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Racing officials huddle on safety fencing
The engineer behind the most significant safety initiative of this motor sports era — the energy-absorbing SAFER barrier that covers the concrete walls of major race tracks — said Thursday that an alternative to steel debris fencing will eventually be designed.

But it will take time and money, highway safety expert Dean Sicking stressed.

“None of it is trivial,” he said. “But this problem will be solved.”

Attention to racetrack fencing started after SAFER barriers were first installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002. A group of industry experts have been meeting regularly, most recently last week at the IndyCar office.

Coincidentally, that meeting was held two days prior to Saturday’s crash in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway. At least 28 spectators were struck by debris from Kyle Larson’s car that smashed into the fence.

Fences are charged with many tasks, led by keeping a race car from flying into grandstands. They also must collect as much debris as possible while not forcing the car into a sudden stop — known as pocketing — that subjects the driver to extra forces.

Then there is the issue of fence posts, which were the contributing factor in Dan Wheldon’s fatal crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011. Sicking has said the next generation of fences should hang from cables that cars can’t reach.

Complicating matters is visibility for spectators. A Plexiglas material is used in hockey arenas, but Kevin Forbes, director of engineering at IMS, said there are distortion issues when placing the material over a large area.

“Plexiglas is just going to completely and totally ruin the sight lines,” he said. “When you start looking left and right a half of a mile, the distortion in Plexiglas is unacceptable.

“Then you’re introducing something else that can break (when struck) and become flyable, and the cost is enormous.”

Sicking said there’s a similar material that has been used along highway bridges for noise reduction and visibility, but that’s expensive, too. A more likely option, he said, is using a combination of materials in the current fences to make the system flex better. 

Last week’s meeting at IndyCar included a company that specializes in working with aircraft. Sicking said there are applicable elements between race cars and planes.

“But we haven’t figured out how to (test) fly a car,” he said. “We have concepts for flying a car, but to start running the test is real money, and we don’t have that.”

Sicking put the cost of a system to fly a car at $150,000 to $200,000. The multi-stage SAFER barrier program cost an estimated $4 million, and that was a decade ago. Indy Star

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