Developer of NASCAR SAFER barrier turns to short tracks

NASCAR faces a bit of a dilemma when it comes to the Camping World Truck Series.

When the series began in the mid-1990s it raced mostly at small short tracks. Very quickly, however, the truck series moved to the bigger tracks and became mostly a warm-up event for the bigger Sprint Cup races.

NASCAR would like to nudge the series back toward its roots, to short tracks like Mobile International Speedway. But therein lies the dilemma.

Ever since the advent of the SAFER barrier system that has been so successful in protecting drivers from violent impacts with walls, NASCAR's top national touring series have raced only at tracks with the protected walls.

But short tracks like Mobile don't have SAFER systems and — considering costs that can run in excess of $1 million a mile to install them — cannot afford them. But NASCAR still wants to run at short tracks.

"They need to look into their accident records to see under what scenario it would be reasonable to not require SAFER barriers," said Dean Sicking of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who developed the SAFER system and has proposed the mathematical modeling procedure for examining this issue.

Sicking will be at the Wynfrey in Hoover, Alabama on Wednesday to address the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama's Launchpad Innovation and Entrepreneurship Conference on how partnerships between private industry and universities can drive innovation and economic growth.

The SAFER barrier system came about not from a need for a new product to sell but a need to protect the existing product of auto racing, which routinely endured driver deaths and serious injuries. The system was first installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the IndyCar Series and was later adopted by NASCAR, which was reeling from the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. at Daytona.

But in trying to decide whether SAFER walls are necessary everywhere, NASCAR's problem is a lack of data on the severity of impacts at tracks of a quarter-mile or third-mile in length, since the shortest track NASCAR currently runs on is the half-mile Martinsville.

"We don't know how much the severity goes down when it gets shorter than Martinsville," Sicking said.

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