Tire barriers used as safety stopgap

When Kyle Busch crashed head-on into an unprotected concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway, it left one of NASCAR's biggest stars hospitalized with a broken right leg and left foot and sidelined indefinitely.

It also forced NASCAR and racing venues to take a fast, hard look at how they can make tracks safer — now.

The immediate answer has been tire barriers — stacks of tires bolted together into packs that can be installed relatively quickly at areas where the sanctioning body or tracks see a need for cushioning.

SAFER barrier inventor Dean Sicking said that was an acceptable stopgap in certain situations. In fact, Sicking told USA TODAY Sports, tire barriers are usually better than SAFER barriers when it comes to head-on and large-angle impacts.

But for the more common impacts, such as at a 45-degree angle, SAFER barriers are more effective.

"(The tire barrier) grabs you," said Sicking, a professor at Alabama at Birmingham. "So if you hit at low angle, like Dale Earnhardt's crash (which killed him in the 2001 Daytona 500), 13-degree angle, it's going to turn that car right into the barrier and you're going to come to a stop right now. That's tough."

Sam Hornish Jr., who has raced at tracks with tire barriers in NASCAR and IndyCar, says the tire packs can be good as long as they are in areas well off the racing surface.
"They do soften that blow, but what we have seen with tire barriers in the past is, generally, if they are too close to the racetrack and someone hits them, it bounces you back toward the track," Hornish said. "Those hits are usually way more dangerous than the initial one you took hitting the wall."

Tire barriers aren't new, but they've dominated the safety headlines in racing recently as tracks scramble to install more SAFER barriers, which are costly and take more time to erect.

NASCAR and the tracks have said they will accelerate the evaluation process and determine where to put permanent SAFER barriers (Steel And Foam Energy Reduction or so-called "soft walls") on many of the remaining uncovered areas. Weekly updates from the track hosting NASCAR's next stop have become standard.

Auto Club Speedway, the site of this weekend's races and the speedy 2-mile oval where Denny Hamlin broke his back when he crashed head-on into an interior concrete wall in 2013, is installing tire barriers on the inside of Turn 1. Track President Dave Allen was unavailable for comment but said in a statement last week that the safety of drivers, fans and speedway workers was and always had been a top priority. More at USA Today

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