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Safer barriers

Dean Sicking of the Midwest Road Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln inspects the SAFER Fender on display at the Smith Collection of American Speed ​​Museum Friday, October 21, 2011 (Robert Baker/Lincoln Journal Star)


Robert Baker / Lincoln Journal Star


Don’t turn around until you know where to turn.

McDemer saw the car in front of him lose control and veer left into the lane. He tried to anticipate the car’s next move, and didn’t want to turn until he knew where the other car was going next.

Don’t turn around until you know where to turn.

He finally veered off the outside path. But when the other car regained its strength, it swerved sharply to the right, straight towards Demir, and Demir’s car hit its right side.

“I can’t tell you what made him lose control,” Demir said of the 1983 plane crash at Watkins Glen International in upstate New York. “It happens quickly.”

Demir, now 57, walked away from the accident, but the other driver broke his ankle.

Demir, a former South Carolina racer and longtime motorsports journalist, said that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you crash.

Sure enough, that seemed to be the lesson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a week ago when 15 cars crashed, killing two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Weldon. He was the first IndyCar driver to die on a track since Paul Dana was killed during a practice race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.

On October 16, two cars soared into the air – Weldon and Will Power. Weldon crashed into a brown fishing fence to protect spectators from the wreckage of the collision. He later died in hospital from head injuries.

The power hit a barrier designed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Midwest Road Safety Facility. Stay away.

The tragically different fates of Wheldon and Power have raised concerns about fishing fencing on the NASCAR and IndyCar trails and highlight the safety performance of the UNL-designed SAFER barrier.

Dean Sicking, UNL Safety Facility Manager, said SAFER bulkheads – or reduced power steel and foam – are now on all NASCAR and IndyCar tracks. There have been no hurdle crash fatalities since 2004, when all hurdles were fully installed on the NASCAR tracks.

Before these barriers were installed, Secking said, one to 1.5 drivers died each year at NASCAR tracks alone. In a particularly brutal 10-month period in 2000 and 2001, NASCAR accidents claimed the lives of budding stars Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., Tony Roper, and one of the sport’s legends, Dale Earnhardt.

Sicking said the UNL-designed trapezoidal fenders are made of insulating foam that is waterproof and effective at absorbing the impact of cars over 100 mph. The steel tubes act as a barrier between the foam blocks and the track. SAFER bollards protect drivers from the harsh nature of concrete walls.

The psychopath — whose office is decorated with a photo of him shaking hands with former President George W. Bush, as well as several awards — told the story of how UNL got the contract to design the barriers.

In 1998, Tony George, former IndyCar president and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wanted to create a new barrier on the racetrack. Simply put, concrete barriers weren’t good enough.

IndyCar designers developed a new fender made of sheet plastic, but it broke into 50- to 100-pound pieces that littered the highway when it crashed hard. George asked UNL to improve the design.

“He said, Can you fix this?” Sick said. “We never admit we can’t do anything.”

At first, Sicking wasn’t convinced it was worth the extra effort. Then his assistant, Ron Faller, convinced him that he would lead UNL to find new road safety solutions and new materials to build those solutions.

Sicking agreed and asked George for a million dollars.

He said: When can you start?

It didn’t take UNL long to learn that a plastic IndyCar fender would never perform as well as the foam, and Sicking worked to convince a skeptical George. Finally, George relented.

In 2002, Indianapolis Motor Speedway installed the SAFER barriers, and seeing how well they were performing, NASCAR CEO Bill France Sr. ordered them to be installed on all NASCAR highways by the end of 2004 at a cost of $100 million.

UNL supervised the installation.

“No one can ever correct it,” said Seeking, laughing.

The barrier has received numerous awards from UNL, including the prestigious 2002 Louis Schwitzer Prize, presented jointly with the Indianapolis 500.

IndyCar Senior Technical Director Phil Casey described the SAFER hurdles as the greatest safety achievement in motorsports.

The bulkheads were installed at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2003, and the highway where Betty and Erwin Jr. died have not resulted in fatalities or serious injuries since, said highway spokeswoman Kristen Costa.

“It’s better on impact,” she said. “It moves with the car.”

Costa said the highway remodeled the fishing fence in 2009 to make it safer, too. Hunting fences at motorsports facilities should be re-examined.

“The fishing fencing is a difficult security problem, and it’s hard to break, but I think it can be,” he said.

Sicking said IndyCar is reluctant to invest the large amount needed to redesign the hunting fence, and NASCAR is not interested in redesigning it because its cars rarely fly as much as Indy’s open-wheeled cars.

Seeking said that while nothing was identified, UNL could end up leading the investigation into the crash that killed Weldon, as happened in the 2001 plane crash that killed Earnhardt. UNL has examined nearly 2,000 crashes under a federal contract.

“Anytime you have a large wreck, we usually look at it,” he said.

Demir, a former racer now pursuing a master’s degree in journalism from UNL, said it appeared Weldon tried to slow down by taking his foot off the throttle and trying to steer his car toward the gearbox of the car ahead. But the nose of his car lifted, and his car accelerated at over 200 mph, quickly soaring through the air.

With 15 cars, Demir said, it was impossible for Weldon to avoid the massacre.

He said drivers are trying not to think about being seriously injured or killed while racing. They are simply trying to focus on the track and the runners around them.

“We all know it could happen to us,” he said. “Honestly, I’m surprised that didn’t happen to me.”

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