NASCAR is putting its money where its mouth is after Kyle Busch was seriously injured during an Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway in February.
Technically, the individual tracks and their owners are footing the bill, but the response to calls from drivers for safety enhancements in the wake of Busch’s accident — he suffered a compound fracture in his lower right leg and broken left foot after smashing into an unprotected infield wall — did not go unheeded.
Many NASCAR-sanctioned tracks announced plans to add additional Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers or at the very least install tire packs to reduce significantly the amount of uncovered concrete walls during races.
That includes Kansas Speedway, which announced last month that it would install sand barrels at the pit-road exit and a tire pack at the pit-road entrance. The wall in turns two and three also will be extended.
“Anytime you hit a wall, you’re not happy,” Sprint Cup driver and Emporia, Kan., native Clint Bowyer said. “It hurts. It hurts like hell, but all you can really ask of anybody to do all that you can do. Certainly, we got caught off guard, thought we’d done all we could do and Kyle found a wall that wasn’t a SAFER barrier. … You learn. Unfortunately, you learn from some of those mistakes. Fortunately, we didn’t lose anybody. We’ve had to learn some of those lessons at the cost of losing a life.”
Busch suffered his injuries at Daytona when he skidded off the track and into an unprotected concrete wall on the infield. He remains indefinitely sidelined.
Much like Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash during the 2001 Daytona 500 spurred improvements in driver-safety technology, including the introduction of the head and neck support (HANS) device, Busch’s accident forced tracks coast to coast to spring into action.
“The Daytona International Speedway did not live up to its responsibility today,” track president Joie Chitwood III said after Busch’s wreck. “We should have had a SAFER barrier there today; we did not. We’re going to fix that. We’re going to fix that right now.”
A tire pack was added to the wall Busch hit overnight before the Daytona 500.
“Following that, the Daytona International Speedway is going to install SAFER barrier on every inch at this property,” Chitwood said. “This is not going to happen again. We’re going to live up to our responsibility. We’re going to fix this and it starts right now.”
Within days of Busch’s wreck, Talladega Superspeedway, where restrictor-plate racing often leads to spectacular crashes that can collect chunks of the field, announced it would add additional SAFER barriers.
Kentucky Speedway, which said it spent $1 million in 2005 to install soft walls in its turns, and Atlanta Motor Speedway made similar announcements.
“As promised, we expedited a review of potential safety advancements at each of our racing venues …,” NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said after those initial improvements were announced. “As we’ve stated, NASCAR and its track partners remain steadfastly committed to safety.”
Officials at Atlanta planned further safety reviews to determine if additional SAFER barriers are needed, especially after four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon expressed concern after a crash along a portion of wall that was not protected there March 1.
Additionally, Bristol Motor Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced plans to install SAFER barriers.
Phoenix International Raceway, The Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway added tire packs, while Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway also announced plans for safety improvements after Busch’s crash.
Many of the tire packs could eventually be replaced by SAFER barriers.
Dover International Speedway has constructed a new 21-foot catch fence, while safety reviews also are underway at Pocono Raceway and several other tracks.
Kansas Speedway — which installed SAFER barriers along its exterior track wall in 2004, putting it ahead of the curve in some respects from a safety standpoint — plans to review if additional improvements are needed to ensure driver safety.
Unfortunately, no amount of safety improvements can completely scrub the risk of injury or death from motorsports, but that doesn’t mean NASCAR and its associated tracks are not committed to minimizing such dangers.
Kansas Speedway has proven to be relatively safe. There have been plenty of wrecks — even a few of the spectacular variety — through the years, but few serious injuries.
Sterling Marlin suffered a fractured vertebra during a 2002 race in the track’s second season before SAFER barriers were added in 2004 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion after slamming into the wall during testing in 2012.
Of course, part of safety record at Kansas Speedway, which is owned by the International Speedway Corp. that operates 12 tracks used in the Sprint Cup, simply could be luck.
“I don’t think (Kansas Speedway) is relatively any safer than the other tracks,” said Talladega president Grant Lynch, who oversaw the construction of Kansas Speedway. “We have tended to take them all up in their safety factors as a group, because we own so many tracks. We think about safety as a company, not just as individual tracks, if that makes sense. … It’s a racing sport, so that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future, and we do everything we can to keep it from happening.”
NASCAR mandated that all oval tracks have SAFER barriers in the turns beginning with the 2005 season, but installation of the so-called soft walls at other parts of the track hasn’t been a priority.
Part of the issue is that SAFER barriers, which consist of steel tubes buttressed by bundles of closed-cell polystyrene foam, cost roughly $500 per foot.
Current Sprint Cup points leader Kevin Harvick, who crashed into the same wall at Daytona last season that left Busch hospitalized, lamented the fact no action was taken after his accident.
Daytona, which also will add asphalt and a SAFER barrier in turn one along with similar soft walls at the pit-road entrance and exit, did add 2,400 feet of SAFER barrier after the 2014 season, but none of it was along that infield wall.
Had it been, perhaps Busch wouldn’t be entering his third month of rehab, but, if there’s any good to come from it, there seems to be a genuine proactive movement now that prioritizes driver safety with a proactive response.