Sunday, May 11, 2003

'Soft walls' have been slow in coming to NASCAR tracks


Auto racing insider

By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Safety isn't always the foremost issue on the NASCAR Winston Cup circuit, but it's a topic that always seems to rise to the top whenever a life-threatening accident occurs.

Jerry Nadeau was the catalyst this time. On May 2, he crashed his Pontiac into the Turn 2 wall at Richmond International Speedway. Nadeau, who had to be cut from the car, suffered head, rib and lung injuries. He spent Monday through Wednesday in intensive care at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center before being upgraded to fair condition Thursday.

Nadeau's accident is the worst in NASCAR since "black data boxes" were installed on cars two years ago following Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona International Speedway. That was the last time the safety debate flared up, reaching its peak over whether drivers should be required to wear head and neck restraints. NASCAR did the right thing and mandated them shortly after, along with the black boxes.

Now, it's time for NASCAR to get SAFER, or Steel and Foam Energy Reduction walls, at all its tracks. Currently only Indianapolis and Talladega have the SAFER walls, an invention of Dr. Dean Sicking, who runs the University of Nebraska Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. Commonly known as "soft walls," they absorb much more impact than the current concrete barriers, which force more of a crash's energy onto the driver.

"I thought they would start having (the walls) at all the tracks," said Winston Cup driver Sterling Marlin, "but they haven't come across yet."

That's because installing the wall involves more than slapping steel and foam on top of concrete. Sicking has to have time to study angles of the tracks and test how effective the walls might or might not be. NASCAR reportedly wants to have the walls installed at New Hampshire and Richmond by this fall.

"I don't know if all the tracks need them," Marlin said. "New Hampshire, Richmond, Martinsville, Watkins Glen - those tracks need them because you'll hit the wall at a greater angle there."

Drivers don't want to see these walls put in as a knee-jerk reaction, which could do more harm than good. They're content to wait to see if they will be safer in the end.

"It's just a matter of time," said Jimmy Spencer. "The safety stuff we've come up with all involves time. And that's what makes it safer for drivers. I know they're looking hard at (the walls). But don't just do it to react."

WALLACE REPLACES NADEAU: Mike Wallace, who has driven in Winston Cup, Busch and the Truck series, has been hired to substitute for Nadeau in the U.S. Army-sponsored No. 01 Pontiac. His first race will be The Winston, a non-points race May 17 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

"We're appreciative that Mike has agreed to drive the U.S. Army car during Jerry's absence," said Jay Frye, general manager of MB2 Motorsports, which fields the No. 01 Pontiac and Johnny Benson's No. 10. "Mike has a vast amount of experience, and we're confident that he will do a great job."

NO PLACE FOR POLITICIANS: NASCAR drivers don't make public policy, and lawmakers shouldn't be driving Winston Cup cars. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley caused about $75,000 worth of damage to Jimmie Johnson's car Friday when Easley crashed it at Lowe's Motor Speedway at about 165 mph as he was practicing for a charity drive.

Easley was unhurt, but that's not the point. Too many unprofessional drivers are climbing into cockpits in the name of promotion. Imagine stepping into the ring with Lennox Lewis for a little prefight charity scuffle. Sound appealing?

For whatever reason, it's OK in NASCAR. According to the Charlotte Observer, Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler even told Easley, "You're not a real racer until you hit the wall."

Easley may have hit the wall, but he's not a real racer, and he shouldn't pretend to be one.

---

E-mail ddow@enquirer.com




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