Dover - The Good The Bad and the Unacceptable
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a warm welcome goes out as well to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR or NASCAR related. This effort was going to include more than it does of the great racing we saw at Dover on Sunday, but as many of you know, when you get this scribe talking about SAFER barriers, it’s no holds barred. I enjoyed the race immensely, as it brought back old times and old races of a better caliber than generally seen today. That is with the exception of the wreck caused when Jimmie Johnson’s transmission quit on him before the race was over. What made that worse was that he restarted on the front row, having fought mightily all afternoon to get there.
There had been scattered single-car wrecks or spins earlier, but that one rivaled anything Talladega has offered lately, involving some 18 cars before the spinning stopped. Then, only a few laps later, slight contact between Kyle Larson and Carl Edwards sent Edwards careening toward the inside wall. As it happened, I was silently praying, Oh please, let it be SAFER! Thank God, it was a SAFER barrier on that wall because Carl hit it head on and the impact bounced his car into the air and backwards, very reminiscent of Denny Hamlin’s wreck at Fontana. In Denny’s wreck, the wall wasn’t SAFER and he wound up with a broken back. SAFER makes all the difference!
After those two wrecks, what was left of the field continued the race, which evolved into one of the best 3-car battles of modern times, between Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson and rookie sensation Chase Elliott. Sorry Matt, but those two kids ran so well that in the waning laps I was in “Anyone but Matt” mode. Matt won anyway and as folks are saying, maybe experience triumphed over youth, but those youths put on one helluva show out on that track and this old fan would have been thrilled to see either one take home his first NASCAR Cup Series win on Sunday.
That part was awesome! It’s the only word for it. We haven’t seen racing like that in many years, and it was so refreshing to feel that excitement grip me and hold my attention for such a long time. Alas, this piece is only a little bit about the race, but a whole lot about SAFER barriers and the lack thereof.
Let’s go back to even before the race itself. Qualifying was rained out on Friday, so the two practices on Saturday became of prime importance. Only a few minutes into the first one, the #10 car, driven by Danica Patrick, lost a rear-end gear and all the slippery grease that resides within it. That caused not only Danica, but the two cars behind her, driven by teammate Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray to all impact the hard and unforgiving outer wall where there is NO SAFER barrier!
Patrick’s car caught fire from the hot grease as she spun down Dover’s well-known “self-cleaning” banking to the inside wall. Stewart and McMurray followed suit but sans the flames. As one might guess, that got some folks talking about the lack of SAFER barriers at Dover.
McMurray, who came away with an injured elbow, sore neck and sore ribs had this to offer. "That's unacceptable in this day and time that we have a straight-away - especially at a track like Dover on the outside where we've seen just crazy big hits," McMurray said. "I have no idea why they don't have that. I assume that we'll have that by the fall. But yeah, it's unacceptable that they don't have that right now."
Upon her release from the infield care center, Danica wholly concurred with McMurray’s thoughts on the lack of SAFER at Dover. “The ones (crashes) where you hit the wall I think I saw it's about twice the G-load impact when you hit a non-SAFER barrier," she said. "It shouldn't even be a question whether or not tracks have SAFER barrier all the way around. It should be mandatory. It shouldn't be a financial decision."
[Author’s note: In a conversation a couple of years back I had asked Dr. Dean Sicking for a brief explanation of how SAFER works. This was his reply:
“The safer barrier functions by separating the collision into two separate impacts. During the collision with the SAFER wall, the car accelerates a section of the wall and slows the velocity of the impacting car. The wall is tuned to move a wall mass that is approximately the same as the weight of the car. Recall HS physics, when a moving object strikes a stationary mass of about the same weight in a fully plastic impact Conservation of Momentum analysis would indicate that the moving object loses about half of its velocity. In our case the car loses about ½ of its velocity perpendicular to the wall. This impact throws the driver toward the wall and his belts begin to restrain him. As the foam is crushed. The driver stretches his belts. Before the foam is fully crushed, the belts begin to pull the driver back toward his seat. When the driver is moving back toward his seat, he will not be exposed to the high decal rates that occur when the steel SAFER wall strikes the concrete barrier. In essence, we cut the effective impact speed in half and this generally cuts the risk of serious injury and fatality by a factor of 4.”]
Teammate and current point leader, Kevin Harvick, backed her up all the way with this statement. “We put SAFER barriers in the groove at Darlington and it’s two-and-a-half cars wide. There’s just no excuse not to have them. We don’t wear our helmets and HANS devices for the impacts that we are prepared for. We wear those things for the instances where those one-off things can happen like happened today. So, there’s no excuse not to have it there in my opinion.”
An accident in the first Xfinity race of the year 2015 at Daytona in which Kyle Busch suffered a broken leg and a broken foot spurred tracks and NASCAR to take another look at the progress of SAFER barrier installations over the intervening years between initial installations circa 2002-2004 and current day. It became all too clear to everyone that there had been little if any improvements made in that time period.
Tracks had been content and quite complacent with covering only what had been deemed in the beginning to be “likely” crash spots. Gentle readers, if we’ve learned anything for certain over the past few years, it is that cars can and have crashed in what can only be described as the damnedest places. Since Kyle’s Daytona crash, the cry has been for “SAFER Barriers Everywhere” and that is exactly where they should be. Anywhere on a track that can be impacted by a car should, if at all feasible, be covered with lifesaving SAFER barriers.
Immediately following Busch’s crash at Daytona, statements were issued by both track president Joie Chitwood III and Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice-president and Chief Racing Development Officer.
"The Daytona International Speedway did not live up to its responsibility today," Chitwood said. "We should have had a SAFER barrier there, and we did not. We're going to fix that. We're going to fix that right now."
Track workers began installing tire packs along the section of wall hit by Busch Saturday evening, and Chitwood vowed to go further to cover "every inch" of the speedway with SAFER barriers.
"This is not going to happen again," he said. "We're going to live up to our responsibility. We're going to fix this, and it starts right now."
"Come Monday, we're going to start the plan so we can put SAFER barriers everywhere here," Chitwood said. "Finances don't come into play. That's really not a question. We're going to get this fixed and we're going to make sure we're ready for the next event."
O'Donnell echoed Chitwood's comments:
"What happened tonight should not have happened," O'Donnell said. "That's on us; we're going to fix it and we're going to fix it immediately. I think we all know racing is an inherently dangerous sport, but our priority is safety and we'll continue to put things in place to make this sport as safe as possible."
By this year’s Daytona 500, it was done. Daytona is completely protected on every wall with SAFER barriers. Talladega, Michigan and Bristol have followed suit, with many others nearing the target of SAFER everywhere.
During either the pre-race or race, when the practice crashes were brought up in the FOX broadcast booth, the question was posed, who was in favor of SAFER everywhere a car can go? To a man we heard Jeff Gordon (Long a proponent of SAFER after going through some horrendous crashes where only concrete met him), Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy and Larry McReynolds (The television equivalent of me, as he has never relented in the quest for SAFER everywhere) all concurred that SAFER should be on every wall at every track.
Back in January of this year, I read an article offered by Sports Illustrated, a trustworthy source, to be sure, delineating what tracks had done what to improve their safety with SAFER. When it came to Dover, this is what was said:
Changes Made: Additional SAFER barriers have been added in recent years to make Dover now fully-covered on both the outside and inside wall areas.
Well guys and gals, I’m going to draw from that, that someone flat out lied to someone. As we could plainly see on Sunday, there are several areas of the Dover track that remain unprotected as of now… not one, but several!
Denis McGlynn, do you somehow think that Dover is above what other tracks are doing? Perhaps you think we’re not talking to you? Do you realize that one of the cars that struck your outer frontstretch concrete wall on Saturday was being driven by Tony Stewart, who recently underwent back surgery? Yes, the doctors have cleared him and all that can be done is being done to keep him secure and unharmed in that driver’s seat, but it’s a shame to tempt fate with your obvious “We don’t care” attitude.
NASCAR… Mr. France, Mr. Helton, Mr. O’Donnell, please listen to your drivers. Over the past couple of years, almost every driver on track today has spoken up for the SAFER barriers. They are the ones that feel the difference when hitting concrete as opposed to SAFER, and every one of them wants those SAFER barriers anywhere they might come in contact with a wall.
(Since this paragraph was written, Steve O’Donnell has appeared on SiriusXM Radio to discuss the situation at Dover. He asserted that NASCAR won't be complacent when it comes to advancements in safety.
"When we looked at SAFER barriers all being in place for this racing season, the plan had always been at both Dover and Indianapolis on the front stretch wall to not have that covered," O'Donnell said. "There was some logistics and reasoning behind that in terms of really narrowing the front stretch lane. SAFER barriers potentially were going to dump cars back out onto the front stretch and have a potential T-bone of a driver. And then there were challenges going into Turn 1. But obviously after we went through this weekend, we've got to look at what tweaks we can make, be able to install those and maybe look at how the front stretch could work those in.")
We, the fans that care, are very proud of some of our tracks for their efforts to finally make this right, but there are others that seem to think it doesn’t apply to them and continue to ignore what the “good guys” are doing. Isn’t it about time that NASCAR got behind Mr. O’Donnell’s words? "What happened tonight should not have happened," O'Donnell said. "That's on us; we're going to fix it and we're going to fix it immediately. I think we all know racing is an inherently dangerous sport, but our priority is safety and we'll continue to put things in place to make this sport as safe as possible."
Hearing those words and seeing on Sunday what can happen when folks don’t think it’s their responsibility, don’t you agree that it’s time for NASCAR to make SAFER barriers MANDATORY at every track but the road courses? I have always included the words “where feasible” in my quest for compliance, but that refers to the road courses and things like the wall behind the pits, where crews have to come over it to service the cars… the butt ends of outer pit road walls… Dr. Sicking and I have discussed those, and in order to function properly, SAFER needs more surface area than can be afforded in that situation. Those are things seen as not being “feasible.” The track at Indianapolis claiming it is not feasible to add SAFER there because of the size of the track is a major cop-out. That track is the same size as Daytona and Pocono, and smaller than Talladega.
Will we really have to see another driver die from crash injuries sustained by striking an unprotected stretch of concrete before anyone listens and takes this seriously? You can bet the drivers are taking it seriously, and NASCAR needs to do so as well. We’ll always be left to wonder how many lives might have not ended so abruptly had the HANS device been mandated following the death of Adam Petty. Just once, the fans that care would like to see NASCAR step up with a proactive move and mandate the SAFER barriers. As Joie Chitwood said, “Finances don’t come into play!” If a track cannot comply, then say, “Bye-bye.” Our drivers’ lives are far more important than a race track’s profit margin.
Just before I leave you, I have a bit of a treat for my regular readers. I didn’t know it was coming, but on the same day as my last column, a good friend had a column running on the subject addressed in this one… SAFER barriers and the lack thereof at Dover and other places. If you follow the link, you’ll find a great column by Matt McLaughlin and his take on the whole affair. At the end, you’ll find Mama misbehaving a bit on Matt’s board.
My happy little banjo says it’s time for our Classic Country Closeout, and I’m sure he’s right. Since we’ve had no requests for artists this week, I’ll lock in on a singer, one of whose songs a girlfriend sent me during the past week. Don Williams has one of those “One in a million” voices that is just pure delight to listen to, no matter what he’s singing. I’m sure I’d listen even if he were singing in a Rice Krispies commercial. First up is one I’ve always loved… and I get to make first choice, so here is “Lay Down Beside Me.”
Next is one called “We Should Be Together.” Please enjoy…
This one is entitled “Good Ol’ Boys Like Me.” I don’t think this man ever made a bad recording.
This one was another smash hit for Don. Here is, “‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry.”
And finally the one I think might have been his biggest hit, “I Believe in You.”
Be well gentle readers, and remember to keep smiling. It looks so good on you!