Hendrick: NASCAR shouldn't return to Vegas until track fixes walls

Updated: April 9, 2008, 12:47 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Team owner Rick Hendrick thinks NASCAR should not return to Las Vegas Motor Speedway until the retaining wall Jeff Gordon slammed into is improved.

Special barriers are located in the outside walls at Las Vegas. But the track did not install them along the inside wall, which the four-time NASCAR champion hit in the closing laps Sunday. The force was so violent Gordon's entire transmission was ripped from under the hood.

"If the teams are asked to spend $8 million apiece for a car that is a little bit safer, then we need to fix the damn walls at the track," Hendrick told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "That ought to be priority No. 1, and if the tracks don't have the walls, then we shouldn't race there."

Gordon's accident happened shortly after a restart with five laps to go when Gordon made contact with Matt Kenseth, sending both cars into a spin. Gordon's car smacked the inside wall.

Gordon said the accident was the "hardest I've ever hit" and was highly critical of the lack of SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers. He also was bothered that the angle of impact was nearly head-on because the part of the wall he hit curved inward as an access point for safety vehicles.

After being checked in the care center, Gordon delivered an on-air message to the track owner.

"Bruton [Smith], you need a soft wall and to change the wall back there on the back straightaway," he said. "It was a really, really hard hit. It took me awhile to be able to catch my breath and to get out.

"I couldn't have hit the wall at a worse angle. It really tore the thing up. I'm really disappointed right now in this speedway for not having a soft wall back there. And even being able to get to that part of the wall shouldn't happen."

Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., told ESPN.com's David Newton that engineers are looking at adding a SAFER barrier on the wall at the corner of the opening near the Turn 2 backstretch where Gordon crashed on Sunday.

"Jeff is right and we will do this," Smith told ESPN.com. "When Jeff Gordon says something I pay attention. He's my friend, pal, chum and soon-to-be next-door neighbor."

Smith would like all tracks to take a look at protective barriers in those areas.

"I'm glad Jeff spoke out," Smith told ESPN.com. "He told it like it was and I totally agree with him."

SAFER barriers were invented during a safety overhaul that resulted from the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt. The walls were developed by Dean Sicking at the University of Nebraska and are currently installed in some form at every track used by NASCAR's top series.

Track president Chris Powell said speedway officials worked closely with NASCAR when the original walls were installed, and would do the same this time.

NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said the sanctioning body will meet with Sicking and the University of Nebraska.

"We obviously will take a close look with them, get with the track and take a look at it and go from there," Poston said.

Hendrick called the absence of the SAFER barriers on the inside wall "most likely an oversight."

"I don't worry about Bruton fixing his stuff," he said. "He'll get this fixed."

Hendrick, NASCAR's most powerful owner, is not known for being outspoken. He said Gordon told him he escaped serious injury only because of the safety equipment provided by Hendrick Motorsports.

"These guys are star athletes," Hendrick said. "They make or break the sport and we can't be putting them in danger."

Gordon was in a crash at Pocono in 2006 that until Las Vegas he considered the hardest of his career. Hendrick said the Pocono crash "was as bad as it gets" and "it nearly brought me to my knees" when Gordon lost his brakes and went straight into the wall at nearly 200 mph.

Pocono had a SAFER barrier where Gordon hit, and the impact tore a huge chunk of the foam from the wall. Other than feeling a "little fuzzy," Gordon was unscathed and credited his safety equipment.

He did the same following Sunday's wreck.

"I've got an awesome team … because they build a safe race car," he said. "I'll tell you what: Several years ago those types of hits, you wouldn't be standing here right now."

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN.com's David Newton was used in this report.