Commentary

SAFER barriers: Easier said than done

Updated: May 4, 2011, 3:44 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

When I first saw the replays of Jeff Gordon's car slamming into another unprotected inside wall, I got angry.

I was furious, shaking my head in disgust. I knew how close Gordon had come (not once, but twice) to a possible serious injury from hitting a concrete wall that didn't have the SAFER barrier. It happened to him a few years ago at Las Vegas. It happened again Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

I planned to write a blistering column about how it's inexcusable for tracks to have concrete walls anywhere anymore without the SAFER barrier.

Then I called my old friend, Dr. Dean Sicking, who talked me down off my high horse.

If you are an auto racing fan and don't know Dr. Sicking, you should. In fact, you should send him a thank-you note for all the drivers who are still racing today because of his genius.

Sicking and his team of engineers at the University of Nebraska designed and tested the SAFER barrier, the collapsible device that has without question saved lives and drastically reduced serious injuries over the past eight years.

[+] EnlargeSicking
Darrell Ingham/Getty ImagesDr. Dean Sicking, left, at Richmond International Raceway in 2004, is the pioneer behind the SAFER barrier.

He helped revolutionize safety in a sport that all too often lost one of its stars, including Dale Earnhardt in 2001. That tragedy was the catalyst for change that included other dramatic improvements like head-and-neck restraints, carbon-fiber seats and a new car design for NASCAR.

Motorsports safety moved out of the dark ages, but I still cringe every time a car hits a concrete wall without the SAFER barrier. I pound my fist and say, "Why?"

And this time, I called Dean Sicking, who happens to be the most intelligent person I know. He's also a straight shooter.

Dean is in the business of saving lives, helping implement structural safety improvements that are used on highways we all drive on regularly.

He isn't one to homogenize a serious situation. If someone or some entity isn't doing what it needs to do in regard to safety, he's going to tell me.

So when I called him to vent my rage over racetracks and NASCAR not doing everything possible to add the SAFER barrier to every concrete wall, he explained to me it isn't that simple.

"When we first started adding the [SAFER] barrier to racetracks, NASCAR officials talked about adding it on every wall," Sicking said. "But the truth is, along with the expense, there wasn't enough steel tubing in the world to do it.

"We would have used it all and still come up short. We had to select the areas where a crash was most likely to occur."

SAFER stands for Steel and Foam Energy Reduction. It is comprised of hollow rectangular tubes in front of foam padding, which is in front of the concrete walls.

And it's isn't cheap. It originally cost about $275 a foot to install, but Sicking said the cost of steel has almost doubled since 2004, so the cost now is closer to $500 a foot.

Texas Motor Speedway spent $1.7 million to add the barrier seven years ago on a 1.5-mile oval. Using Sicking's estimated cost today, a half-mile of SAFER barrier would cost about $1.3 million.

There was a lot of complaining from speedway officials before the barrier was added, saying it was too expensive. But how much is a life worth?

That's still true today. Many outside walls on straightaways, and most inside walls, do not have the SAFER barrier.

"We are trying to expand every year and pushing it as hard as we can,'' Sicking said. "And I have to say that NASCAR officials have been behind us 100 percent. They are trying to do the right thing."

Sicking said each track that hosts NASCAR races is re-evaluated every year for safety improvements.

"We will see incidents happen where we make a recommendation to add the barrier," he said. "NASCAR asks the tracks to do so. If they hesitate, NASCAR makes it part of the sanctioning agreement that it must be done. They try to convince them before wielding the big club."

Twelve Sprint Cup tracks are owned by International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by NASCAR's France family. So that isn't really an issue at ISC tracks if NASCAR is behind it.

NASCAR chairman Brian France talked about the sanctioning body's views on the subject during his appearance on "NASCAR Now" Monday.

"Obviously, we want to have the SAFER walls in the areas where we have the most risk,'' France said. "I know we're always looking at it, and every track is a little bit different.

"Some are road courses, so you can't just say every wall. It may not be practical or it may not be necessary. But clearly in areas of high risk, we have to do better."

So what about Saturday's accident at Richmond? Gordon said it knocked the wind out of him when he hit the concrete wall on the driver's side of the car.

I have been pleasantly surprised at how well the barrier has worked. But nothing is perfect. The chances of injury are much smaller than ever before, but there will come a day when a driver hits it and suffers a major injury.

-- Dr. Dean Sicking on the SAFER barrier

"I wish they had a SAFER barrier there," Gordon said afterward. "I seem to be able to find the ones without the SAFER barrier. I don't know what it is. I'm not trying to teach anybody anything. I think it is pretty well known we need SAFER barriers everywhere. This is a short track and everything, but man, I hit a ton. It definitely got my attention. It rang my bell."

Richmond International Raceway president Doug Fritz released a statement saying the track constantly reviews safety issues and adjusts accordingly: "We have made improvements from time to time based on recommendations from the University of Nebraska and will continue to look at being able to improve upon it."

That doesn't necessarily mean the portion of the inside wall where Gordon hit will have the SAFER barrier before the September race at RIR. Sicking said it normally doesn't work that way.

"We review an incident and see how it relates to other similar tracks,'' Sicking said. "Then we make recommendations to add the barrier at locations on all those tracks that could have a similar problem.

"Typically, that is done before the start of the year when it can be budgeted. The tracks just don't have the budget to do this in the middle of the season."

However, if Sicking says it needs to be done, he says NASCAR backs him up. He used the repaving project at Daytona as an example.

"I walked the entire track twice during that process," Sicking said. "There was guardrail on the interior of the turns that, frankly, wasn't even up to 1964 highway standards.

"We recommended several changes that didn't even involve the SAFER barrier. NASCAR and track officials implemented all of them."

In time, all exposed concrete walls that pose any danger to a driver will have the SAFER barrier. That day will make Sicking a happy man, but he has a warning for us all.

"I have been pleasantly surprised at how well the barrier has worked," Sicking said. "But nothing is perfect. The chances of injury are much smaller than ever before, but there will come a day when a driver hits it and suffers a major injury.''

Thanks to Sicking, and NASCAR's acceptance of his recommendations, those days will be extremely rare.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Jeff GordonAP Photo/Zach GibsonJeff Gordon says his crash into a concrete wall at Richmond on Saturday took his breath away.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter