leading up to it to ensure a stable installation surface.

That's not even possible in some areas of some NASCAR tracks, he said.

"It's oversimplifying it to say we should try and protect for every accident that could ever potentially happen," he said. "Because no matter what you do, you're going to get an accident that is outside the bounds of what you thought was potentially possible.

"It's a progression over time. It's not [implementing] every bell and whistle put in at the first pass. That's not the way to approach safety in a rational way. It has to be evolution over time."

Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR vice president of operations, echoed that opinion, and noted that gate and fence configurations -- and the diverse racing series that compete on NASCAR-sanctioned tracks -- are key factors in determining whether installing SAFER technology in certain areas is the right decision. It is often not the right decision, he said.

'It sounds simple to go ahead and put it up everywhere, but it's really not that simple." O'Donnell said. "Some of the things you've got to consider in having them everywhere is, some of them could actually be more dangerous. There's multiple forms of racing at certain venues that take place that may put a driver in more harm's way, depending on what type of vehicle they're racing.

"When you look at NASCAR and the different gate configurations, there's certainly some challenges in terms of mandating SAFER barriers everywhere."

Tom Gideon, who heads NASCAR's safety initiative, estimates that SAFER barriers make up roughly 25 percent of the overall safety equation for NASCAR drivers. Ten percent, he said, is the car structure. The balance, 65 percent, he said, is in the seat and head restraints drivers use.

"You have to factor all these things in," Gideon said. "That's demonstrated by the fact that we have SAFER barrier hits and non-SAFER barrier hits. There are some injuries. But the drivers are coming out reasonably well."

And if you ask some folks, it's the risk of the trade.

"I don't think the greatest asset of the sport is the drivers -- I think, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's the fans," said ESPN NASCAR analyst and two-time Sprint Cup winner Ricky Craven. "The fans need the greatest level of protection. They're paying hard-earned money to come be entertained. Drivers are making enormous money to take risks.

"I'm not an advocate for hitting concrete at 200 mph at the expense of entertaining people, but I'm a realist. Reasonable minds prevail. From a selfish standpoint, sure, I'd love every inch to be covered. But from a practical standpoint, it doesn't make sense."

Proactive or reactive?

NASCAR, UNL and track operators all believe the current approach is a proactive one. When questioned about it being reactive, none flinched. O'Donnell said NASCAR is the most proactive sanctioning body in the world, as evidenced by the construction of its research and development center and continued push for SAFER barriers wherever they're considered to be needed.

But the trend of crashes outside the SAFER barrier threshold leads some -- namely drivers -- to consider it reactive.

"It's not thorough enough," Jeff Burton said. "We've been learning for years that race cars end up in places where you never thought they could. We've seen it in very serious wrecks -- not just in NASCAR -- or even fatalities were caused because open-ended walls were done improperly.

"The angle at which you hit the wall, no one ever looked and said, 'Wow, that could happen.' When you're going 190 mph and something starts to happen, and there's a series of events, you never know where that car's going to end up. So to truly have the drivers in the best possible situation, soft walls need to be everywhere."

There have been consistent additions. During its 2010 repavement, Daytona International Speedway added 1,900 feet of SAFER barrier to the backstretch wall. Track president Joie Chitwood said no one asked the track to do that. He said DIS asked Nebraska for insight and was told that additional SAFER would be beneficial, so DIS installed it.

Chitwood said DIS installed 2,400 more feet of SAFER between Turn 4 and the tri-oval and from the tri-oval to Turn 1 in time for this Saturday's Coke Zero 400.

Chitwood, Lynch and Michigan International Speedway president Roger Curtis all stressed they are not safety experts. They are race promoters. They rely on NASCAR and the University of Nebraska to recommend safety improvements, whether it is SAFER barriers, higher fences or improved crossover gates. All three men said they've implemented every recommendation given to them.

Chitwood said, "I'd hope the drivers realize we've done a really nice job of making improvements proactively when given the chance. We react swiftly and to a point when we have to. But we're proactive, too. I'm not sure anybody said a word about the 1,900-foot barrier we installed in 2010. We did that on our own. It's a balancing act of doing the right things at the right time.

"Remember the Humpy Bumper? 'Hey, Humpy, that's not an area of expertise for you.' We must rely on the people at Nebraska to tell us how and what we should do. At the end of the day I'm not sure you want Joie Chitwood to say the fence should be this tall and have this many cables. We rely on the people who build, design and improve. That happens every couple years."

Curtis: "We've never turned down a safety recommendation from NASCAR. Ever. No matter the cost. If NASCAR comes forward and says, blank needs to be done, we absolutely make those changes. But I don't feel as a promoter, I can't unilaterally go out there and start messing with my track, no matter how much sense it makes to me.

"I'm not going to go out and mess with something that has an impact on those drivers without a whole bunch of experts telling me it is unequivocally, absolutely the right thing to do."

Bielenberg's reasoning makes sense to me. I told him so. But then I noted the Hamlin and Harvick wrecks, and said that they aren't the only two drivers to hit areas recently where there was no SAFER barrier.

"I think that when they first did softer walls, there was a huge financial commitment to the racetracks," Burton said. "So they went and looked and said, Where do you hit the most often? Right? So they did the best educated guess where they needed to be, and that's where they put them. That has almost reinforced that we need to have them everywhere, because we see people hitting them where they aren't.

"So the result is, where Denny Hamlin hit the wall at California. Well, we'll fix that by putting a softer wall up. Somebody might not hit that same place for 10 years. They'll hit it somewhere else! So when you start putting soft walls up in places after guys hit, that's reactionary. The reason we've gotten to the place we've gotten in the sport is because NASCAR decided to be proactive not reactive."

Alive and kicking

Based on historical data, Sicking estimates SAFER walls have helped save some eight drivers' lives.

"If you just go back in history, there were roughly one-and-a-half drivers killed every year, on average, including NASCAR and IndyCar at high-speed oval tracks by hitting outside walls," Sicking said.

"Who knows whether that would've continued? There's been tremendous improvements in car safety, so maybe that number would've been cut in half. But even if you cut that number in half, that's three-quarters of a driver, per year. That's seven or eight drivers over 10 years, would be my guess."

And that doesn't include career-ending injuries.

"It prevented a lot of those -- I'm certain of that," Sicking said. "If you spend six months on the sidelines, it's hard to get a ride the next time around."

In 2007, David Reutimann was wrecked late in the Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway and slammed the outside wall. The wall was protected by SAFER technology. He said he's not certain if he was knocked unconscious. But he is sure he was dazed. It took him some 30 seconds, he said, to even realize where he was and what he was doing. If you ask him, he was lucky to even be there.

"If you look at my wreck in the Truck Series from Texas, I would never have been alive to have driven at Fontana," Reutimann said.

That wreck occurred in 2004. Reutimann was racing Bill Lester through Turn 4 at Texas Motor Speedway in a Camping World Truck Series event. Lester's truck came out from underneath him in the bottom lane. He hit Reutimann, shoving both into the outside wall. It, too, was protected by a SAFER barrier.

"SAFER barriers pretty much saved my life twice," Reutimann said. "It's hard to say one way or the other. But if the first one hadn't done me in, it would have probably hurt me really, really bad."

At the same track four years later, during qualifying at Texas in just his second career Sprint Cup Series start, Michael McDowell drove into Turn 1 at 195 mph and lost control. His car went headfirst into the Turn 1 wall, flipped onto its roof and slid through the corner, then started flipping. It ultimately barrel-rolled some 10 times. He walked away.

"You never know the possible outcome of my crash without a SAFER barrier, but I'm sure I wouldn't have been able to walk away from that crash like I was able to," McDowell said. "With a frontal impact, any energy dissipated is going to help the driver survive without, or lessen, head or internal injuries."

In fairness, I understand the operational issues and whatnot that Bielenberg and O'Donnell noted. But isn't the potential to save a life more important?

"What you're saying is they're happening, but what you have is two anecdotal records, there, over a lot of accidents," Bielenberg responded.

I then rebutted, "Isn't one enough?"

"That's not how safety works," Bielenberg explained. "Safety isn't a picture that we just ring everything in a protective layer and everything will be safe. If we ring the whole track in SAFER barrier, there's going to be drivers eventually that hit it and got injured. It's not a perfect solution.

"Safety is always a minimization of risk as best as we can do. And that's what we try to do with the SAFER barrier. You have to take into consideration the other aspects. And the other operational concerns. The other safety efforts going on out there. Those things all have to come together as one big picture.

"And there are accidents that happen out there on exposed areas. No one's going to deny that. The difference is if you look at the track record of NASCAR safety in the last 10 years since they put up the SAFER barrier, I'd argue that the vast majority of those severe accidents are happening in areas where the SAFER barrier is up.

"It's not the other way around. The vast majority of your accidents are not happening in areas where we didn't put up SAFER barrier. And again, we're not neglecting those areas."

Craven knows full well the damage a concrete wall can do when impacted at 200 mph. He was twice airlifted from racetracks after horrific accidents. When NASCAR announced it was installing SAFER walls at its tracks, Craven turned to Kenny Wallace with a proclamation:

"I told him, 'In 10 years, we'll look back and say, I can't believe we actually raced with concrete walls,'" Craven said. "Up to that point, we just did it. It's like the goalposts in the NFL being at the front of the end zone versus the back. There's no reason for the goalpost to be in play, but it was."

As problem areas continue to be identified, Bielenberg visits the tracks, investigates the accident site and makes recommendations to NASCAR. What he doesn't want to do, he said, is overact and start installing SAFER barriers everywhere there could be an accident. He said that it is counterproductive and, again, constrictive to track operations.

Burton agrees with that philosophy. Sort of. He said the current state of the sport from a SAFER barrier perspective should be considered Phase 1 of 3. It's time for more, he said. Burton recently scaled back to a part-time racing schedule as he transitions to a full-time job as a television analyst.

His new employer, NBC Network, joined Fox in a reported $8.2 billion agreement to broadcast NASCAR competition through the 2024 season. The bulk of that money goes to the racetracks, Burton explained. And as a result, he said, the responsibility to install SAFER barriers belongs to the tracks.

"I believe that all track operators want the sport to be as safe as possible. I've spoken to a lot of them, track managers and the heads of companies that own the tracks," Burton said. "They understand that people turn the race on to watch Jimmie Johnson.

"They don't turn the race on to look at Texas Motor Speedway. They turn it on to watch Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. So the most valuable asset that NASCAR has are the drivers. It's just how it is. There's a clear understanding of that from everybody.

"But in my eyes, with the new TV deal that's coming in, and the tracks are getting the bulk of that, and the last ones that get it are the drivers. That's just how it is. That'll be unpopular for me to say, but it's true: The last ones to see that money are the drivers. I never complain about the money I make. We all make a lot of money. The top drivers do. However, everybody else, the tracks are bringing in more money than everybody else."

Best-case scenario, Burton continued, is to ring every track with SAFER. Others agree.

"I feel like there should be SAFER everywhere we go," McDowell said.

Expensive expansion

How much of the SAFER void has to do with money? SAFER barriers, Sicking said, cost roughly $500 per foot.

According to Bielenberg, Nebraska doesn't sell it. Rather, independent contractors install and fabricate the barrier, and price varies on the steel itself and difficulty involved in installing the barriers at a specific track.

"I don't think the cost has been prohibitive," Bielenberg said. "We've had very few tracks -- I can't think of any -- where we've talked about putting up SAFER barrier and the track said, We just don't want to do it because of the dollars.

"From my experience, they've been very receptive. Most of their concerns are always if I'm going to cover up one of their openings or put it somewhere where it causes operational issues, like pit entrances and things like that."

Craven understands that cost is a major reason SAFER isn't everywhere.

"The reason why is because I don't think they could afford to simply install it," he said. "The capital expense has to be enormous. From a sports perspective, it makes absolute sense that there shouldn't be an inch of concrete exposed for the drivers.

"But having been behind the wheel for 25 years, I'll tell you that's not the only risk. There also shouldn't be a blade of grass on the infield. Then there's pit road and pit wall. Where does it end? It doesn't end overnight."

Burton said, "That investment is a capital investment that is depreciated. And the cost of that investment is not as high as it initially appears. And it's a long-term investment. It's not something that's proven to deteriorate over a short period of time. I'm sure it does over a long period of time. But it's not like they have to keep making that investment over and over and over.

"The drivers are in a tough spot. What the drivers have is the media's ear. Racetrack operators, NASCAR, sponsors, even the drivers for that matter, don't really like airing their dirty laundry in public. But it's essential.

"If the drivers want to make something happen, go to the media. Have a conversation. So ultimately that puts pressure on the tracks to make something happen. It's on the tracks. The tracks have to get committed to trying to find a way to make it happen."