Monday's race at Watkins Glen continued to prove the point that despite multiple incidents over the years and a number of close calls, some tracks continue to lack the safety improvements needed to host a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
Three drivers took devastating hits to walls that were not up to modern standards during Monday's race, all luckily walking away from their wrecked race cars.
The most dramatic wreck of the day came on the final lap when Boris Said turned David Ragan heading up the esses section of the track. The head-on contact into the angled Armco barrier shot Ragan's car back across the track into traffic. The No. 6 Ford collected David Reutimann and sent the two cars hard into yet another angled Armco barrier, sending Reutimann's car tumbling.
While both drivers were able to climb from their wrecked race cars, they both did so gingerly. Ragan had his feet and pedals pushed over, while Reutimann had a piece of debris fly into the car, ripping his fire suit and cutting his leg.
For both drivers, the walls they hit were the biggest issue.
"It's a shame that a race track we go to in 2011 doesn't have a better wall design all the way around the race track, so hopefully they'll look at that," Ragan said. "I've been to some dirt tracks that have better walls than that."
"I'm thinking where I hit would probably be a good place for SAFER barriers," Reutimann said sitting in a golf cart outside the medical center. "So, maybe we should look at that next time we come back."
The major issue in this wreck was not only the lack of a SAFER wall, but also the angle of the walls.
Denny Hamlin was also involved in a hair-raising incident earlier in the race at a similar section of the track. After something broke in the left front and cut the brakes, Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota shot head-on into the wall nearly at full speed.
Thankfully buffered by a tire barrier, Hamlin commended the wall he drove head-first into, but was still shaken up from the impact, calling it "the scariest I've been in my car."
While the wreck was similar to Brad Keselowski's incident testing at Road Atlanta nearly two weeks ago, Hamlin was lucky to walk away from the incident with just a minor limp.
Luckily, all three drivers were able to escape serious injury, but that does not mean the track can sit back and do nothing. Unfortunately, in most cases, it takes serious incidents such as those seen in Monday's race to produce changes in safety.
Veteran driver Jeff Gordon knows that all too well. He has been instrumental in keeping tracks honest when it comes to safety, but not in ways he would have liked.
Two seasons ago, Gordon was involved in a wild wreck exiting the fifth turn at Watkins Glen – the carousel as some call it – in which Sam Hornish Jr. got off track, hit a tire barrier and was spit back into oncoming traffic in one of the more high-speed areas of the track. Hornish, Gordon and Jeff Burton were all shaken up from the incident. A similar incident occurred earlier in the weekend to Nationwide Series driver Jason Leffler. Seeing a need for improved safety, Watkins Glen made a concerted effort to changing the track for the better.
Earlier this year, Gordon was involved in a wreck at Richmond International Raceway in which he hit the inside wall – with no SAFER barrier – with the driver side of the car. Shaken up from the hit, Gordon called on the track to make safety improvements, something they have since improved upon.
Following Monday's wreck, Gordon again called on tracks to step up the implementation of softer walls.
"You can't have walls like that, do you know what I mean? You're going to find those places eventually, so you got to fix them," he said. "Unfortunately this one has been found before and we've seen what can happen. To me, we're very fortunate that we don't have any injuries coming out of that because that could have been much worse."
In addition to calling for better walls, Gordon also pointed out tracks need to ensure that if a car has an incident with the wall they need to keep the car from coming back onto the race track into oncoming traffic and provide "a clear path for cars to exit the race track."
There is no doubt Watkins Glen has taken a number of steps over the years to improve safety at its facility. The $1.3 million improvements in safety two years ago led to SAFER barriers in multiple locations on the track, along with the removal of gravel traps. Going back further, the track created the inner loop following a terrible crash by Tommy Kendall and the fatal wreck of NASCAR's J.D. McDuffie.
Monday's winner Marcos Ambrose complimented Watkins Glen's effort over the years, calling it a "first-class facility."
"I think they've done an awesome job in some of the safety features they've already implemented around this place," he said. "I don't drive around this place looking at any one spot saying, ‘Ooooh, that looks nasty to me.' I think they've done great with what they've got.
"If you don't have a guard rail off of Turn 2, you end up going down a bank, so that's not good either. I think the track itself is fine, I think we just have to keep working on safety."
Yet Monday's incidents prove there is still work to be done at Watkins Glen.