Verizon IndyCar Series team owner Sam Schmidt suggested in 2015 that NHRA drag racing should add SAFER barriers to its driver-and-fan protection package.
“They’re going 300 mph. We’re going 240 mph. They don’t have SAFER barriers like we do. Maybe they should on those drag strips,” he said. “If just one change happened to save one life or one life-threatening injury it’d be worth it.”
So should the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, whose nitro-powered Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars blast in a straight line for three or four seconds on a 1,000-foot course, refit its guard walls?
Not everyone in the NHRA thinks so. And cost, though certainly a significant factor, is rather surprisingly not the chief objection.
SAFER barrier is an acronym for Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barrier.
Engineers from the University of Nebraska, led by Dr. Dean Sicking, designed the “soft wall” to absorb and reduce kinetic energy during the impact of an accident. Ultimately, the mission is to reduce the severity of any injuries to the driver.
The approximately 40-inch-tall barrier comes in 20-foot sections composed of four or five three-sixteenths-inch-thick, eight-inch-diameter, 28-inch-long steel tubes stacked vertically. Bundles of closed-cell foam polystyrene sheets, valuable for structural strength, buffer the concrete wall and steel-tubing modules.
Sicking’s group modified its original version a year or so later, and that new iteration is today’s standard. Iowa Speedway was the first track to have the SAFER barrier system around the entire perimeter of the track.
The product debuted at Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the 2002 Indy 500, and by 2005 NASCAR had implemented it at its tracks. So SAFER barriers are in use in open-wheel racing and stock car racing but not in drag racing. According to the IndyCar officials, even the design team questioned whether SAFER barriers were necessary or helpful all around the track or whether they should be confined to the turns.
That reinforces the suspicions of such NHRA figures as Tommy Johnson Jr., a veteran racer with extensive Funny Car and Top Fuel experience, and Jim Oberhofer, Kalitta Motorsports’ vice-president and Top Fuel crew chief with a wealth of safety testing to his credit.
Neither is opposed in theory to SAFER barriers at the drag strip. But for each, the optimism about a possible added measure of security is tempered by practical concerns.
“I’m always about safety and anything we can do to make our sport safer,” Johnson said. “I believe that SAFER barriers would be a great idea, but I think it would be something that would have to be researched a lot more than just installing the same system that NASCAR and IndyCar use.”
Johnson said dragsters and Funny Cars most likely would strike a guard wall at a different angle than an Indy car or a stock car.
“Their angle of impact would be very different than what we would see in most (drag racing) accidents. They contact the wall head-on or at a solid angle. In drag racing, we would make contact in most accidents from a glancing blow, as we are traveling parallel with the wall,” Johnson explained. “As with any form of motorsports, there is always a chance for the freak accident.
“It would take someone a lot smarter than me to research it and see what would work best, but any time you can reduce the amount of energy a driver has to absorb, it’s a positive thing.”