"Everyone is impressed with how well the soft walls are working throughout the industry," says Andrew Gurtis, Darlington Race- way's president. "Darlington will be getting soft walls [SAFER barrier]. It is not a question of if, but a question of when. From our conversations with ISC [International Speedway Corporation], we both understand that every track is different, and designing a soft wall system that will work with our track configuration will take time and engineering."
"Incredible-the single most effective way to reduce driver injury and cost of equipment [race cars]," George Caruso, Oswego Speedway owner-in-transition says of the Styrofoam blocks used at his speedway. "Since the installation of the blocks, we have had no serious injuries.
"The blocks are 4 feet tall, 8 feet long, and 3 feet thick, and only cost about $130. The cleanup is a little different from before the blocks. We have a large safety team that goes to the accident site. The larger chunks are picked up, the blocks themselves are moved back into place, and we have a vacuum truck that gets the little pieces."
Caruso credits the late Bill Colton Sr. for the idea behind the walls: "Bill had the idea to use these blocks at Lancaster (New York) Speedway. Some of our Supermodifieds had run down there, and some had hit the blocks. When the message came back to my brother and me, we felt that we had to look into these blocks.
"The only downside I have seen is that our drivers are a little braver. They know the soft wall is out there, so they might try things they normally wouldn't."
Late last year, Phoenix International Raceway President Bryan R. Sperber announced that installation of the SAFER wall system would be completed by the first event of the '04 season.
The barriers run continuously for 1,550 feet from Turn 1 through Turn 2, and for another 1,650 feet starting again at Turn 3 all the way through Turn 4. The walls are 4011/42 inches high and contain steel tubes and 22-inch-thick blocks of Styrofoam that are placed between the original wall and the new wall.
"We have spent the past year making PIR a safer place to race," Sperber says. "Last fall, we moved the Turn 2 wall out 12 feet in order to make it safer for the drivers and promote better racing action on the track. In my eyes, the installation of SAFER walls just finishes the overall project. We want the drivers and teams to understand that we are doing everything we can to make their experience at PIR a positive one."
Even though the results and experiences of the soft walls are positive, there are also some limitations that make it understandable that more tracks do not currently have them installed. The first and most obvious reason is money. At $175-$400 per foot, it is very expensive to install these systems. Most tracks that host a weekly series and a few special events throughout the year do not generate enough money to install a system.
Physical space limitations provide another difficulty in installing a system. The racing line around each track is different. For tracks in which the racing line is up at the outside wall (such as Darlington), this must be considered when designing the system. The track will either move the outside wall out or force the race line farther down on the track.
NASCAR has stated a goal to install SAFER barriers in every track by the end of 2004 where it has been recommended (tracks that appear on Nextel Cup, Busch Series, and Craftsman Truck Series schedules). When this major push is over, the resources should then filter down so that short tracks will have access to the technology.
Soft wall or energy dissipating wall systems have proven their worth. The decision to install the system at a track, or at least investigate how the system would fit into the track, should not be difficult. The decision to go with an engineered system or a block system should be based on budget as well as space. But no matter the choice, it is the safety of the drivers that remains the primary motivation.