ROBINSON: The Wonders Of A Little Bit Of Foam

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OSWEGO, N.Y.
The primary search-and-rescue flying boat used by the Navy in World War II was the PBY Catalina. It was slow and ungainly in the air, earning the nickname Dumbo, after the cartoon flying elephant. But when it touched down to pluck a ditched bomber crew from the cruel waters of the Pacific, it became a thing of beauty.

The foam blocks that cushion the turns at Oswego Speedway are like that. Lined up against the famous steel crash wall, some showing battle scars from previous engagements, they lack esthetic appeal.

But if you were Jerry Curran, left a passenger in his supermodified by the first part of his accident and assaulting turn one with the front end gone and the injected big block roaring wide open, they were worth their weight in gold.

Use of the energy-absorbing blocks was pioneered at Lancaster Speedway (now Dunn Tire Raceway Park) in Buffalo, N.Y., by Bill Colton, Sr., and they were adopted at Oswego in 1992 as part of a driver-safety upgrade that included seats, belts and neck restraints following the fatal crash of A.J. Michaels in 1990.

They were also a fixture at Flemington (N.J.) Speedway during its asphalt days and have been employed at many other tracks.

The blocks, trademarked Thermo-Foam, are made from a denser material than Styrofoam and, when dislodged by a crash like Curran’s, they take a while to reposition and clean up the foam debris.

That’s a small price to pay, however, when a driver like Curran emerges from a vicious crash under his own power, feeling a bit like James Bond’s martini — shaken, not stirred — and the crew gets to work stripping off the shredded sheet metal so the car can be loaded in the trailer.

The “Nuclear Banana,” as Curran’s yellow car was dubbed by announcer Roy Sova many years ago, may well be back for the Classic in two weeks, and its driver as well. Without some form of energy-absorbing system, it’s not a reassuring scenario to think about.

The foam blocks aren’t a perfect solution, to be sure. They can’t simply be stacked against the wall on a high-banked track; they must be attached in some way to keep from tumbling down the track, which defeats part of the purpose. They’re not cheap, but for a short track they are practical where the state-of-the-art system, the SAFER barrier, may not be attainable.

Curran walked away from a big one, in part because of the foam blocks. So have many others at Oswego over the last 18 years. So did Dave Shullick, Jr. at Concord (N.C.) Speedway last fall, literally hours after the blocks had been installed.

We’ve been talking about the supermodifieds here, but the blocks catch modifieds, late models, street stocks, legends and anything else that comes their way.

Like the PBY Catalina rescue plane, foam is beautiful when you need it.

– Around the Big O on championship night…A full field of supermodifieds, 24 cars strong, was in the pits, although Lou LeVea, Sr. had mechanical problems and Russ Brown was just running Sitterly’s second car, Davey Hamilton’s ride when he’s in town, in case Sitterly needed it for the second feature.

– Although neither second feature podium finishers Steve Gioia III or Keith Shampine has won an Oswego feature, their families have accounted for 113 wins. Gioia III is the son of track co-owner Steve Gioia, Jr., a 26-time winner in his driving days, while K. Shampine is the nephew of the late Jim Shampine, the all-time leader with 87 wins.

– Bentley Warren, second on the all-time list with 66 wins, was eighth in the opener and fell victim to the lap 27 traffic jam in the nightcap. Not bad for a guy who observes the 40th anniversary of his first Classic win next month.

– All the supermodifieds present featured the Formula One-inspired high nose/low front wing configuration except Dan Connors’ ex-Mike Muldoon machine, which retained the snow-shovel front end of the 1990s.

– From the go-figure department: the small-block supers, formerly limited supers, ran two non-stop features after a caution on the original start of each race. Their big brothers had a multi-car accident in each race, requiring the red flag due to track blockage, and the first supermodiifed 30 lapper took nearly an hour to complete with thunderstorms all around.

The post-race corn roast in the pits was winding down when the raindrops finally arrived.