Soft Walls Test Well At Lowes

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  • Pictures of the Soft Walls Test

    CONCORD, N.C. -- Officials with Lowe's Motor Speedway introduced a new barrier on Tuesday that will be placed on the inside retaining walls in the second and fourth turns that may help prevent tragedies such as the ones that killed NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin at New Hampshire International Speedway earlier this year.

    The new barriers are made of polyethylene on the outside, with Styrofoam making up the inner part of the almost 4-foot wide sections. To demonstrate the difference, LMS officials dropped a 5,000-pound Cadillac - nose first - onto the new safety barriers, and then a lighter Cadillac onto the concrete pavement.

    The barriers stood up well, and the Cadillac that landed on it had minor damage to the nose and driver's compartment. The car had no roll cages or other protective parts that a race car would have. The lighter Cadillac that hit the concrete didn’t fare as well. In fact, it had significant damage.

    Geoffrey Bodine, a driver in the Winston Cup Series, said he was glad something was being done to help with driver safety before the tour rolls back into LMS for the UAW-GM Quality 500 weekend in October.

    "It's a great idea and I'm glad, like a thousand other drivers are, that people are looking at barriers a little more closely now than they did in the past," Bodine said. "You never know when you're going to run into one. It's sad that two deaths really gave this research a jump-start… Their deaths gave it a jump-start to where people are really seriously looking at it, and trying to find something that will help us. That makes all the drivers feel good to know that people care about us.

    "Where all this testing and research is going to go, you never know until you get there. But at least something is being done."

    Wheeler admitted that while many track owners have looked at ways of improving safety measures, much of it hasn't been made public.

    "There are some other things tracks are working on, but NASCAR of course is being very quiet about it and not saying anything," Wheeler said. "A lot of stuff is going on behind the scenes which will all come to light in a couple of months."

    Wheeler admitted that in the weeks following the death of Petty and then Irwin, many track owners knew that something was going to have to be done to prevent future injuries.

    "There's a lot of work going on behind the scenes by a lot of different people on the subject of energy absorption," Wheeler said. "Some of it has to do with the car, and some of it has to do with the tracks themselves. And since our races are almost upon us, we have to go ahead and make our decisions regarding the subject. We had been looking at energy-absorption materials in different forms for a couple years now.

    "But because of the two deaths, that subject bubbled up quite a bit. So we just decided to intensify our efforts to look at doing some things here in the most dangerous parts of our track… where we have high-speed impact.

    "Our high-impact areas here are off the fourth and second turns on the inside - not the outside. The outside wall barrier situation at big speedways, there is literally not enough data to try and do anything with that situation right now."

    And Wheeler was also quick to point out that the main problem facing drivers is how quick their cars come to a stop upon impact.

    "The real violent impacts we've had here, that don't include multicar accidents, have been down off the fourth turn rather than against the outside wall," Wheeler said. "Since Charlotte is fairly narrow, the cars tend to get in the outside walls and slide along rather than hit it at a dramatic angle. The sliding along the wall actually takes a tremendous amount of the energy out of the accidents.

    "The critical subject we're dealing with is dissipating the energy away from the driver, whether it's something done with the car itself, like absorption materials that have a lot of potential. And those are things you wouldn't want to put on the walls, but you could put inside the cars. There are some gels that are also pretty exciting which we have to keep looking at. Those gels tend to be pretty thin, but have a lot of impact resistance because the critical area for injury or death are the 60-to-100 G-forces on the driver. When you get in that range, bad things are going to happen.

    "Maybe out of all this, good things will happen. And we've seen that happen through the years with fuel cells, seat belts, tire inner-liners, and front and rear clips. Those are all things that protect drivers, and they've all come from bad things that have happened."

    Wheeler also noted that other Speedway Motorsports, Inc. tracks – such as Atlanta, Las Vegas and Texas - might follow suit.

    "They certainly could," Wheeler said. "But the testing we're doing today is to really highlight the whole subject. We've got to do further testing on this material after today, much more scientific testing. I think our next step will be to call on the auto companies to help us, because they have test labs that they can go to test materials in a real scientific way.

    "One thing we have to be careful about is we don't want to make the situation worse. And you can do that, so we have to be concerned with that. Like on the outer wall, if a car hits it and something snags it, you'd really get the G-forces because you'd bring the car to a complete stop. That's where the deceleration comes, and that's where the head injuries come."

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