In the wake of an eventful and violent Sprint Cup practice session on Friday, there was quite a hullabaloo over portions of Dover International Speedway still having unlined concrete walls up against the racing surface. Danica Patrick’s Chevy suffered a major rear-end differential failure that briefly ignited the rear half of the car. (One must be careful with words. One scribe reported that Patrick’s rear had blown up, which made me thankful she wasn’t a Kardashian.) Tony Stewart’s mount hit the grease slick left by his teammate’s vehicle and Stewart hit the wall three times, two of them hard. Given his still healing back that’s tossing a man in the river who didn’t need to be swimming. Jamie McMurray also took a wild ride and made hard contact into a solid concrete wall. Fortunately, all three drivers were able to walk away from the incident albeit with Stewart moving a bit gingerly and McMurray needing a few moments to steady himself.
It’s ironic in that heading into the weekend festivities, Dover track management was touting the fact they’d added nearly 500 feet of SAFER barrier to the track for safety reasons. That caught a lot of people by surprise as they hadn’t realized there was any track left on the circuit still not fully lined with SAFER barriers. Now, 15 years after the tragedy at Daytona made NASCAR finally admit SAFER barriers were not in fact “a cure worse than the disease,” the idea of solid concrete walls at a race track seems as antiquated as providing lighting at the same track with whale blubber lanterns ignited nightly by a lamplighter towing his ladder in a horse drawn cart.
Some people had very harsh words on the topic. They say there’s simply no reason any track shouldn’t be fully lined with the so-called “soft walls”. (A gross misnomer. If you think otherwise, load yourself head first into a shopping cart and have a few buddies push you as fast as they can into a SAFER barrier.)
To be fair there are in fact several reasons not to have installed SAFER barriers by now:
- Gross Stupidity- The barriers that NASCAR once derided so dismissively have done their job well since being introduced, sparing numerous drivers severe injury or worse. I suppose if you’ve been living in a fallout shelter waiting to ride out Armageddon and the Parousia, you might have missed that. Or perhaps more pressing issues, like track mascot tryouts, might have distracted some imbeciles involved. I reckon it’s a lot easier not to understand the need for energy absorbing walls when you’re watching cars speed by from a luxury suite rather than at the wheel of one of those fast, loud cars.
- Ruthless Corporate Greed- Yes, installing SAFER barriers costs money. And in this era of declining ticket sales tracks need to tighten their belts a bit and stem the free spending binges from back in the salad days. But there’s still all that TV money coming in and the tracks haven’t been reduced to hosting stuff like pumpkin chucking contests quite yet. (Oh, wait a minute….) But safety is not an area where spending can be cut back to increase profits. Maybe they could try using those new Obama-bulbs that last five years to illuminate the casinos.
- Reckless Optimism- Some people have developed a Pollyanna mindset that blinds them from seeing any possible unintended negative consequences stemming from their actions and inactions. They’re the sort of people that tend to end up as the lead story on Action News because they were just certain they were going to beat that freight train to the crossing. Sure a bunch of drivers died in wrecks but that was a long time ago. What’s the likelihood NASCAR could lose four drivers to fatal wrecks in a little over a year again? They’ve got the HANS device, those custom safety seats and all that stuff now and nobody has been badly hurt in a while, not in a race car anyway. Damn those ATVs and basketball hoops. But it can happen again and eventually it will. Such optimism is reckless because auto racing is never going to be wreck-less.
It’s against my nature to throw Dover under the bus. I have a tremendous amount of affection for the track and have attended countless races there. Out here in the hinterlands of Chester County, PA, Dover is the closest track mileage-wise to my home base, though I can probably get to Pocono quicker during those rare periods PENNDOT doesn’t have the Northeast Extension under perpetual make-work construction.
I attended races at the track back when it was still asphalt. I was at the first Busch Series race at the track, won by Joe Ruttman. There was no way to realize it at the time but, I watched Bill Elliott lose the 1992 Winston Cup championship at Dover after his determined if Quioxtic effort to run down Ricky Rudd for the win came up a half second short. Elliott led 261 laps that day on a weekend that saw Alan Kulwicki wipe out three cars and finish 34th. I even went to the two IRL races at Dover. (In retrospect another unwise decision by track management but I had a good time even if a lot of the drivers decidedly did not.)
Hell, I even attended a driving school at Dover and got to wheel a retired Harry Gant-driven Oldsmobile for 12 laps around the Monster Mile as fast as I dared to go. Traffic could be frustrating (it almost always took longer to traverse the few miles from a parking space to Route 1 than the rest of the ride home but I learned to drive the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed… er… delayed to channel Lowell George.) I’m glad the track still has two race dates, because for all the occasional bitching I hear about the track, nobody can say it’s not unique or it’s just another cookie-cutter track.
Sunday’s race proved to be the best of the year proving the new low-downforce package and the Monster Mile are a match made in Heaven. But times change. Even the staid First State now allows alcohol sales on Sundays (Delaware’s Blue Laws were once a nasty surprise for first time race-goers) and it’s time that Dover gets with the program too, Someone said the track was hesitant to install the SAFER barriers in the area where Friday’s incident took place because it would impinge on the racing groove.
They said the same thing about Darlington and that worked out just fine. Others have told me that they are concentrating their efforts on lining the sections of track where the drivers are most likely to hit due to logistical considerations. It’s not like you can run into Wal-Mart and buy a quarter-mile section of SAFER barrier.
The fact is, and it’s been proven over and over, that no matter how unlikely a driver is to hit some section of the track, eventually someone will find a way to do so and find a way to hit it hard right down to the concession stands. (Think I’m kidding? Back in the early ’60s, Junior Johnson was running a Grand National (now Cup) race at the notorious Islip Speedway, a steeply-banked, fifth of a mile (yes you read that right) track, Johnson got in a wreck, that big old Chevy exited the track about two stories in the air and belly-flopped down onto a concession stand. Fortunately nobody was hurt though I’m told some milk was shaken.) Sunday’s incident involving Carl Edwards going windshield-deep into the SAFER barrier and walking away undaunted if not undented in itself proves the worth of the energy absorbing technology.
Under the right circumstances, SAFER Barriers protect not only the competitors, but the spectators. Anyone else remember Ernie Irvan’s hood flying up into the grandstands during the Daytona 500 after the big wreck with Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon et al?
As we prepare for the 100th running of the Indy 500 at the end of the month, it should be sadly noted in addition to the drivers’ and riding mechanics’ lives lost at the Brickyard, about a dozen spectators or track workers have also been killed there. In one instance, a tire/wheel assembly from Billy Arnold’s wrecked race car cleared the track property and killed an 11-year-old boy, Wilbur Brink, playing in his backyard down the street from the track.
Several drivers made some pretty pointed comments about the safety oversight this weekend and they are after all the final judges on discussion of safety issues. Even some of the drivers who typically run the high lane at Dover to good effect said they wanted the barriers added up there. Lately, I’ve noticed some backlash from a small contingent fans when it comes to the drivers and their suggestions about improving safety.
Their mindset seems to be that the drivers get paid a lot of money, way too much money, to do what they do and they should shut up and accept the risks of the sport. (The Eddie Gossage “Shut Up and Race” principal?) This is after all auto racing not tiddlywinks and there’s always going to be risks inherent to the sport. (For the record Larry Kahne and Patrick Barrie are tearing up the tiddlywinks tournaments as of late and, no, it doesn’t pay very well.)
Sure, some of the drivers can come off as dilettantes time to time but they still get the final say on safety issues. Argue all you want about whether they deserve the take-home pay they get every week, but nobody can argue their right to go home safe to their families after every race.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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