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Is the SAFER Wall unsafe?
by Tim Wohlford

May 9, 2002

Against the wind
I'm still runnin' against the wind
I'm older now but still runnin' against the wind
Well I'm older now and still runnin'
Against the wind
- Bob Seger

I might be the only one in all of auto racing -- fans, writers, racers, owners and promoters -- who is willing to go public with these thoughts, who is willing to call a black shovel a black shovel on this subject. In researching this article I've contacted auto crash experts, medical trauma experts as well a PR spokesman for a major track, all refusing to go "on the record" with their thoughts since they realize that they, too, are going against the current on this issue. However, after three wrecks into the "soft walls" at Indy I can't stay quiet anymore.

Speedway wall padding, especially an oval speedway, is nowhere near ready for prime time, and in its current form will probably cause as many injuries and deaths as it will prevent. Padded walls allow the vehicles to dig in, propelling them back into traffic to a fate that might be worse than the initial impact they softened. While they might prevent some injuries they certainly will cause others, and while they might prevent some deaths they will certainly cause their own deaths.

PJ Jones' accident at Indy on Tuesday is a prime example of my first concern. As you recall, Jones slid butt-first into the turn 1 wall then was rebounded into the inside guardrail. I can attest, having sat in that spot for the 1988 Indy 500 that cars that hit that spot in the wall generally stayed on the outside wall in the past.

Jones can be thankful for padded walls during practice, but if there was traffic during that accident it could've cost him his life as he could've been T-boned on his way to the inside guardrail. Watching PJ go across the track brought back horrible memories of Alex Zanardi's accident last year in Germany.

When Geoff Bodine had his "big one" at Daytona the fence (which acted like a soft wall) tore his truck apart and threw him back into traffic. I watched a bomber-stock hit a padded pit entrance at Anderson (Indiana) Speedway, rebounding him back onto the track in the opposite direction of traffic where he quickly got a Chevy enema. If padded walls are to be effective they cannot allow rebound; all the oval track examples I've seen seem to rebound like the sides of a pool table.

The second concern is more difficult to explain. The vast majority of car-wall impacts on oval courses are low-angle impacts, with the vast majority of the momentum of the vehicle going down-track at the time of impact. Unfortunately, a vehicle striking a glancing blow on a soft wall will also cause the padding to flex, and the flexing wall will grab the vehicle. "Darlington Stripe" wall scrapes will turn to major accidents as cars dig into the soft walls, are spun around, and rebounded back into traffic. As an added bonus we see in soft wall tests, as well as Geoff Bodine's Daytona accident, the shredding of a vehicle by the padding before it is rebounded into traffic.

The car's transmission punctured the wall
Photo: R. Laberge/Getty Images

Even worse than a car that needlessly spins into traffic is the effect that a sudden stop to a spin can have to the human body. When Robby McGehee's car hit the padded barrier it flattened the initial impact spike, and perhaps saved serious injury in this case. However, McGehee's car dug into the padding when he crashed, causing him to tank-slap on the right side. Onboard sensors recorded two impacts -- the first, some 40 G's, was the initial hit, and the second, of over 70 G's, was due to the car being grabbed and spun sideways into the same padded walls.

Robby McGehee was lucky to survive the big hit
Photo: R. Laberge/Getty Images

Not only did the right side of McGehee's body take that 72 G impact his neck was also subjected to the forces of a rotating body coming to a stop. Remember the old martial arts movies, where the victor twists the head with a quick jerk while holding the body still, thus delivering the deathblow? The same thing works in auto racing too. That rotational action is as dangerous to the head/neck as a frontal impact, and it is my theory that Dale Earnhardt and Scott Brayton were killed in part due to the rotational impact of their vehicles.

The backwards-rotating tank-slapper has long been the most dreaded accident in open-wheeled racing. Padded walls induce rotation on impact, adding an additional hazard to auto racing. An auto safety expert who has done work for racing teams assured me that the HANS device will compensate for such impacts, but didn't we start this "padded wall" conversation due to neck and head injuries? Just as current passenger car airbags can be dangerous if seatbelts are not worn so padded walls present an added danger if the HANS devices are not worn, or not working properly at the time of impact!

Sharp knives are safer than dull ones, padded bicycle seats cause more pain and injury than hard bike seats, and sometimes, concrete walls are the safest to hit. Padded walls do have their place, mainly in places where high-angle impacts are likely.

Indy is almost a road racetrack, albeit without right turns in Indy 500 configuration, and we know that road race courses have used wall padding for a long time. Many Indy impacts are high-angle impacts and very few are wall scrapes, so padding that is properly done might be useful there. However, the current Indy padding isn't the answer, and I hope they keep on looking. 

This article by Mark Cipolloni, Soft Walls or Soft Cars, spells out that crumple zones in cars are the way to go.  I urge you to read it if you haven't already.  About 3 feet of crumple zone is required, regardless of the type of car.  With the SAFER Wall moving perhaps only 6 inches, is it really worth the risk of rebounding a car back into traffic?

On most ovals, padded walls won't help safety, and as I've pointed out, will probably cause new safety hazards. At the very least it's time for the entire racing family, including fans, to step back and think through the whole issue. The sales hype probably delivers a lot more than it will ever deliver, and in fact, could deliver a lot more than we've bargained for.

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