Track barriers cause safety concerns
WATKINS GLEN—Several unfortunate racing incidents at Watkins Glen International over the summer have accelerated concerns for safety improvements at the road racing venue, which made its permanent road course debut in 1957.
While harrowing crashes during the “2011 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen” NASCAR race drew the attention of the national motorsports media, many were unaware that a Sports Car Club of America driver died, just days before the NASCAR weekend, of injuries suffered at Watkins Glen last month.
Ken Buchel, a 66-year-old SCCA competitor from Pennsylvania, was critically injured July 9 after hitting the Turn 6 guardrail at WGI and sustaining severe head injuries. It has been reported that the driver was not wearing a HANS or similar head-and-neck safety system.
Buchel passed away Aug. 9, 2011. The NASCAR weekend began Aug. 11, just two days later, with the Sprint Cup Series race held Monday, Aug. 15, after rain postponed its scheduled Sunday running.
The Sprint Cup race, won by Australian Supercar champion Marcos Ambrose, was marred by several high-speed crashes involving NASCAR stars Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, David Ragan and David Reutimann.
Though none of the Cup Series drivers was seriously injured, much of the credit for that goes to improvements implemented by the sport itself in recent years, including safety innovations in the “Car of Tomorrow” and the mandated use of the HANS device. In August, a newer “Sport II” version of the HANS was approved by the sanctioning body for use in all NASCAR series.
Many tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit have installed a safety feature known as the SAFER barrier—an acronym for Steel And Foam Energy Reduction, referred to in the vernacular as the “soft wall.” The SAFER system, which is affixed to the front side of a track’s concrete retaining walls, helps absorb and disperse the energy of high-speed impacts, dramatically improving driver outcomes.
Watkins Glen International President Michael Printup said, “Driver safety is paramount at Watkins Glen International and we will be more than willing to take any necessary steps moving forward. As we do every year, we will meet with the engineers for our parent company, International Speedway Corporation, following the season to fully evaluate our entire facility and discuss any potential enhancements or changes for next season. Over the last 10 years, we have invested approximately $30 million into our historic road course in capital improvements that have been directed at, among other things, fan experience, driver safety and the on-track product. These are the keys to remaining the premier road racing facility in North America and we expect to continue these efforts for years to come.”
Nevertheless, the worst crashes during the Heluva Good! race did not involve the concrete retaining walls or SAFER barriers, but guardrails and tire stacks. The results were particularly dramatic in Reutimann’s case, as his car ricocheted off the railings and flipped over in what he described as “definitely one of the hardest hits I’ve ever had.” Both Ragan and Reutimann saw their cars rebound off the guardrails and back onto the track in front of oncoming traffic.
Following the race, NASCAR President Mike Helton stated that the sanctioning body will be working with engineers at the University of Nebraska, where the SAFER barrier system was invented, to address issues at The Glen. “There (are) some areas where a SAFER barrier isn’t the best answer, particularly on a road course, because of the uniqueness of going left and right,” Helton said. “So far, at least, from what we’ve been told, there are some areas that may not. That doesn’t mean all the areas that need to be covered are covered, but SAFER barriers are not always the perfect answer for a situation.”
Driver Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup Series winner at WGI, said violent crashes like the recent ones at The Glen force track officials to reexamine their safety features. “I know it’s easy for us to say there should be (SAFER barriers) everywhere, but we’re not making those decisions. We don’t know what all goes on behind the scenes, the cost and whatever else it may be. I think that Watkins Glen needs to go through that same process. They need to be reevaluated. We’ve seen now more than one or more than two occasions where cars have gotten into that outside wall and, while the wall did its job in absorbing the impact, to me, the way it shot the car back out there is absolutely something that, (in) this day and age, we’re smart enough to know that we can’t have that.”
Though the violent nature of recent crashes at WGI is worrisome, driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains confident that the required improvements will be made.
“I’m sure there’s going to be some things done to that area in the race track at The Glen to make it safer. It’s unfortunate that sometimes you have to have an accident to bring it to light. I feel like we’re pretty conscious of safety in this sport and I think that a lot of people do a lot of good and we go in the right direction in terms of safety.”
BECCA GLADDEN is an independent motorsports journalist based in Phoenix, Ariz. and writes throughout the year for the Watkins Glen REVIEW&EXPRESS and The Observer. Gladden is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association.