Soft walls are a NASCAR success story

It has been almost six years since the first SAFER barrier has been implemented in NASCAR. Introduced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002, the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction barrier, or soft wall, has had a huge impact on the sport's safety by reducing the impact on driver's bodies during crashes.

The technology was created at the University of Nebraska's Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, which focused on all aspects of highway design and safety, and began development in 1998 under a team led by Dr. Dean Sicking. Made up of steel tubes and pads of hard foam, they are designed to absorb energy transferred during a crash to give the driver a better chance of survival at crashes up to 150 mph. Dr. Sicking and his team were given NASCAR's Award of Excellence for their efforts in 2003.

Marc Mitchell, a rookie in the NASCAR Craftsman truck series, praises NASCAR for bringing SAFER barriers into the sport.

"NASCAR has always done a great job looking out for the safety of its competitors," Mitchell said. "When cars began leaping the retaining walls, NASCAR replaced the guardrails with concrete barriers. Once we learned that we could reduce the impact into the concrete, NASCAR mandated SAFER barriers. I know that it hurts to hit solid concrete a lot more than it would to run into the soft wall, so I applaud NASCAR for what they've done. I'm sure they're studying what the next step is in the safety evolution -- it might be to extend the SAFER barriers all the way around the track, or maybe there's something they could do to the race cars to make them safer, but I'm sure NASCAR is doing what they can to stay one step ahead in the process."

Actually, Mitchell isn't far off. While the SAFER barriers have become a staple on the outside walls at each track, Jeff Gordon suffered one of the toughest hits of his career at Las Vegas earlier this season when he hit an inside wall that had no SAFER barrier. Fellow competitor Jeff Burton, long one of the sport's biggest safety advocates, was furious.

"Without mincing words, [the Las Vegas] incident and how Jeff hit the wall in a word is inexcusable," Burton said. "The thing that I've been saying for seven years, six years, is that we can never be 'as safe as we can be'. If we ever get to the point where we quit looking to be better, we're going to quit being better, and the wall [at Las Vegas] is a good example of that."

Las Vegas Motor Speedway immediately declared it would do whatever it was asked to do. Meanwhile, Sprint Cup series director John Darby pointed out that the installation of SAFER barriers is a slow process.

"It wasn't all that long ago that we didn't have any SAFER barriers," he said. "So the approach to it is: OK, let's go to every racetrack, send our team of experts out there, and you tell me how many times a car has hit a wall right here, and then over here and then over here and over here. So the part of the wall that's been hit 500 times in the last 10 years -- that was the first place the barrier went, and then we're slowly migrating to more and more barriers as we can get there."

Burton conceded that point.

"NASCAR deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the investment they have put in to making the sport safe," he said. "Developing and installing SAFER barriers and constructing the Car of Tomorrow are examples of how NASCAR has improved the safety of not only the drivers, but the crew members and fans as well. We can never be 'as safe as we can be' but NASCAR has done a great job of listening to everyone in the industry when it comes to safety."

Fellow driver John Andretti said with SAFER technology available, there are no excuses not to use it everywhere.

"I think every race track should always be evolving into the ultimate of safety," he said. "If you build a new race track and you don't build SAFER barriers all the way around, then you should be slammed pretty hard. There's no reason not to build that into your infrastructure. Richard Petty used to say 'I run up high because it's not as far to the wall and doesn't hurt as bad to hit it.' When you hit an inside wall, typically there's a tremendous amount of speed. With that, there's a lot more to worry about.

"The bigger issue is the openings. There should never, ever, ever, ever, at any race track, at any level, be any blunt openings for a race car to hit. I think that it is absolutely terrible that you could go through an opening and hit a blunt wall. That's the worst thing that could happen. I don't care if you have SAFER barriers on the front of it. It's the worst thing that could happen and it's absolutely uncalled for. That's how serious it is. I'm telling you, those hits are the most serious for sure."

As Darby mentioned, though, the tracks and NASCAR have addressed the most dangerous spots on the track. But as Burton said, the sport should never feel it is "as safe as it can be."

"I understand that not every race track can afford to do it right away, but I think over time tracks will use that as an excuse and say they can't afford it," Andretti said. "For Sprint Cup, it should almost be an immediate requirement. There's no reason that their highest level shouldn't be at the very front edge. All the way down to the touring series, it should be done over time."

Bobby Labonte, the 2000 champion, said he understands how safety can struggle to keep up with America's fastest moving sport.

"There are always ways to make things better, but sometimes you just don't know," he said. "That's why NASCAR has a research and development center in Concord, N.C. They are the guys who are looking at things constantly. I'm sure they are always looking at ways to make the sport better, but we don't know about it yet. In 20 years we'll have something or see something that made the sport safer and better, and we'll sit and say the same thing we say about the COT (Car of Tomorrow) and SAFER barriers today.

"The soft walls make a huge difference. It's probably something we never thought about 10 or 15 years ago, but now that they have been up and have been so effective, we're thinking, 'Man, why didn't we think about this a long time ago?'. It's one of those, 'What were we thinking?' type deals, but the technology came along and NASCAR and the tracks did a great job of making something that was available and made it work."