'Soft Walls' ready for stock car trial at Indy

Wednesday, June 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The new ``soft-wall'' technology used successfully in the Indianapolis 500 will get its first NASCAR race test on the same track, although wide use of the system is not expected for at least a year.

The barrier at Indy will remain in place for the Aug. 4 Brickyard 400 but will need extra padding for the heavier stock cars, NASCAR officials said Tuesday. The Indy cars weigh about 2,000 pounds, including the driver, while stock cars are about 3,600 pounds.

The foam pads at all four turns of the 2 1/2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be thickened from 16 inches to about 26 inches.

While development is progressing well, the walls are not ready for use at other tracks, said Dr. Dean Sicking, head of the research group developing the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier at the University of Nebraska.

``It's being pursued aggressively, but we want to be prudent and reasonable so we get the best results possible for our competitors,'' he said.

The SAFER is four steel tubes welded in 20-foot sections and bolted to the concrete walls. Between the steel and the concrete, pads of hard, pink foam are placed 10 feet apart, allowing the surface to bend and thereby reduce force.

The still-experimental energy absorbing system was subjected to eight hard hits at Indy without serious injuries.

Sicking pointed out that Eliseo Salazar hit the wall backward during testing just before the barrier was installed and, with a peak of about 115 G's, came away with a season-ending injury.

Robby McGehee crashed at virtually the same spot on the track after the SAFER barrier was installed. His peak G's were about 75 and McGehee and was back in a car trying to qualify for the race just over a week later.

``We believe those crashes were almost identical,'' Sicking said. ``It's very promising in that the safety performance was very good and it helps us understand better these rearward hits.''

Sicking and George Pyne, senior vice president of NASCAR, emphasized that more testing and development work needs to be done before other tracks get the ``soft walls.''

``The Indianapolis installation is only the first step in a very long process,'' Pyne said. ``We've gone though extensive trial and error and we've found that soft doesn't always mean safe.''

Bob Bahre, owner of New Hampshire International Speedway, where Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were both killed in crashes two years ago, has expressed strong interest in having the SAFER barrier installed at his 1.058-mile oval as soon as possible.

He'll have to wait until at least 2003. Sicking said there are still significant problems to work on for tracks of varying lengths, which effect the way the SAFER barrier is installed and how it will react in a crash.

``We really have to test these issues using full-scale crash testing before we would recommend the use of these barriers on any short-radius track,'' Sicking said.

There is also the issue of banking, with the race surface on major tracks in the U.S. ranging from virtually flat to a steep 33-degrees that could inhibit repairs to the wall after a crash.

``At Indy, they have 10- or 11-degree banking and you can drive a truck right up and work on it,'' Sicking said. ``That's wouldn't be possible at Talladega, where the track has 33-degree banking. We need to find a way of making those repairs in a reasonable manner so we wouldn't have to delay the race for 30 minutes.''

Yet another problem pointed out by Sicking, an expert in accident reconstruction, computer crash modeling and barrier accidents, is that some tracks have different kinds of cars practicing, qualifying or racing on the same day, meaning that the current version of the SAFER barrier would not be the best for everyone.

``We're trying to solve all the problems at once,'' he said. ``I believe it's possible to design a combination barrier that provides virtually the same performance.''

Asked for a timeframe, Sicking said some tracks other than Indy should be able to install the system by this time next year.

``Within three years, I would think we'd be at a point where certainly all your ovals and tri-ovals should be accommodated,'' he said.