No excuses for no SAFER barriers

I long for the day when I never need to ask this question again: "Why isn't the SAFER barrier up there?"

I don't want to wonder why. I don't want to feel as though a NASCAR-sanctioned racetrack dodged a bullet after another scary crash into an unacceptable wall.

It's more than 10 years since Dale Earnhardt's death, more than nine years since the SAFER barrier was first installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and more than five years since it was required for portions of every track where Sprint Cup races.

Yet several times a year at the end of a Cup event, I still have to ask the same question: "Why isn't the SAFER barrier up there?"

I did it again Monday after the terrifying final-lap crash in an exciting race at Watkins Glen International. David Reutimann and David Ragan walked away (gingerly) after slamming into guardrails that were state-of-the-art protection in 1960.

"It's a shame that a racetrack we go to in 2011 doesn't have a better wall design all the way around the racetrack," Ragan said afterward. "Hopefully they'll look at that. I've been to some dirt tracks that have better walls than that."

One wall actually juts out toward the track, and Ragan's car hit it head-on and bounced back across the track like a pinball. It hit Reutimann's car and turned Reutimann into the guardrail on the other side of the track before his car flipped over and also bounced back across the track.

"I'm thinking where I hit would probably be a good place for SAFER barrier." Reutimann said Monday. "Maybe we should look at that next time we come back."

Not maybe -- absolutely. This must end. The danger of these archaic barriers is unacceptable.

"You can't have walls like that," Jeff Gordon said after Monday's race. "You're going to find those places eventually, so you've got to fix them. Unfortunately this one has been found before and we've seen what can happen.

"To me, we're very fortunate that we don't have any injuries coming out of that because it could have been much worse. In this situation, they've got a wall that spits a car, not only a big impact, but spits it right back out into oncoming traffic."

Gordon wasn't involved in the crashes Monday, but he has been down this path more than once. The last time was earlier this season, when he hit an unprotected concrete wall at Richmond.

In one sense, NASCAR deserves enormous praise for the safety advancement of today's race cars in the Car of Tomorrow design. Not everyone loves how the car races, but the safety of the COT was unquestionably worth the change.

Head-and-neck restraints, seven-point safety belts
(Denny Hamlin said Monday some drivers still use a five-point belt) and carbon-fiber seats help make the cars amazingly safe.

But someone is going to hit an old-style barrier one day and not walk away.

After Gordon's crash at Richmond in May, I called Dr. Dean Sicking, the engineer who developed the SAFER barrier. He explained to me how expensive the barrier is (about $500 per foot) and how there wasn't enough steel tubing in the world to cover every wall on every track.

In other words, he talked me down from my soapbox rant. But there's no talking me down this time.

I'm not so naïve as to think every track is going to suddenly install the SAFER barrier at every exposed wall, but more must be done as soon as possible.

Watkins Glen has made improvements over the years, including SAFER barrier installation in a few locations around the track.

WGI officials are talking to NASCAR and Sicking about adding the SAFER barrier at more spots around the road course. But why does this process always have to be reactive instead of proactive?

Anyone could see the places on the track where Ragan and Reutimann crashed were not safe and needed changes. And those weren't the only scary accidents in the race.

Kurt Busch and Hamlin slammed head-on into tire barriers at high speeds. Hamlin's crash was so hard, it lifted the rear tires off the ground and bent the guardrail behind the tires into a catch-fence support pole. The SAFER barrier could be a better option at those locations, as well.

Making a change after the fact just isn't good enough. It's time to take a hard look at every exposed wall at each track and add the SAFER barrier at specific danger spots before the next terrifying crash occurs.

I don't want to ask the same question again. The next time may be too late.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.