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Adding SAFER barriers is complex, presents challenges

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Driver safety is paramount in NASCAR, but just adding additional SAFER barriers isn’t necessarily the answer.

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Two years ago, Denny Hamlin smashed nearly head-on into an interior concrete wall at Auto Club Speedway. The impact was so great, it lifted the rear of the No. 11 car off the ground.

Because a SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier didn't protect the wall he pounded, it was of little surprise when Hamlin emerged from his battered car injured -- seriously. A fractured vertebra caused Hamlin to miss four races.

As is often the case when a safety oversight is exposed, track officials answered swiftly. When NASCAR returned to the Southern California track the following year, SAFER barriers had been installed where Hamlin wrecked -- just before the pit road entrance.

Last month in an accident eerily similar to Hamlin's, Kyle Busch spun off the racing surface during an Xfinity Series race and slammed almost head on into an interior wall at Daytona International Speedway. That wall, too, wasn't covered by a SAFER barrier and like Hamlin, Busch was seriously injured. He sustained a broken right leg and left foot and his return is measured not in weeks, but months.

Within hours, Daytona and NASCAR officials apologized publicly for the lack of so-called soft walls everywhere. (NASCAR only requires tracks to have SAFER barriers covering walls located in the corners.) Furthermore, DIS president Joie Chitwood III pledged to have additional SAFER barriers installed before its July NASCAR date. And for the following day's Daytona 500, tire packs were constructed to cover the wall Busch struck.

Notice a reoccurring theme here? Reactive vs. proactive.

Two major stars incapacitated in wrecks where the impact would've been significantly lessened -- and in all likelihood, their injuries prevented -- had they hit a steel-and-foam energy barrier, not a bare concrete wall. In both instances, NASCAR and the respective tracks responded by increasing the use of soft walls. Measures drivers that have long advocated for, only for their calls to go unheeded by the powers that be.

"I think it's a reaction from the track, unfortunately," Harvick said the day after Busch's wreck. "I hit the same wall a little further up last year at this particular race and kind of voiced my opinion. Unfortunately, I was just a dot on the chart. There was no reaction. Now there is a reaction from the race track. Hopefully, this is a lesson learned.

"We know what fixes these walls."

If anyone knows how to "fix these walls" it would be Dr. Dean Sicking, who developed SAFER barriers while director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska.

Energy-absorbent technology was first incorporated at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002. The year before, NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt died on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and what followed in the aftermath were industry-wide safety improvements.

In addition to soft walls, head-and-neck restraints became mandatory, as did closed-faced helmets. Two years after Earnhardt's death, NASCAR required every track to install SAFER barriers. A new car, with added protection and a more centralized cockpit, was introduced in 2007. The initiatives are a large reason why no driver has died in a NASCAR national touring series race since Earnhardt.

But as evident by Busch's accident and Jeff Gordon striking an unprotected wall the following week at Atlanta Motor Speedway -- he was uninjured -- it's evident the implantation of SAFER barriers needs to be more widespread.

Already a multitude of tracks have scrambled to add soft walls. Talladega Superspeedway announced Thursday that SAFER barriers would be installed in three more sections -- the inside wall at the entrances to pit road, Turn 1 and Turn 3 -- before its May race.

"You want to make drivers as safe as you can for selfish reasons, you don't want to lose your stars," Humpy Wheeler, the former Charlotte Motor Speedway president, told SB Nation. "Kyle Busch is racked up right now and he's not selling any tickets."

Increased safety is an obvious positive, though it begs the question of why it took an injury to a marquee driver to generate a safety push throughout the sport?

There are many reasons, but the one mentioned most often is the cost of construction. At an estimated $500 per foot, building a SAFER barrier isn't cheap. Further compounded by the recent rush with every track looking to add soft walls, Sickling believes costs would skyrocket to 10-to-12 times the normal amount.

"How much time and how much money do you spend to making that time short?" Sickling said to SB Nation. "If I have an unlimited budget, I could probably put SAFER barrier everywhere on every track. But to get done at a decent price, it's probably not realistic for every track to be completely treated right away."

And in an economic climate where many tracks are dealing with shrinking attendance and have removed seats to combat vast areas of unoccupied space, finding the necessary funds is a mystery.

"The problem NASCAR has is it has to deal with the tracks, who only have so much capital improvement money -- mainly because the ticket revenue isn't there," Wheeler said. "The problem with putting up a SAFER barrier is while it increases safety, it produces absolutely no revenue whatsoever so a lot of tracks are reluctant to put more in than they have to."

Then there is the matter of the materials. As just about every track looks to add soft walls beyond just the turns and other high-impact areas, finding the needed materials presents a challenge. The key component of SAFER barriers are 8x8x3/16-inch steel tubing, which is only available in limited qualities.

"What NASCAR needs to do is go out and figure out how much barrier you can get put up this year, prioritize where it's needed, then spread it out among the tracks and get it up," Sickling said. "If they do that for a couple years it should pretty much treat every wall."

Another hindrance is only two companies are approved to manufacturer SAFER barriers. Then there is the challenge of construction on curved walls and at some tracks the removal of crossing gates altogether. Sickling cites Martinsville Speedway as one venue where the tight angles made the installation of soft walls an intricate process.

"What I would recommend [NASCAR] do is go to each track and look at what portions of the wall are unprotected and then decide, if [that area] would be safer with a SAFER barrier or with tires?" Sickling said. "If the answer is a SAFER barrier, then you decide whether if the wall should be reconfigured before putting a barrier up.

"What we are after is long-term safety. We don't want to go out there and slap a SAFER barrier on it like a Band-Aid and say, ‘That's good' when we could be significantly better if we rearranged the concrete wall before we put the barrier up."

According to Sickling, who is now at the University of Alabama-Birmingham focusing on football helmets and reducing concussions, it's a misnomer that every wall a driver could contact needs to be protected.

Short tracks such as Martinsville, where speeds are slower and the impact angle marginalized, likely don't need SAFER barriers on all walls. And superspeedways need increased protection universally. The key is continued evaluation and vigilance.

"NASCAR is between a rock and a hard place right now," Sickling said. "They're trying to do their best -- I think they've always tried to do their best -- to make sure the tracks are safe. But it's not easy -- there's no simple solution."