Barriers To Safety

I sat in a comfortable chair in Charlotte, N.C. on Tuesday morning, listening to questions drone on and on and on … about the SAFER Barrier. I joked with a colleague that if she wanted a cure for insomnia, this was it.

Maybe the chair was too comfortable. Maybe I was in a bad mood. Whatever it was, I couldn’t have been more wrong about the conference call. On it was Dr. Dean Sicking, a structural engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the director of the school’s Midwest Roadside Safety Facility.

Sicking, you may remember, was part of the team NASCAR assembled to investigate the Dale Earnhardt crash. Soon, hopefully very soon, Sicking will become more known as the developer of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction Barrier.

The SAFER Barrier, the result of a project started by the Indy Racing League, was in place for the Indianapolis 500, and by all accounts, it was a big hit, so to speak. The barrier proved worthwhile in reducing the energy of crashes of IRL cars, and Sicking compared two crashes, one pre-SAFER and one post-SAFER, as proof of its value.

The first, involving Eliseo Salazar before the barrier was installed, registered a G-force spike of 115 and sent Salazar to the hospital to repair a torn artery. He’s out for the year. The second, an identical hit, involved Robbie McGehee after the barrier was in place. McGehee’s hit spiked at 75 Gs, and he returned to drive soon after the crash.

Gee, maybe this contraption does work. Which begs the question: Why in the world don’t all NASCAR tracks have the SAFER Barrier up now? Heck, why didn’t they have it up last week … or the week before … or the week before that?

Remember when we all cringed when Mike Helton said at the Earnhardt investigation press conference that NASCAR wouldn’t react for the sake of reacting? We all threw up our hands and mumbled, some louder than others, “What a pity. Poor Mike is out of touch.”

But maybe, just maybe, NASCAR isn’t so wrong after all. The barrier simply isn’t ready for application to stock-car tracks, and it probably won’t be for a year or so.

Why not? I defer you to Sicking, whose PhDs make him a lot more qualified to answer than me and you. And you, and you over there.

Sicking said he wants to attack all at once the problems faced in making a barrier that’s optimized for all tracks and all vehicles. And there are two main barriers to the new barrier, if you will. (Sicking said it was more “reconfiguring” the Indy barrier).

First, different cars race at different tracks. A concrete wall doesn’t care if it’s a 1,550-pound IRL car or a 3,400-pound Winston Cup car. But a SAFER barrier does.

“We have to allow the softer, the lower-energy absorption system to be used by an IRL crash,” Sicking said, “and then have a higher-energy management system behind that for the Winston Cup car. Your wall is going to get deeper.”

You don’t really have to be an engineer to understand that. Imagine throwing an orange against a wall, and then throwing a watermelon against the same wall. The watermelon makes a bigger mess.

Oh, sure, we can talk about energy = mass times velocity squared, and try to think about a lighter but faster IRL car vs. a slower but heavier NASCAR car, but forget about all that. They hit differently, so you need different protection.

The second problem involves different tracks. But let’s back up a second. The SAFER Barrier is built around four rectangular steel tubes tied together. The Indy barrier had straight tubes that are 20 feet long.

The tracks with tighter turns – like New Hampshire International Speedway, which, to its credit, has worked to solve safety issues there – require the tubes to be bent.

No big deal? Well, yes it is. Sicking said more testing is needed on the curved steel tubes to see if the joint design can be adapted. And if so, is it still easily repairable? Also, curved tubing is more stiff than straight tubing. If you change the stiffness of the tubes, what does that do to the energy absorption of the barrier?

Gee, not reacting for the sake of not reacting seemed pretty smart.

Oh, yeah, Daytona and Talladega are a different beast. The longer-radius turns mean the tubes don’t have to be curved, but the high bankings are an issue. Simply put, to install the walls there would be a bear, and if there’s a crash, cleanup and repair is made especially difficult because the barrier wants to slide down the bank.

On a track like Indy, with slight banking, you can drive to the wall and work on the barrier as if it’s on flat ground. At Daytona and Talladega, it’s like working on the side of a mountain.

So there’s plenty of obstacles to overcome before the SAFER Barrier – or maybe SAFER Barrier 2? – is ready for NASCAR application. Sicking said a significant amount of computer modeling will be needed to redesign the energy-management system. That means the barrier won’t be ready any time soon.

“I don’t believe it will be possible to solve that this season,” Sicking said.

Perhaps a year from now? Sicking is “really hopeful of that.”

“Within three years, I would think we’d be at the point where all your ovals and tri-ovals should be accommodated by then,” Sicking said.

So let’s be patient and let Sicking and his troops figure it out. This is one time in the sport where it’s better to go slow.



Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

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