The Fear with Soft Walls
by Adam Sewell
September 12, 2002

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Mike Harmon's wreck at Bristol during practice was one of the worst we have seen on oval tracks.
Photo: Autostock

NASCAR has seen their share of spectacular crashes.  Michael Waltrip had crash in the Busch series many years ago, Geoffrey Bodine suffered a horrible crash at Daytona in the inaugural Daytona 250 for the truck series, and two weeks ago at Bristol, Mike Harmon suffered what had to be one of the most horrible, and miraculous accidents in motor racing history.

All three of these accidents have had one similarity, the cars hit a barrier that gave way and ripped the car to pieces.  All of the drivers have thankfully been able to go on and race another day.

Michael Waltrip has said several times that he’s heard people comment about his crash and say that it was a bad day.  Waltrip will just reply that it was a very good day because he was able to continue doing what he loved.   When describing the crash, he says what was really strange about it was that he was able to look down at his feet after the car stopped and he could see the racing surface.

If you look at a still photo of Mike Harmon’s crash, you can see his body is completely exposed.  He was able to unbuckle his seat and literally walk away because the right side of the car was completely sheared off.   Speculation of what caused the crash was his right front tire being cut.   His car then shot directly toward the gate, which unfortunately had not been blocked off properly.  The gate then gave way and Harmon’s car impacted the end of the cement barrier.

I remember seeing Geoffrey Bodine’s truck accident live on ESPN.  I just stared in shock over what I had just seen.  It is a miracle that no one was fatally injured.  If you look at some of the still photos of his accident, you can see his arms completely exposed as they are flung out of the truck.   There were even scuff marks on his helmet from where it scraped against the pavement.

While soft walls do save lives, they can also be a major danger to the drivers.  NASCAR has said that they have resisted the soft walls for now because of the fact that they could rip the car apart.  I think the best innovation to hit auto racing safety this year has been the SAFER barrier, which was used during the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400 this year.   The SAFER barrier is basically a cross between a hard wall and a soft wall.  

The cars impact a steel barrier which has several layers of foam between it and the concrete barrier.  The steel is designed to prevent the car from getting lodged in the soft barrier, which could result in further damage.

I can certainly understand why NASCAR has put off the soft wall “revolution” considering what a soft wall could potentially do to a car.  But with the SAFER barrier now ready, we could see it at many tracks in the near future.

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Others by Adam

The Fear with Soft Walls

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Here Come the Night Races 05/03/02

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