DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Here we go again.
There's a wreck, a car slides through the grass, brakes locked, but still traveling faster than the rest of us will ever drive on the local highway. There's a wall in the distance and it's closing quick. Television viewers at home, fans in the grandstand, spotters atop that grandstand, and the driver behind the wheel of the out-of-control race car are all scanning that wall up ahead with one question in mind:
Does it have a SAFER barrier?
That's exactly what happened on Saturday evening at Daytona International Speedway, in the closing laps of an Xfinity Series race that ended up becoming just another bizarre chapter in this most calamitous of Speedweeks. Kyle Busch slid sideways out of a multicar crash just past the start-finish line. His Toyota Camry skidded toward the towering wall that separates the racing surface from the infield. From the TV booth to the media center to his wife, Samantha, sitting in the team's pit stall, everyone looked ahead, picked out the spot where he was going to hit and asked that same question:
Does it have a SAFER barrier?
The answer was no. Busch emerged from his car and collapsed to the grass at the feet of the safety crew. Later, as Ryan Reed celebrated his unlikely win, Busch was being transported to a hospital complaining of leg discomfort. The eventual diagnosis: a compound fracture of his lower right leg and a fracture in his left foot. On Sunday he will not be in the Daytona 500.
While Busch wasn't able to speak for himself, plenty of others spoke for him. From Jimmie Johnson to Jeff Burton to Max Papis, from the NASCAR garage to paddocks across every form of racing, the demand was the same across all forms of social media. "These drivers deserve safer barriers everywhere," tweeted Jeff Burton, the just-retired racer and now NBC broadcaster. "It's very expensive but we have to find a way."
As Busch was being carried into Halifax Medical Center, the men he'd just raced with were speaking out to the motorsports media. Ty Dillon, who finished third, said, "I think we're at the point where ... there should be SAFER barriers everywhere. I think we can afford it."
Saturday night's chorus wasn't just made up of drivers. It also included crew chiefs, spotters and mechanics. The loudest voices belonged to the wives and mothers. Mary Lou Hamlin, who saw her son, Denny, suffer a broken back at California's Auto Club Speedway in 2013, his physical reaction and collapse eerily similar to teammate Busch's on Saturday night, also took to Twitter: "Cannot understand why there isn't a safer barrier the entire track!!!"
Actually, this wasn't a chorus. This was a refrain, a replay of an all-too-familiar skip in the NASCAR CD player, one that seems to have a short in the speaker wire that's connected to the skyboxes of racetrack executives.
On Saturday night, Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood finally heard it all. Sitting alongside NASCAR VP of competition Steve O'Donnell, he took a break from his exhaustive promotion of the racetrack's $400 million grandstand renovations to admit, "We should have had a SAFER barrier there. We did not. We're going to fix that right now." And repeated "cost doesn't matter to me" early and often.
Sunday there will be tires stacked along that wall. By July there will be the SAFER barrier that should have been there in the first place. Now the hope is that other racetracks will take Saturday night's incident, combined with Chitwood's embarrassment, and start becoming proactive instead of reactive.
Fix what's broken instead of waiting on something broken to be fixed. Like bones. SAFER (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction) first arrived in the stock car racing world in 2002 during the safety revolution that followed in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, one part of a puzzle that included new seats, head-and-neck restraints and car redesigns. At the time, NASCAR's still-new research and development center worked with the University of Nebraska, the pioneer of "soft wall" technology, to identify the most dangerous areas around the racetrack. Using that information, they bolted SAFER's metal-and-foam energy-absorbing materials to the existing concrete walls.
The reasons given for covering only selected spots? The still-exposed areas are rarely if ever hit, widening walls would alter the racing surface too much, it was too expensive, and the supply of the right steel tubing (8-by-8, 3/16-inch thick) was totally tapped out.
In the decade and a half since, those are still the reasons given. The only significant additions in recent years have been reactionary, such as the new SAFER barrier inside Turn 4 at Auto Club, which Denny Hamlin half-jokingly referred to last March as the "Hamlin's Vertebrae Memorial Wall."
The same year that Hamlin suffered his injury, Jeff Gordon plowed into the frontstretch wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The next morning he couldn't figure out why it was so hard for him to get out of bed. When he looked at his recording of the race, he was stunned to see there had been no SAFER where he hit. When he asked why, he was told no one ever hits that spot with much force. The same excuse he'd been given when he hit naked concrete at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ... and Richmond International Raceway ... and Dover International Speedway.
When asked why he believed those walls weren't covered, the living racing legend rubbed two fingers together. "There's only one reason: cost. That's it."
Last summer, my colleague Marty Smith wrote a piece on this website that sought to learn if cost really was the reason. He was given a long, sometimes rambling list of reasons. Ultimately cost was the root of most of it. In the end, the explanation was little more than a recycled and slightly updated version of the 2002 list. Last July O'Donnell told Smith: "It sounds simple to go ahead and put it up everywhere, but it's really not that simple."
On Saturday night he certainly wasn't as full steam ahead as Chitwood, but did amend his usual "We talk to racetracks about SAFER recommendations all the time" with a slightly more urgent "We will accelerate those talks [to get SAFER]."
So what if covering every square inch of every speedway wall would be overdoing it? So what if some charts and graphs somewhere on a scientist's laptop say that it would be nothing more than a symbolic act? So what if someone needs to figure out how to use 1/4-inch-thick steel instead of 3/16-inch-thick steel? And so what if a racetrack's plans to install escalators and video boards have to be put on hold to go buy some more $500-a-foot SAFER covering?
Wouldn't the peace of mind be worth it? Wouldn't easing the fears of racers, their fans and their families be worth it? Wouldn't it be worth it to finally erase that same old question, the one we all shouted Kyle Busch's way Saturday night?
Does it have a SAFER barrier?
We should always know that the answer is always yes.
To all the other racetrack operators out there: a "SAFER barrier cost doesn't matter to me" precedent has been set. Start ordering now.