Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Better SAFER Than Sorry

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.)

(Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)
Matt Kenseth found a section of SAFER barrier for his celebratory Burnout at Dover.  Unfortunately, others didn’t find one when they went for a spin. (Photo: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

To be fair there are in fact several reasons not to have installed SAFER barriers by now:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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PattyKay Lilley

Good morning Sunshine! Always nice to see you taking up the cause for SAFER barriers, the single best safety feature in racing probably ever. When coupled with the HANS device, which we know should have been mandated after the loss of young Adam Petty, the pair is incomparable.
A couple years back, Dr. Sicking was asked to rate the SAFER barriers’ success to that point. I don’t have a verbatim quote at hand, but the essence of his answer was, “You can’t rate them until someone hits one and dies anyway. Since no one has hit a SAFER wall and died from the impact, I’d have to say they’re perfect.” Bravo, Dean Sicking!
Thanks Matt for helping to keep up the fight. It’s appreciated muchly! ☺

Broken Arrow

I didn’t know “muchly” was a word. Must be a Southern thing.


Shit!!!!!!! The grammar police have invaded the comments part of this website.

PattyKay Lilley

Yes, that must be it. This New York State born motorsports journalist must have caught the stupidity germ when she moved below the Mason-Dixon line. Do you see the Smiley directly after the word? Matt knows that I know better and that it was a joke. When you grow up, you’ll probably understand things like that. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even learn that all Southerners do not fit your stereotype.
I’m so sorry if you were offended by a joke between friends.

Broken Arrow

I know you are friends, old dears. But this is not a private conversation between friends, is it, darling? I guess the concept of “journalism” still escapes you.

Glen H

I was always mystified on how NA$CAR and the tracks determined where to install SAFER barriers. To me it was pretty obvious; if there’s a wall it needs a SAFER barrier.

If NA$CAR or the tracks said that no one would ever hit the wall in a particular spot, there isn’t any reason for a wall to be there in the first place. Since there is a wall in a certain spot, they must be expecting a car to hit that spot.

Broken Arrow

“Nobody has been badly hurt in a while, not in a race car anyway.” I beg to differ. Kyle Busch was seriously injured at Daytona hitting an unprotected wall just 15 months ago.

Short term memory loss, Matt?

Bill B

Just to rile you up…. most fans don’t like Kyle Busch so he doesn’t count.

PattyKay Lilley

Now, now Bill. You know we’ve been taught not to feed the trolls. He obviously cannot read the *sarcasm font* like some of us can. I’m pretty sure Matt won’t be upset. He likes puppies and small children. ☺

Broken Arrow

Now, now PattyKay, I could have dissed Matt a bit more by mentioning this site’s unwavering animus towards Kyle Busch, but Matt has actually said some semi-complimentary things about Kyle recently, at least acknowledging his driving prowess. I guess some old dogs CAN learn new tricks. Not that I would call you a dog………

Broken Arrow

Actually, Matt and I go back a long way, but we aren’t what I would call “friends,” maybe “frenemies.”

And I was around when Bill Elliott finished 2nd at Dover in 1992 and I remember the sinking feeling I had when I learned that Junior Johnson had overridden Tim Brewer’s call for 2 tires on the last pit stop, forcing a 4-tire change. Junior not only denied Bill a chance at the win that day, but I DID think at the time, “there goes the championship.” So, there actually WERE some of us who realized what was happening on that day, even if we didn’t know all the tawdry details of Johnson’s feud with Brewer. We did sense that Johnson was putting his personal issues ahead of the team and that opened the door for 5 other drivers to have a chance at the Cup, although only one of them, Davey Allison, truly deserved it.

There is obviously no problem with the long-term memory of us old dogs.

PattyKay Lilley

Wow! Now I am impressed! You were around in 1992? If Matt is reading this now, he is laughing so hard he’ll need a change of skivvies. You see Mr. Arrow, I will turn 78 years young in a couple of months. In 1992 I was a sprightly 54, having seen my first Grand National race in 1955. What were you doing in 1955 “Old Dog?”
As Betty White was fond of saying, “Don’t mess with old people. They’re too tired to fight so they’ll just shoot you. ” ☺

PattyKay Lilley

Probably the best and certainly one of the very best races in NASCAR history. Never was there so much going on and so much riding on one single race. Of course, with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it has gained even more status because to the two tragedies that would unfold in 1993. A slight correction if I might… Davey only needed to finish 5th to clinch the Championship. Then came Ernie, and Davey’s last chance at a Championship was gone like last December’s snow.
We mustn’t forget that it was the last race of King Richards Fan Farewell Tour and the first Winston Cup race for a youngster prone to wrecking racecars named Jeff Gordon. Jeff Crashed out and Richard went out in a blaze of glory, quite literally.
At the end, Alabama sang their Tribute to Richard Petty, a song called “You, the Fans”, Jeff Gordon had crashed another time and Alan was hailed as the new Champion… but had to comb his hair before exiting the Underbird. Almost forgotten in all of that was race winner, Bill Elliott, who would have won the Championship if he had just waited until Alan pitted first.
Noted as an afterthought to the race, Junior Johnson fired Tim Brewer for incompetence for not leaving Bill out.
Undoubtedly the most outstanding argument against that Chase thing one could ever employ. You and I have both written about it and it comes out the same every time. Davey got screwed, Bill won the battle but Alan won the war.


Broken Arrow (or is it Broken Record), I can’t believe some of the stuff you come out with. Davey Allison was the only one who was worthy of the 1992 Championship? Elliott and Allison seemed to drop off when it counted, and Harry Gant and Kyle Petty were both longshots. Allan Kulwicki was down after crashing at Dover, but he dug in and didn’t give up. To me, and I know your hatred for Kulwicki will force you to fight me on this, that run Allan made to get the title was nothing short of amazing. I know you won’t admit it, but, that was truly one of the best Championship battles ever!


Oh wow!! MAMA and MATT — TOGETHER!!

Let’s see … it’s 1985 all over again … I saw Bill wreck and break his leg at Rockingham … … I saw Bill have problems at the World 600 … I saw Bill have fuel pick-up problems at the Firecracker 400 (yeah, the one Greg Sacks won in that ________ car) — [however, with a couple of laps to go we heard it on the radio (CAUTION!!) and even saw the guy in the tri-oval grass show the Caution flag … but, never at the flagstand] … … oh, where was I … … I saw Bill lose a cylinder in the last few laps of the Talladega 500 … … At Charlotte, I saw Darrell Waltrip (running a lap down) block Bill every way he could for just enough laps that Bill couldn’t catch Cale (the only race all year on a superspeedway where Bill didn’t win without having some sort of problem … … I guess Ol’ D.W. was his “problem” that day ……) … … let’s see, at Rockingham I saw Bill and Richard Petty get together — yeah, Bill finished on the lead lap, but with a wrecked car … … … and of course I was at Atlanta to see Bill pull a “too little, too late” win out of the bag … … … so — tell me again which race it was that cost Bill the Championship?!?

MATT … … keep up the good work!!

MAMA … … I’ll be talking to you, too!!


— Old_Timer


Or … … is it 1992 all over again?!? I keep getting those two confused … LOL!!

— Old_Timer

PattyKay Lilley

Hey there Old Timer!
I wandered over here today to thank Matt for taking up for my cause. Some young’n checked me up for a supposed slip in my grammar, for Heaven’s sake. I had to pin his ears back and Matt just sort of showed up right after I told him I was misbehaving on his board. Not the first time we’ve been together, but it happens seldom.
Yeah, poor Bill was kind of his own worst enemy in 1995. He had THE car, but kept putting in in walls or blowing yet another of Ernie’s special engines. He did come back to get one 3 years later, but 1992 was either preordained or Tim Brewer suffered from a brain fart.
See you back at the House!

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