Safety upgrades know no barriers; Danica's move; and more notes
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
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.
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.
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.
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.