"Soft Walls"  Drivers take a stand.......while you still can!

 by Bill Wettstein & Mark Cipolloni
September 6, 2000


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By now, most of you have read the ultimatums handed down by a few of the top stars of Winston Cup racing regarding the installation of "soft walls" prior to the upcoming New Hampshire race. While we concur with their request, these drivers may actually have to follow through with their threats to see significant movement on this matter this season or next. 

Most agree that NASCAR has taken the safety matter seriously and have stated as much. What seems to be troubling most of us is the lack of prompt action. Unfortunately, between their lack of understanding of soft wall technology and today's lawsuit happy climate, simply installing these walls without a tested and approved standard leaves any sanctioning body or track owner holding the liability, even though it is unlikely, the "soft walls" would lead to injuries or death. 

In the event of an accident, soft walls will be the first thing a car hits since they will be placed in front of the current de-facto standard concrete wall. Since concrete walls have been used for such a long period of time few, if any, courts will find negligence on the part of a sanctioning body or the track owner if lawsuits are presented. However, that is quickly changing as several companies have stepped forward with products they claim will work. If an alternate exists, someone is going to sue saying they knew about a possible solution, but did nothing.

When you look at history you will find that tens of thousands of drivers have been killed or permanently injured from impacts with concrete walls over the years. We are not just talking about Winston Cup and CART; we are talking about the countless scores of drivers who met their fate on the local short tracks throughout America. It's hard not to find at least one report a week about a driver killed or seriously injured.

In the early days of racing the driver was thought to be expendable. It was the paying customer sitting in the grandstand that had to be protected. In that respect, concrete walls have served the racing industry well.

Because no standards for soft walls have been put in place by the major sanctioning bodies here in the USA, not too many companies have a product designed, tested, and ready to go for use as a soft wall system. Hence NASCAR and CART have had to revert to band-aid solutions such as kill switches, the HANS device, etc.

This issue is not entirely new. Mark Cipolloni authored a paper back in 1996, which was prompted by tragedies within CART/IRL at the time. The article highlighted the need for soft wall technology, complete with a possible solution. Since then, Dr. Antonio Ferrari (Eurointernational), who, as highlighted on a recent episode of RPM2night recently consulted with NASCAR, set upon a course of action to develop a soft wall system. What he found when he started was that no real standards existed for him to design against. More recently the FIA developed a soft-wall standard, although it was geared more for road courses than for ovals. With a standard by which to follow, his laboratory developed and tested a soft wall system (see related article) that today, remains the only one in the world approved by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile). That standard was developed for head-on impacts, the kind you are more likely to find on a road course than an oval. 

Although no standard exists for oval track soft walls per se, Dr. Ferrari's company has developed a stiffer oval course barrier that is meant to absorb some of the energy of a car while redirecting it to scrub off the remainder by sliding along its front face. However, this product remains untested and unapproved. The concern with soft walls on ovals is the potential for the wall to 'grab' a car rather than redirecting it along its face and scrubbing off energy in the process. 

The trick to driver safety is to dissipate the energy of the vehicle over a distance great enough to allow the driver's body, and the car, to decelerate at a reasonable rate. To exaggerate what we mean let's use this analogy - if a 200 mph Indy car gradually comes to a stop in 1,000 feet, the driver feels very little 'g' forces on their body because the rate of deceleration is very small. If a 200 mph race car hits a wall head on and comes to a stop in the distance it takes for the front of the car to crush against the driver's body, fatal injury results because the rate of deceleration 'a' is very large and the immovable wall exerts an equal and opposing force (i.e. the mass of the car and driver times a very large deceleration 'a' against the car and driver, until they stop. The human body cannot withstand that amount of force.

As we know, head-on collisions are extremely rare in oval track auto racing. Therefore, NASCAR has to establish a test standard to determine how the various soft walls will actually perform at the angles relative to that of actual collisions. To do this, short of an oval course-testing laboratory, track testing appears to be the only viable method for a competent test. That being said, which of the WC teams are willing to subject their respective equipment and/or manpower to a collision test against whatever soft walls are proposed? Will NASCAR help with any financial assistance these teams may need when and if they volunteer for track testing?

Another solution would be to put several of the experimental walls in place, as the drivers have demanded, and have them sign a waiver stipulating that they could not file a lawsuit as a result of an injury or death. With this sort of waiver in place, the sanctioning bodies and race tracks would be more willing to spend the money to try various products until a satisfactory solution can be found. With any luck, they will find one that works on their first try. However, it's more likely that it will take many impacts and countless hours of analyzing the data before all can agree upon a definitive solution. The alternative is to do nothing, and that simply is not acceptable.

In lieu of a overabundance of extra racecars lying around, the decision of which soft wall manufacturers get a shot at this test has to be limited to a select few which are, hopefully, chosen based on some sort of previous test results gathered by the manufacturer for their product. 

Can NASCAR adopt Dr. Ferrari's modified-for-ovals road course barrier to initiate a test standard rather than re-invent the wheel? Will Bill Simpson's proposed solution work? No one knows for certain.

As long as we continue to test various walls by dropping passenger cars from cranes, the chances of seeing soft walls at a track anytime soon remain slim. It doesn't take rocket science to see that various products must be installed and tested in real race conditions to get to the best solution in the shortest amount of time. We are willing to bet the drivers will be more than happy to race with experimental soft walls than to race with unprotected, unforgiving concrete walls.

Even if the powers to be agree to install experimental soft walls in real race situations, a concurrent initiative toward developing a test standard for soft walls would be a good use of time. An occasional press release of accurate test standard results may go a long way to easing the concerns of the WC teams and drivers, who may be under the impression that the best sales pitch will determine their ultimate safety. 

So, will the drivers take a stand while they still can? Or will it take another Adam Petty, Greg Moore, Scott Brayton, Ernie Irvan, Sam Schmidt, Gonzalo Rodriquez, or Kenny Irwin Jr. tragedy to make us realize that in most cases doing something is better than doing nothing.

Bill Wettstein can be contacted via e-mail at wwettstein@yahoo.com
Mark Cipolloni can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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