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How Do SAFER Barriers Work?

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What’s Happening?

This month 22 years ago, SAFER Barriers were installed for the first time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It revolutionized one of the most basic, yet important, parts of race tracks, retaining walls. What is it that makes SAFER Barriers so unique, and how do they work?

  • SAFER Barriers were invented following the multiple tragedies in NASCAR throughout the 2000 and 2001 seasons. They are now standard for every oval track throughout the world.
  • SAFER Barriers were a natural evolution from the walls already put up around race tracks. Throughout the years, the construction of the walls has changed very little, but, the walls were installed more and more across race tracks.
  • Fans love the SAFER Barriers due, and how they have revolutionized driver safety. SAFER barriers have saved drivers’ lives and prevented multiple injuries.

The Background of Introducing SAFER Barriers

Retaining walls have an interesting history in motorsports. In the early days, tracks would come up with their own solutions. Popular ones included guardrails, wood planks, or, sometimes, no wall at all if there was nothing outside of the track in that area.

The most common type of barrier was guardrails, similar to those on a typical roadway. The problem with guardrails was they were too weak to support certain impacts. One example of this was Lee Petty and Johnny Beauchamp’s crash at Daytona in 1961.

Concrete walls were much stronger and soon became the standard for retaining walls across NASCAR. At the time, the focus was on keeping cars on the track and not bursting through walls, which is what concrete walls do well. Pocono Raceway used a different material, iron boilerplate, for a while, but, eventually, concrete walls were installed.

While the concrete was great at keeping cars on the race track, the walls were a bit too strong. Instead of absorbing the energy from a hard impact, the energy was dispersed throughout the car, which meant the driver took the brunt of the impact. This played a role in Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001.

NASCAR made significant changes in the following months, most notably implementing the HANS device in race cars, but, Indianapolis Motor Speedway took a different approach. They partnered with University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Dean Sicking to invent a new retaining wall. That’s where the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) Barrier was invented, and it was quickly implemented at tracks across the country.

How SAFER Barriers Work

SAFER Barriers are designed to absorb the energy from hard impacts. Whereas concrete walls were firm and did not move at all, SAFER Barriers were designed to flex a little bit, but, not too much to where the wall would break apart on impact.

This is accomplished via a solid steel wall placed in front of the outer concrete wall. Steel is fairly flexible, but, hard to break apart. Between the steel wall and the concrete wall, energy-absorbant foam blocks are placed to brace the concrete wall and the steel barrier.

The result is that the wall flexes when a car impacts it, absorbing the energy from the accident instead of throwing it back to the car and the driver. Ryan Blaney’s crash at Daytona in 2023 showcases just how much the barrier flexes.

NASCAR has suffered zero fatalities since 2001, and a lot of that can be attributed to SAFER Barriers. Indianapolis Motor Speedway hasn’t seen a fatality on its’ oval layout since Tony Renna’s fatal crash in 2003.

From there, SAFER Barriers became the standard for retaining walls across the country. Iowa Speedway became the first track to be built with SAFER Barriers installed from day 1 when the track opened in 2006.

The Addition of SAFER Barriers

In the early days of SAFER Barriers, the “Soft walls”, as they were also called at the time, were only added in areas where crashes were most common. Tracks often had them in the corners, but, straightaway walls or inside retaining walls were often left unprotected.

Drivers would find these places to hit, which caused some major issues. This all came to a head in 2015 at Daytona, where Kyle Busch hit the inside concrete wall head-on, and broke his leg.

Soon afterward, NASCAR and drivers began pushing for SAFER barriers to be added all around the race track. Gradually, tracks began to add SAFER Barriers around the entire track.

Nowadays, it’s rare for a wall at an oval track to not include SAFER Barriers. However, exposed walls do still exist here and there, and Ryan Blaney found one at Nashville in 2023.

SAFER Barriers are now the standard retaining wall on local tracks across the country. They have saved lives and prevented major injuries.

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Joshua Lipowski

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