Note: When I describe the turns at Watkins Glen, I like to use the older convention of referring to the backstretch chicane as four distinct turns rather than a single Turn 5 as ESPN would prefer. I also think said chicane should be called the McDuffie Chicane as opposed to the "bus stop" or "inner loop," but that's a story for another day. Please refer to the chart below.
This year's Cup race at Watkins Glen showed the best and the worst of what tire barriers can do. We saw the best during Cole Whitt's crash at Turn 1 following a brake failure (not to mention the fact that they're made of 100% recycled material.) We saw the worst when Ryan Newman crashed. Following his crash, Ryan Newman had some harsh words for Watkins Glen: "It's really disappointing. We lost John Melvin here in the last couple of weeks and he did a lot of innovations for our sport and it's really sad that they haven't adapted any of them here for this racetrack. The barriers - the SAFER barrier, that doesn't exist here. The Armco walls, there are no concrete walls. It's a very antiquated racetrack and the safety isn't at all up NASCAR standards and it's a shame we have to have accidents like that to prove it. Hopefully something will change by the next time we come back."
I'm glad Ryan Newman said that because it means we get to have this conversation. We can start by acknowledging that Watkins Glen has a SAFER Barrier at Turn 11. We must get over this notion that the SAFER Barrier is the be-all-end-all of trackside walls. Granted, the design of a rigid shell over a collapsible attenuator has proven itself ideal for oval tracks, there are alternatives for road courses.
Ryan Newman's crash demonstrates both reasons as to why tire barriers can't handle a glancing blow. First: whichever side of the car hits the barrier first will slow down while the opposite side of the car maintains its speed (professionals call this phenomenon, "spinning.") Second: tires, much like springs, tend to revert to their original shape after an impact, forcing the vehicle into the direction from whence it came.
There's a new soft wall on the market. The Tecpro Barrier features two distinct blocks: a reinforced block made of a metal sheet surrounded by polyurethane foam with a hard polyethylene shell, and an absorbent block that is a hollow polyethylene shell. The blocks are designed to be formed into layers and held together with nylon straps. These may offer enough rigidity to replace the tire barriers between turns 9 and 10 at Watkins Glen (short course) at a lower price than SAFER Barriers.
In this image reinforced blocks are gray and absorbent blocks are red.
I'll take a moment to call out a few tracks that are behind on safety. Why doesn't Charlotte Motor Speedway have a catchfence in Turn 3? Everyone pointed and laughed when Pocono didn't have one for the longest time, but no one dares call out Charlotte. Why doesn't Kentucky Speedway have a SAFER Barrier on its back straightaway's inside wall? There is no runoff between the track and a concrete wall! Turn 9 at Sonoma has a tire barrier, but given the high speeds seen in the turn a SAFER Barrier would be in order. If Turn 11 at Sonoma had a SAFER Barrier, IndyCar wouldn't need to use the motorcycle hairpin!
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