If there is a wall on a NASCAR track without a SAFER barrier on it, chances are Jeff Gordon is going to find it. Saturday night in Richmond, he did just that.
Running in the top five for much of the first 300 laps, Gordon was turned as the field wrecked racing down the backstretch following a restart with 100 laps to go.
When Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard got together running three wide, the No. 17 caught Gordon’s No. 24 in the left rear and sent him sliding down towards the inside of the track. As the field stacked up behind him, Gordon slammed the inside wall flush with the driver side before shooting back up the track.
Shaken up by the hard hit, Gordon told his crew the impact knocked the wind out of him, but he was alright.
“Aw, that hurt,” he said on the radio. “I’ll tell you what, I find the worst freaking places to hit the damn walls.”
“I don’t know what it is,” he said after leaving the infield care center. “I’m not trying to teach anybody anything. I really am not. I think it is pretty well known we need SAFER barriers everywhere. You think it is a short track and everything but man, I hit a ton and hit right on the corner where you don’t want to hit. It definitely got my attention. That is for sure. It rang my bell.”
This is not the first time Gordon has found a piece of wall without a SAFER barrier the hard way. Racing up front at Las Vegas in 2008, Gordon and Kenseth got together off Turn 2. When Gordon made the move to avoid Kenseth’s sliding car, the No. 24 shot down the track and head-on into the inside wall. Making contact with an opening for safety vehicles, the hit violently spun Gordon’s car around and threw the entire radiator across the track.
Following that incident, Las Vegas Motor Speedway – along with other tracks such as Charlotte Motor Speedway – altered the openings for safety vehicles and installed SAFER barriers along the inside walls.
After all of the attention brought on by Saturday’s wreck, Richmond International Raceway president Doug Fritz promised his team would explore the track’s safety options.
“The safety of all who attend our events, including the drivers, is of the utmost importance at Richmond International Raceway,” Fritz said. “We, along with NASCAR and the developer of the SAFER barrier at the University of Nebraska, review the performance of the barrier and its locations and have made improvements from time to time based on recommendations from the University of Nebraska. [We] will continue to look at being able to improve upon it.”
Not only did the wall Gordon hit not have a SAFER barrier, but it was also angled out towards the track after an opening for safety vehicles. While Richmond is not as big of a track as Las Vegas, speeds are still fast and the intense racing action coming off Turn 2 and into Turn 3 often leads to contact and ultimately wrecks, leaving the potential for incident’s like Gordon’s. It should also be noted, that Richmond does not feature SAFER barriers on any of the walls on the inside of the track.
Gordon also took a nasty hit during the 2009 race at Watkins Glen. Exiting the long and sweeping Turn 9, Kasey Kahne and Sam Hornish Jr. got together, sending Hornish into the tire barrier. Upon making contact with the retaining wall, Hornish’s No. 77 was sent spiraling back across the track and into the path of Gordon’s car, followed by Jeff Burton and a string of other cars. After making hard contact with Hornish, Gordon then hit the Armco barrier head on – hard enough to lift his rear tires in the air.
Last year Pocono Raceway saw two incidents that raised concerns about that track’s safety measures, but neither featured Gordon. During the track’s first race, Kasey Kahne nearly went over the wall when a multi-car wreck lifted his tires off the ground. With no fence to hold the car in the track, Kahne almost almost found himself in the trees that line the wall.
The second incident, occurring during the track’s second race, saw Elliott Sadler take one of the most vicious hits in recent memory. As Kurt Busch wrecked ahead of him, Sadler was turned down the track when he slowed to avoid the trouble ahead. Sliding through the grass at nearly full speed, Sadler’s No. 19 hit the earthen mound with an Armco barrier head on, sending dirt flying into the air and ripping Sadler’s engine from the car.
If it were not for the safety devices such as the head-and-neck (HANS) device, the hit – close to 80 G’s – could have left Sadler seriously hurt, if not worse.
Race winner Greg Biffle – who was involved in the wreck that nearly sent Kahne over the wall earlier in the year – told Sports Illustrated, “They’re going to kill somebody there,” adding, “If they don’t change that racetrack – maybe not next year, maybe not three years from now – they’ll hurt somebody there.”
Following that incident and the criticism that dominated the media afterward, Pocono Raceway agreed to install SAFER barriers around the inside of the track and fences along the Long Pond Straightaway where Kahne nearly left the track.
The ultimate question, then, is what will it take for tracks to step up to the plate?
After two gut wrenching years in which Kenny Irwin, Adam Petty, Tony Roper, Blaise Alexander and ultimately Dale Earnhardt Sr. were killed in on track incidents, NASCAR has made leaps and bounds in the area of safety. The newly designed car, the implementation of head-and-neck restraints, the SAFER barriers and stronger catchfences have led to a 10 year stretch in which no driver has lost his life.
Yet, it seems as if tracks are unwilling to make changes unless an incident brings the issue to everyone’s attention. For Kyle Busch, the reason tracks are not installing SAFER barriers is fairly simple.
“It’s all a money thing,” he said. “If we could sell these places out every single time we go there, obviously the racetracks would have a little bit more revenue to make better improvements to some of the tracks. That’s what it boils to sometimes.
“You look at Daytona or Talladega, they are SAFER barriers, but not everywhere. We wreck more on the straightaways than we do in the turns. You wonder to yourself, ‘We don’t need any more racing room, why don’t you have a SAFER barrier here?’ It’s all about dollars.”
With the economy hurting attendance, those dollars that may be allocated for driver safety are now being spent on initiatives to bring fans to the track, keep them entertained throughout their visit and allow them to leave wanting to come back.
In 2010, Richmond installed a new state-of-the-art scoring tower that stands 153-feet into the air. This season, the track widened nearly every seat and added more than 20 42” televisions under the grandstands. At Charlotte Motor Speedway, the track is frantically working to put the final touches on the world’s largest HD video screen on the backstretch.
What this does is take all important funding away from projects such as SAFER barriers around the entire facility, safety initiatives in the garage and on pit road, and other items that might not make a difference to the fans in the stands, but could make a world of difference for the competitors on the track, in the garage and on pit road.
Safety is one aspect of the sport that should never be taken for granted and put off until something bad happens. The tracks, and NASCAR alike, cannot afford to be reactionary any longer.