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SAFER Walls

Speedway officials considering ‘Safer’ walls

Newly designed barriers absorb
impact, reducing driver stress

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

SPARTA, Ky. (September 2004) – On Aug. 11, 2002, during practice for an IRL Infiniti Pro Series race at Kentucky Speedway, actor-turned-race car driver Jason Priestly slammed head-on into the wall while traveling at 182 mph. Priestly sustained extensive injuries, including multiple broken bones in his feet, face and back, in what remains the most severe accident in the history of the Sparta, Ky., track.

SAFER Wall

Graphic provided


SAFER Wall designed
to make crashes safer.

To reduce the risk of severe injury due to accidents like the one involving Priestly, Kentucky Speedway officials recently have announced they want to install Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers.
Developed by the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, in conjunction with the Indy Racing League, NASCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, SAFER barriers use polystyrene foam bundles caged behind steel tubes to absorb energy and lessen the impact of a collision on a race car driver. The 30-inch thick barriers are installed on the inside of existing concrete barriers and, like a giant pillow, absorb much of the force when hit.
A global leader in the development of crash worthy safety structures, the developing facility has been researching roadside safety since 1974. In its infancy, the program consisted primarily of crash testing and evaluating standard hardware designs used by particular state highway agencies.
As it grew, the facility obtained support from several Midwest state highway agencies, as well as the Federal Highway Administration, and began developing new advanced roadside safety hardware. Now 11 states, including Connecticut, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and South Dakota, help sponsor its roadside safety research program.
Through its innovative designs, the facility has become recognized as a global leader in the development of crash worthy safety structures. Road-side safety features developed and tested at the facility have included specially designed guard rail terminals, numerous variations of strong-post W-beam guard rail systems, 13 bridge railings for timber deck bridges and numerous work-zone devices.
In 1998, the facility, under the leadership of director and UNL engineering professor Dr. Dean Sicking, began working with the motorsports industry to improve the safety of its drivers. The result was the SAFER Barrier system, designed for use on high-speed oval race tracks. The first system was installed in 2002 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just prior to the 86th running of the Indianapolis 500. Since then, the system has been installed at more than a dozen additional facilities and, according to facility officials, has absorbed more than 40 significant impacts without severe driver injuries.
Crash tests have indicated that SAFER barriers can reduce lateral G-forces by as much as 75 percent and reduce a driver’s risk of head and neck injury by as much as 70 percent.
“We are very pleased with how the SAFER Barrier has performed so far,” said Sicking. “We have seen a significant reduction in Gs when comparing data from similar crashes with and without the barrier.”
In 2002, the SAFER Barrier system earned Sicking and his facility team the 36th annual Louis Schwitzer Award, presented annually in conjunction with the Indianapolis 500. The award, named after the dynamic automotive pioneer, recognizes individuals with the courage and conviction to explore and develop new concepts in auto racing technology.
“The total emphasis is on driver safety. We put in thousands of hours with computer models and on the test track to develop a barrier that would decrease peak forces applied to the car by elongating the impact event, which allows the occupant restraint systems more time to operate optimally and reduce driver injury,” said Sicking.
IRL Senior Technical Director Phil Casey called SAFER barriers “the greatest achievement for safety in automobile racing that’s been made.”
NASCAR drivers Jimmy Spencer and Michael Waltrip, after experiencing the effects of SAFER barriers, had the following to say:
“I never even got dazed,” Spencer said. “It was a hard hit, too. The worst side you can hit with is the left side. I didn’t even get anything. It never even knocked the wind out of me. There’s no question that the (SAFER barriers) are working.”
“I can’t emphasize how important it is for that SAFER wall to be up there,” added Waltrip. “Experience taught me I was fixing to get hurt, but I went up there and hit that nice, cushiony wall and I didn’t get hurt.”
NASCAR president Mike Helton in December 2003 announced during his annual “state of the industry” address that it is NASCAR’s goal to have SAFER barriers in place where needed at all of its high-speed oval tracks by the 2005 racing season.
Kentucky Speedway officials say they are evaluating options regarding the barriers. One proposal calls for installing 5,613 feet of SAFER barrier at an estimated cost of $1.5 million.
“With the record speeds of all the series we host, wide racing grooves and more than 150 days of track activity currently devoted to Nextel Cup testing, we believe it is time to move ahead and learn more,” said Kentucky Speedway Vice President and General Manager Mark F. Cassis. “We’re the largest track in the country without the SAFER barrier system, and we’re certainly committed to maintaining industry standards and ensuring competitor safety. Being an independently owned track that has yet to be added to the Nextel Cup schedule, our challenge lies in designating the necessary capital to move the project forward.”

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