It's Probably Not Safe If It's Not SAFER
I bid you welcome gentle readers, and a cordial greeting as well to our assigned reader of all things NASCAR. Now, with the formalities out of the way, let’s get right down to the business at hand. If you came here expecting to talk about some Chase thing, fahgeddaboudit! Go Kevin (!) is all I have to say on that subject.
Of far more importance, though somewhat overlooked in all the hype and hoopla that comprised Sunday’s programming of the Cup Series race by NBC, was the truck race in Las Vegas the preceding evening. (Saturday, October 4) Only 15 laps into the race, a truck driven by Tyler Reddick got loose and “way out of shape”, as they say. As the back of his truck slued around, pointing him down the track, the front end caught the truck of his teammate, 21-year old Austin Theriault, at a cross-angle, sending Theriault’s car straight up and into the wall… no, wait, let me rephrase that… into the unprotected and unforgiving concrete wall!
Theriault was at top speed when the two trucks met; that changed his direction and headed him for the wall… still at top speed. This still might have had a happy ending, had the wall been protected by a SAFER barrier at the point of impact, but one look at the way his truck lifted into the air on impact, then bounced back down the track, by now almost unrecognizable as a truck, told a different story entirely. Below is a picture of the Las Vegas track, as seen here last March when the Cup series raced there.
See that bit of red, just coming out of turn four on the outside wall? It looks strangely out of place and lonely, surrounded by SAFER on “most” of the outside walls. It was addressed at the last Cup race, which was in early March, while Kyle Busch was still wearing casts from his experience with the unprotected concrete of Daytona the previous month. Daytona, we are told, will be fully protected on every wall before next year’s opener of the 2016 season. Las Vegas has apparently done nothing.
Earlier in the year, the Orlando Sentinel did a survey that included all the Cup tracks, though some declined to participate. Las Vegas did respond to the survey with this brief statement:
SAFER changes: Modifications to barriers at pit-road openings and to cutout area near Turn 3.
Since that bit of red we see on the map is directly opposite the entrance to pit road, one might have assumed that was what they were talking about, but then, you know what they say about “assume.” There is still no SAFER protecting that spot… and a whole lot more on that track.
This is what we saw on Saturday night:
At the end of the video, you will hear the FOX broadcasters remarking how great it was to see Austin get out of the broken truck… but what the video does not show is that he went straight to the ground, and was placed on a stretcher for transport to University Medical Center in Las Vegas for further evaluation. According to a statement released on Sunday morning by Brad Keselowski Racing, “Theriault underwent a comprehensive CT scan of the upper body, which showed a 10 percent compression fracture of the lower back.”
If that injury sounds somewhat familiar, it is the same injury sustained by Denny Hamlin in another ugly crash, that one at Fontana in 2013.
That should be a sufficient amount of watching kids break backs to get the attention of most everyone reading, so I’ll save a few others for a later time. It occurs to me that because he’s quite new on the premier racing scene, some reading here today are probably not familiar with Austin Theriault (pronounced “Terry-oh.”) He is a 21-year old from Northern Maine, and has done some racing in both ARCA and in Xfinity for Junior Motorsports.
This second picture of Austin was taken post-wreck, I believe at the University Medical Center. Do you see anything in the picture that you find disturbing? I do. From the bruise on his left forehead and the cut and bruise above his left eye, it’s painfully obvious that his head came in contact with something during the crash. With HANS in place, the driver is “supposed” to be protected from that, but even a HANS can’t control objects or parts of the truck itself from being torn loose and flung about as a result of the impact and the G-forces it produces from the sudden stop.
SAFER barrier is designed to significantly reduce those G-forces, leaving both driver and vehicle so much better off than what the alternative might be… in this case, a compression fracture of the lower spine. How does SAFER accomplish doing all of that?
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 High School 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 off 4.
That is a description given to me by Dr. Dean Sicking when asked for an explanation of what and how SAFER accomplishes all that it does. On Sunday morning, I was challenged by one of Twitter’s famous “inanimate objects” as to the necessity of SAFER barriers “Everywhere” as is now the plea of many drivers and members of the media. This object… I really cannot say if it is a he or a she, as it hides behind the sobriquet of “The Orange Cone”, picked up a buzz word or phrase somewhere and has the idea that it sounds impressive and therefore answers all questions. That phrase is “angle of impact.”
In the simplest of ways, the angle of impact does apply to auto racing, but it’s actually a measurement used to examine blood spatters. I understood what the Cone was trying to say, but it’s difficult to converse in 140-character increments. I finally gave up, not because I ceded any point to the Cone, but because this scribe can’t say “good morning” in 140 words, let alone characters. In this forum, I can say what I mean and have time to explain it without being patted on my widdle head and told, “I know this is hard for you to understand, Patty.” A condescending tone will get one absolutely nowhere with this old timer. Yes, I am a woman… and old one at that, but never, ever have I been a stupid one. If the man that gave the explanation above… who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering, can confidently feel that I will understand what he says, why would someone pretending to be a traffic cone think that I might be incapable of understanding him/her/it?
It was suggested that I ask Dr. Sicking his feelings on SAFER barriers being everywhere. That wasn’t necessary, since I already had the answer, but danged if it just wouldn’t fit in 140 characters. Here’s a bit of how Dean answered the question, among others when asked by Dustin Long, doing an interview for NBC Sports. The original gist of the conversation centered on Dean’s doubt that it could all be accomplished this year, mostly because of short supplies and the small number of qualified installers.
Still, Sicking says the idea of lining tracks with SAFER barriers is one he approves.
“In terms of the barrier’s performance, I can’t imagine a situation where putting a barrier up would be a bad thing,’’ he said.
The conversation between Long and Sicking also included some reference to the much maligned “tire barriers”, which some tracks have tried to sell as the equal of SAFER… something your scribe will never buy.
“There are situations where the SAFER barrier is not the best alternative,’’ he said. “If you hit the wall at 90 degrees at 160 miles an hour, it might be better to have tires.
“When you go straight into the wall … then the tire barrier gives you more space to absorb some of the energy and spread it out over a longer period of time and reduce the risk to the driver.’’
Sicking said that hitting the tires at angle, though, can cause additional problems.
“If you have an oblique hit … then tire barriers would snag you and stop you faster and be more dangerous than a SAFER barrier.’’
Of course, the problem one can see immediately, is that in order to know that tires might be a better choice, one would have to be able to predict exactly how a vehicle was going to impact a wall. Predicting impact is impossible, except in “test tube” instances, where one is evaluating the outcome of several different types of impact. Therefore, tires are fine if you can know in advance exactly how a car/truck/cycle is going to make contact with the wall. I believe this may be where my Cone friend got the theory that SAFER is not necessary. Allow me to contradict that with Dr. Sicking’s last words of the interview.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think we know how good it [SAFER] is yet,’’ he said. “You define quality based on failure. It has yet to fail. Nobody has died yet, so I don’t think we know how good it is. It is far better than I thought it was when we put it up. We took a lot of hits that I thought would have been fatal and drivers walked away with very minor injuries.’’
Gentle readers, I don’t believe anyone could give a more glowing endorsement than that, and it boggles my mind that anyone or anything could fail to understand it. Expressed with the greatest simplicity, SAFER SAVES LIVES! Seeing young Austin after that wreck on Saturday night, I’d say we are very lucky that the lack of SAFER did not take a life this past weekend.
If anyone wants to learn more about the SAFER barriers, I have files full of SAFER data and references, but for now, I think this would be a good time to break for our Classic Country Closeout.
This is a real old-timer, originally recorded by Jimmy Wakely and Margaret Whiting. This recording is slightly newer, but it’s the one I’ve always loved. This is Rex Allen Sr. and Patti Page singing, “A Broken-Down Merry-go-Round.”
Oh heck, let’s stay with Rex Allen for a bit. Known as “The Last of the Singing Cowboys”, Rex came along in the early 50s when Gene and Roy were beginning to show their age. He has a wonderful voice, but about the time he came on the scene, the B-Westerns were beginning to lose some of their popularity. That didn’t mean the man couldn’t sing, and here’s a bouncy little number, slightly reminiscent of Hank Williams’ “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” This one is “Till the Well Goes Dry”
This one is a toe tapper, for sure. I have no idea where it came from originally. It sounds as though it perhaps came from the British Isles… pick your country. It makes no never mind… just sit back and enjoy Rex as he sings “Rack up the Balls Boys.”
And in closing… I couldn’t play Rex Allen without including this long-time super-favorite from my early teens. This is Rex, with his incomparable rendition of “Crying in the Chapel.” Just listen to that voice!