EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two in a two-part series of columns by R.J. Valentine about race track safety. Part one was published on Thursday.
Age-old barricade methods simply aren’t offering racers a real chance of survival. Someone once said, “There are two kinds of drivers — those who have crashed into concrete walls and those who are about to.”
It’s clear to anyone paying attention that these outdated barriers commonly cause more harm than good, particularly when it comes to driver concussions. But what isn’t clear to most everyone in motorsports is what the barrier alternatives are, their effectiveness, what they cost and whether they make sense for all types of race tracks.
During four decades as a pro racer, I’ve witnessed many serious altercations with rigid walls and wondered why no one had developed a softer solution. Then when I became an owner of race tracks, I saw safety from another perspective. I refused to even consider concrete or Armco as barriers, and tires didn’t come close to meeting legitimate safety criteria.
We installed a plastic/metal/foam block barrier system manufactured by a European brand. But, in addition to being pricey, its strap-linking system made installation and repair extremely time consuming. It became apparent there simply weren’t many acceptable options on the barrier market, especially for independent track owners.
Meanwhile, racing casualties continued to mount, compelling me to find a solution, not just for my tracks, but for other tracks.
Having the resources to develop a new barrier technology was truly a blessing and in 2000, Impact Safety Systems introduced its first solution, a barrier tested and certified for kart racing called Kart Impact Safety Systems. Once a foundation was established among kart tracks and the barrier’s efficacy was proven, we turned our attention to auto racing and applied a similar technology to the development of ProLink, a larger safety barrier alternative to jersey barriers and tire walls.
Feedback from tracks that replaced tires with ProLink to buffer concrete or Armco confirms this extra layer of safety makes a measurable difference in keeping racers from reaching that final point of impact. Circuits also report high-speed hits resulting in minimal barrier deformation, very little damage to vehicles and — most importantly — drivers who walked away from significant crashes.
The No. 1 reason the ProLink system works is it yields on impact, progressively retarding speed with the cumulative pull of connected barriers and cushioning shock, so there’s less likelihood of blunt force trauma to drivers or severe damage to vehicles. Although safety is paramount, track officials also regularly comment on ProLink’s ease of deployment, cost-efficiency and rugged durability.
But every track is unique and there’s no one solution that fits all. Before ISS will sell barriers to anyone, an extensive analysis is done to ensure it’s the right solution for the track in question.
There are six key criteria that should be examined when considering barrier options:
• Reduces injuries and damage
• Saves time and labor
• Increases coverage and versatility
• Decreases replacement costs
• Lowers expenses and generates revenue
• Improves presentation
If a barrier brand is cheaper, but fails to properly absorb energy or is poorly constructed, cross it off the list. If the barrier technology is safety certified, but exorbitantly expensive and labor intensive to install or repair, it may not be the best choice. Some barrier options work well when buffering hard walls, but don’t fit all track configurations. Still others are very effective at providing a softer landing, but create hazardous debris causing lengthy delays and higher replacement costs.
Though all six criteria are important factors in identifying the right barrier solution for each circuit, at minimum the system should meet the first four. Ideally, the barriers are also affordable to install, accommodate sponsorship advertising and create a more professional image as well.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest road blocks to improvement is that most tracks aren’t even aware safer, and potentially more affordable barrier alternatives exist, let alone how they compare. Because a centralized source for barrier information didn’t exist. In 2017, ISS took the initiative and hired an outside firm to research and aggregate the vast, complex data available regarding barrier systems into one consolidated resource for the reference and benefit of race tracks and drivers.
The project took almost a year to complete, but the result was a comprehensive and unbiased overview of the primary barrier options.
The 2017 Energy Absorption Barrier Comparison Report and Chart can be found here: http://www.impactsafetybarriers.com/competitive-analysis.php
An updated version with additional barrier manufacturers and new data will be available later this year.
The driving purpose behind everything we’ve done and will do is to make racing safer. No matter which solution is chosen, if track barrier upgrades are made instead of relying on outdated methods such as concrete walls, guardrails or tires, it’s a win for everyone.
In an effort to gain support and create a movement to evoke change, we’ve reached out to motorsports safety organizations, sanctioning bodies, concussion experts, safety leadership, track designers, safety equipment manufacturers and, of course, drivers. Our vision is to create a team of like-minded motorsports entities under one umbrella all with the same goal of making racing safer.
The first question often posed is, “How will tracks afford to make barrier improvements?”
Ironically, the motorsports industry is filled with worthy charitable foundations and groups, yet not much exists that benefits track safety. Recently, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked NASCAR to consider his suggestions for retirement gifts, including donations to help those in need, concussion research, etc.
Why not donations to make all tracks safer, from the pro level to the lowest levels? Perhaps it’s possible to create grants for track safety upgrades? There are ways to facilitate barrier advancement, but the motorsports world needs to work together to make it happen.
Let’s not wait for a tragic “wake-up call” before addressing this overlooked, yet critical piece of the racing safety equation. Motorsports is still digging its way out of the denial stage, but soon it will dawn on everyone that energy absorption must be managed both in the cars and on the tracks.