SAFER Walls, major car changes coming to NASCAR
by Stan Creekmore, NASCAR Editor

June 11, 2003

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Earlier this year, a routine test of a SAFER wall designed for tight radius turns like those at New Hampshire Int’l Speedway and Richmond Int’l Raceway went awry in the final twenty feet delaying eventual implementation of the system by at least 30 days.

A No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo piloted by computer was heading for a routine impact with a SAFER wall when something went awry. The car went off course and hit a pole, which launched it into the air as it hurtled toward the SAFER barrier. In the blink of an eye, NASCAR had a completely new set of possibilities to consider.

“The purpose of the test was to establish a second set of data to compare with the first test we conducted,” stated John Darby, Winston Cup Series Director. “Instead we got completely different test data that couldn’t be used as a comparison in an effort to determine how to best use SAFER walls on tight radius tracks.”

The lack of comparative data and damage to the testing facility, done by the tumbling Chevrolet, meant a final report from Dr. Siking was delayed until the facility could be repaired and another test completed. However, not all was lost.

“The data we did receive was very interesting and is being put to good use,” said Darby, who is eager to see the installation of SAFER walls at tracks willing to install them.

“The track operator at New Hampshire is waiting on NASCAR and the folks at Richmond are also on board with us. Installation is dependent on receiving a final report from Dr. Siking. That report, only with data NASCAR has collected, will help us determine just how much wall will need to be installed on tracks with tight radius corners.”

The wait could be over soon. Darby says the chance of seeing SAFER walls is “more likely” this season at both New Hampshire and Richmond by the time the circuit visits both tracks for the second time. There even appears to be a “possibility” the walls could be in place at New Hampshire when the tour visits the one-mile facility in mid-July.

SAFER walls are just one of several very important projects underway at the NASCAR Research and Development Center about to come to fruition.

Work on an escape hatch located in the roof of the race cars in both Winston Cup and Busch Series competition is nearly complete.

“Our biggest hustle right now is the roof hatch,” Darby said. “The theory and design are complete. We have a little more work to do in fabrication so the teams can adapt the hatch to current cars.”

Darby says there is a very “real possibility” all cars will be required to have the hatch in place when the 2004 season opens in Daytona. The hatch will not be required in the Craftsman Truck Series for several reasons two of which are the height of the roof and the larger window opening of the truck.

Implementation of SAFER walls and roof hatches will be following quickly by the introduction of the car of the future, which could easily happen in 2005 but might come about as late as 2006.

“The car of the future will be 90 percent under the skin,” answered Darby when asked if the fans would notice the changes. “This is not going to be something out of The Jetsons.

“Work on the big greenhouse car has allowed us to operate from a clean sheet of paper to design the car of the future.”

Accumulated data pointed out to NASCAR officials how easily they could control and alter the aero responses without having to legislate a bigger greenhouse. With that information in hand the sanctioning body was able to turn their full attention to a complete redesign of the major components sitting underneath the sheet metal representing Ford, Chevy, Pontiac and Dodge makes.

“With a better understanding of how easily we could adjust on the bodies aerodynamically we were able to apply everything we have learned and continue to learn to the design of the race car of the future. A car that will have a better frame, roll cage and crash absorbing materials built into both the front and rear.”  We like to think that this article by our Mark Cipolloni, the first of its kind that we know of, had some influence on the decision by NASCAR to add what amounts to crumple zones in both the front and rear of their cars.  We know they read it thoroughly.  Sometimes NASCAR really does listen.

With the advent of a new chassis design that incorporates energy-absorbing materials and SAFER walls the possibility of injuries like those sustained by Jerry Nadeau at Richmond in early May should be heavily reduced.

However, it is important to note the date and time of implementation is highly dependent on the continued testing and conclusions of crash experts like Dr. Siking. It is just nice to know that time is sooner than later.

The author can be contacted stanc@autoracing1.com

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