SAFER debate: More added but installation pace still concern

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Even as tracks add SAFER barriers, it’s not fast enough for some drivers, leaving them frustrated.

Austin Theriault’s crash into an unprotected wall during last weekend’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway left him with a 10 percent compression fracture and some competitors questioning the pace of safety enhancements at tracks.

Kyle Busch, who broke his right leg and left foot when he hit an unprotected wall in February at Daytona International Speedway, and Brad Keselowski, who owned the truck Theriault crashed, say more needs to be done at tracks. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin say they’ve seen plans for safety upgrades and are encouraged.

“I’ve said it before, us NASCAR drivers will figure out how to crash in the stupidest ways, in the weirdest spots, and get hurt,’’ Busch said. “That Austin crash, that was just so weird and never should have happened but it did. We all need to stop playing God and protect as much as we can and let the rest take care of itself.’’

Asked his reaction when he saw Theriault’s accident, Keselowski said: “I cringe, but then I get back in the race car and say, ‘What are my options?’ As a team owner I have no ability to affect change on the tracks, and as a driver I’m consistently told how lucky I am to have a spot as a race car driver and I need to shut up and drive the car. So there are no options available for me to remedy the situation, so I move on to things I can affect change on.”

Theriault was injured when teammate Tyler Reddick got loose in Turn 4. Reddick regained control as he came down the track and clipped Theriault’s truck, sending it headfirst into a portion of the frontstretch wall not protected by a SAFER barrier.

A spokesman for Las Vegas Motor Speedway said a plan has been in place since spring to have the SAFER barrier installed in that section before the Xfinity and Sprint Cup races there next March.

A renewed effort was made by the sport to install more SAFER barriers, tire barriers and other protective devices after Busch’s crash this year.  International Speedway Corp., which owns 12 tracks that host Sprint Cup races, including Daytona, announced in July it would add 54,000 linear feet of SAFER barriers through the end of 2016. The energy-absorbing barriers are intended to reduce the forces in a crash and lessen the chance for driver injury.

NASCAR sent engineers to tracks for further examinations. Not all changes could be done immediately because of the limited number of companies that could install the steel and foam barriers and the time needed to construct the barriers.

“I feel like they’ve picked up the pace a tremendous amount,’’ Harvick said. “I know every race track has been evaluated, and we’ll have more SAFER barriers or different walls as we go back to them. I’ve seen the plan, and it’s a pretty extensive plan of walls and barriers throughout the country at every race track.’’

Charlotte Motor Speedway, which hosts the Bank of America 500, has added SAFER barriers since hosting the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. A track spokesperson said that the track has added more than 2,200 linear feet of SAFER barrier. Now, all the exterior walls and interior walls – with the exception of the pit road wall – are protected with either the SAFER barrier or tire barriers.

When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to Kansas Speedway next week for the first time since May, drivers will compete on a track where all the outside walls are now protected by SAFER barrier.

Pat Warren, president of Kansas Speedway, told NASCAR Talk that the track added 1,250 linear feet of the barrier to the outside backstretch wall and 525 linear feet of the barrier to the outside frontstretch wall near the restart zone.

Also, 1,700 linear feet of the barrier was added to interior walls at the entry and exit of corners. Much of that was concentrated around the entrance and exit to pit road.

“We’re always doing things to improve safety,’’ Warren said.

Hamlin, who suffered a compression fracture in his lower back after hitting an unprotected inside wall in 2013 at Auto Club Speedway, is heartened by the progress being made by NASCAR and tracks.

“They know it needs to be done, they’re going to get it done,’’ he said. “It takes a little bit of time. It’s not a money thing – they’re putting that investment in. They just haven’t had time to get it done. It’s very unfortunate someone hit the wall this past weekend that is going to have another injury. I’m confident 12 months from now if that same situation happens again, we’re going to have a much safer driver.”