Brant James
Friday August 19th, 2011

In an office in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., across the street from the Atlanta Bread Company where she'd inhaled a salad between flights during a manic early-March media junket, Danica Patrick shined light on the next three years of her future. Whether she knew it or not.

A pre-Grand Prix of St. Petersburg interview in 2009 had weaved through 100-degree yoga, the quality of the wine in Australia and the unblinking eye of constant scrutiny, when I pressed her on when she would sign a new contract with Andretti Autosport, her IZOD IndyCar Series team since 2007. The final year of her contract and the subsequent possibilities, I posed, would become a main theme of her season, a fact she readily acknowledged. Patrick was typically coy/cagey/vague/tantalizing about her future prospects, perhaps a function of the way she operates -- or her surrogates operate -- the advancement of her career. She delegates authority to explore her prospects without being involved in the daily maintenance of them. There was always dialogue, she said, with various teams, but nothing had really come of either a new deal with Andretti or any, to that point, unfulfilled NASCAR dalliances. She dubbed NASCAR, at that early phase of the courtship, "an attractive beast," before eventually re-signing for two more seasons, plus a mutual option with Andretti.

Then came the question of with whom she had discussed the life and business of stock car racing and from whom she would seek counsel if her intentions to race in NASCAR became more serious. The answer, two years later, has apparently foretold her future, as ESPN.com reported this week that Patrick will race a full-time Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports -- with which she has raced a partial schedule the past two years -- and selected Sprint Cup events with Stewart-Haas Racing, which was beginning its first season with Stewart as owner/driver when our interview took place.

"Dale, yeah," she said of Dale Earnhardt Jr., co-owner of JRM, "but probably Tony [Stewart]."

Appears they had they had the right answers, even if she hadn't asked all the questions yet.

Two high-profile crashes -- including wicked hits by Denny Hamlin, David Ragan and David Reutimann -- into areas unprotected by SAFER barriers at Watkins Glen this week spurred questions about the overall safety of the road course and NASCAR venues in general. But Dr. Dean Sicking, director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska, and one of the developers of the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction system, said while inevitable danger zones remain through the series, the sport is less perilous than ever.

It can be better, he said. And if not for the loss of a great deal of institutional knowledge with the death of former NASCAR technical director Steve Peterson in 2008, the exposed areas walloped on Monday might never have been waiting for Hamlin, Ragan and Reutimann, all of whom were unharmed but critical of the apparent safety lapse.

We spoke with Sicking about the state of safety, the price and potential cost of it and the new breed of fearless drivers his work has inevitably created.

SI.com: What is the state of motor sports safety?

Dr. Dean Sicking: With regard to the SAFER barrier, we just got through recommending working with the Watkins Glen track to determine where to put the SAFER barrier. They had some hard hits on the Armco (metal crash barriers) and we had them make some improvements to the Armco and it may not have been enough. The bottom line is, eventually most of these tracks are going to have to put a SAFER barrier up almost all the way around the track. You can't at Watkins Glen, because it's a road course, but it needs to go in more places and, in the long run, that's what we'll end up recommending.

When we first put up the barriers (at Watkins Glen before this season), we basically used every piece of tubing of that size and that precision that was available, made in the U.S. that year. It's not like we could have recommended putting it everywhere at that time. There just weren't enough raw materials available.

There was no way to put the barrier up all the way around the track at that time. So we studied it very carefully. We were pretty confident we covered most of the areas where hard hits were going to occur.

We still review the tracks. I think we review the tracks once a year in the late summer or fall. We make recommendations for upgrades based on the prior year's history of hard hits. NASCAR keeps that kind of data file on all the crashes so they give us the hardest hits they've got and it's 50 or 60 hits we've got to look at and then we identify which of those were on concrete, and where perhaps they should have had a SAFER barrier because of the magnitude of the impact. Then we take that recommendation from that track, we look at the location of the hit with regard to the overall track layout and it's geometry and everything, and we look around the rest of the tracks and say "Who else has a spot like this?" Then we recommend that all tracks that have similar configurations to what we have identified put SAFER barriers in those regions. So, we're getting there.

SI.com: Do they have enough time to make upgrades before next season?

Sicking: Not a problem.

SI.com: Is there validity to the thought that cars are going to find danger spots eventually?

Sicking: That was the big problem with Watkins Glen: Steve Peterson died. He was basically NASCAR's only engineer when we started working with them (in 2000). They've obviously hired more since then. He oversaw all of NASCAR's safety efforts and he passed away. It was a real loss for our sport, because he had this institutional memory that no one else does. He basically went to every race for the last umpteen years and he knew where all the hard hits were. He had an excellent memory of where they were and we could take that information and use it to make the track safer. He wasn't available when we went to Watkins Glen. We probably could have done a better job had he still been alive.

I'm not faulting the people they have ... they're trying to replace that institutional knowledge, but it's hard to replace 23-30 years of experience in a hurry.

SI.com: Is it difficult to convince tracks to spend on safety infrastructure?

Sicking: I get this: "We've been racing races here for 40 years and we've never seen anybody hit that spot." And then my answer is, "Well, then, you're really due, aren't you? You've been rolling sevens for a long time; you're going to roll snake eyes pretty quick."

The tracks are very interested in safety. They just have very tight budgets, especially in this day and time. It takes the power of NASCAR's club to force them to do it and NASCAR, to their credit, does it, comes to a track and says "This is the condition of the track we expect when we signed this agreement, you're agreeing to put up this initial barrier," and then it gets a lot easier.

SI.com: Do you or NASCAR keep lists of unresolved danger areas?

Sicking: We first went and inspected all the tracks in 2003, walked the whole place, and we went back with Steve Peterson, and we gave them that list of hot spots. I think they pretty much knocked all those off. Now we get calls from tracks, one or two tracks per year, like Daytona when they rebuilt the track last fall. We were down there three times, walking the track, telling them to fix different areas. We walk it when they're doing significant medications or upgrades, where basically they can upgrade the safety at the same time for a fairly low price.

SI.com: Does the "have at it" mandate concern you?

Sicking: We talked about it in 2001 when we were working out (Dale) Earnhardt's (fatal) reconstruction (from the Daytona 500). All the safety experts told NASCAR, "Look, if we do our job and make this track a lot safer, you're going to have more wrecks because people will lose their fear." And I believe we've seen that.

SI.com: What is the next evolution of the SAFER barrier?

Sicking: I'm a firm believer in the philosophy of, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" because how many serious injuries or fatal crashes have we had since the SAFER barrier went in? The answer is none. I define that as "ain't broke."

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