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Dean Sicking of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examines a PLUS SRE barrier on display at the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed ​​on Friday, October 21, 2011. (ROBERT BECKER / Lincoln Journal Star)


ROBERT BECKER / Lincoln Journal Star


Don’t look back until you know who to turn to.

Mac Demere saw the car ahead of him lose control and veer left towards the inside of the track. He tried to anticipate the car’s next move, not wanting to turn until he knew where the other car was heading next.

Don’t look back until you know who to turn to.

He finally swerved far off the track. But when the other car regained traction, it veered sharply to the right, directly towards Demere, and Demere’s car struck its right side.

“I can’t tell you what got him out of control,” Demere said of the 1983 crash at Watkins Glen International in upstate New York. “It happens so fast.”

Demere, now 57, pulled away from the crash, but the other driver suffered a broken ankle.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you fall, said Demere, a former South Carolina runner and longtime motorsport reporter.

That certainly seemed to be the lesson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a week ago when 15 cars crashed, killing two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon. He was the first IndyCar driver to die on a track. since Paul Dana was killed while training at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2006.

On October 16, two cars took off: Wheldon’s and Will Power’s. Wheldon struck a capture fence built to protect bystanders from the wreckage of the crash. He later died in hospital from head injuries.

The electricity struck a barrier designed by the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He walked away.

The tragically different fates of Wheldon and Power have raised concerns about the NASCAR and IndyCar track capture barrier and highlighted the safety performance of the UNL designed SAFER barrier.

Dean Sicking, director of the UNL Safety Center, said SAFER – or Steel and Foam Energy Reduction – barriers are now in place on all NASCAR and IndyCar tracks. There have been no fatalities involving collisions at these barriers since 2004, when all barriers were fully installed on NASCAR tracks.

Before those barriers were put in, 1 to 1.5 drivers died every year on NASCAR tracks alone, Sicking said. During a particularly cruel 10-month period in 2000 and 2001, NASCAR crashes claimed the lives of budding stars Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper, as well as one of the sport’s legends. , Dale Earnhardt.

The trapezoidal barriers designed at UNL are made of insulating foam that is waterproof and effective at absorbing the impact of cars going well in excess of 100 mph, Sicking said. The steel tubes serve as a barrier between the foam blocks and the track. SAFER barriers protect drivers from the ruthless nature of concrete walls.

Sicking – whose desk is decorated with a photo of him shaking hands with former President George W. Bush, as well as numerous awards – recounted how the UNL Center secured the contract to design the barriers.

In 1998 Tony George, the long-time former president of IndyCar and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wanted a new circuit barrier. The concrete barriers just weren’t good enough.

The designers of IndyCar had developed a new barrier made of plastic sheeting, but it shattered into 50 to 100 pound pieces that littered the race track when hit too hard. George asked the UNL center to improve the design.

He said, ‘Can you solve this problem? “” Sicking said. “We never admit that we can’t do something.”

Initially, Sicking wasn’t convinced it was worth it. Then his deputy director, Ron Faller, convinced him that he would lead the UNL center to find new road safety solutions and new materials to build them.

Sicking agreed and asked George for $ 1 million.

“He said, ‘When can you start? “”

It didn’t take long for the UNL Center to figure out that the IndyCar plastic barrier would never perform as well as foam, and Sicking worked to convince a skeptical George. Eventually, George relented.

In 2002, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway installed the SAFER barriers and, seeing their performance, NASCAR CEO Bill France Sr. ordered their installation on all NASCAR speedways by the end of 2004 at a cost of $ 100. millions of dollars.

The UNL center supervised the installation.

“No one can ever fix it,” Sicking said with a laugh.

The barrier has won the UNL center numerous awards, including the prestigious Louis Schwitzer Award 2002, presented in conjunction with the Indianapolis 500.

IndyCar’s senior technical director, Phil Casey, has called SAFER barriers the biggest safety achievement in motor racing.

The barriers were installed at the New Hampshire motor racing circuit in 2003, and the circuit where Petty and Irwin Jr. died has had no deaths or serious injuries since, circuit spokeswoman Kristen Costa said.

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

Costa said the highway reconfigured its capture barrier in 2009 to make it safer as well. Sicking said capture fences at powersports facilities need to be reviewed.

“The capture barrier is a tough security issue, a tough nut to crack, but I think it can be,” he said.

Sicking said IndyCar was reluctant to invest the large sum of money needed to redesign the capture barrier, and NASCAR is not as interested in redesigning it as its cars rarely fly as open-wheeled Indy cars are prone to. do it.

While nothing has been determined, the UNL center could end up investigating the crash that killed Wheldon, as it did with the 2001 crash that killed Earnhardt, Sicking said. The UNL center has examined nearly 2,000 federally contracted crashes.

“Anytime you have a big wreck, we can normally look at it,” he said.

Demere, the former racer who is now pursuing a master’s degree in journalism from UNL, said it appears Wheldon tried to slow down by taking his foot off the accelerator and tried to steer his car towards the gearbox of the car slowing down in front of him. But the nose of his car rose and, traveling at over 200 mph, his car quickly took to the air.

With 15 cars involved, it was simply impossible for Wheldon to avoid the carnage, Demere said.

He said drivers try not to think about seriously injuring or killing themselves while running. They are just trying to focus on the track and the runners around them.

“We all know it could happen to us,” he said. “Frankly, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened to me.

About Homer Yonker

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