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SAFER developer says tethers need inspecting

December 08, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Just as track surfaces can be beaten down through wear and tear, so, too, can SAFER barriers. (Getty Images)

Exposure to elements pose threat to barriers' nylon fasteners after so many years

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barrier system currently in place at all NASCAR facilities has significantly reduced driver injuries, but the aging nylon tethers may need to be replaced soon, according to the man who developed it.

Dr. Dean Sicking, director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska, said the SAFER barriers have three major components: structural steel tubing, closed-cell polystyrene foam blocks and nylon retention tethers.

Seat safety


Upgrades helped minimize David Reutimann's movement when he crashed at WGI. Driver-turned-seat maker Randy LaJoie sees short-track safety as the next priority.

The foam blocks begin to lose their effectiveness for dissipating energy after about five years, Sicking said. But the nylon tethers are also affected by the elements, particularly sunlight. And since most of the tracks installed their SAFER systems between 2003 and '04, the tethers are now in need of inspection.

"Almost all of the tracks have replaced the foam once," Sicking said. "I've informally inspected the tethers during my walks around the tracks. And the tethers are now reaching a point where they need to be looked at."

Sicking said tracks shouldn't be overly concerned about tether replacement, but they should be aware that it could become an issue in the future.

"But when I walked the Daytona track last spring, I saw a lot of tethers that I thought that in another year or two, they're going to need to be replaced," he said. "And there were a few tethers that I told them, they probably need to get rid of now."

Because the tethers help hold the SAFER barrier in place, Sicking said the failure of multiple tethers could result in a disastrous situation, particularly if it happened during a race weekend. For example, a track the size of Daytona may have several thousand tethers in place -- and if they failed, it could create chaos.

"The tethers are so over-designed that if you lose two, it's not a problem," Sicking said. "You lose six or eight in a row and that would be a monumental repair.

"You don't want to stop the race because the SAFER barrier's laying on the track. That would not be good. That would be hours and hours to fix."

The good thing? Tethers are relatively inexpensive, Sicking said. And it's something each track can budget for in advance.

"When they feel like their tethers are in need of system-wide replacement, you might replace every other one," Sicking said. "Then wait four or five years and replace every other one again. And that would keep your cost down."

Sicking gave an update on SAFER technology during this week's safety and technical conference during the International Motorsports Industry Show at the Indianapolis Convention Center. In addition to long-term maintenance of current SAFER systems on ovals, Sicking's future plans include developing a "crash cushion" for the walls at the entrance to pit road, continuing to work with road courses to implement SAFER technology, and to find a solution to the issue with catch fence safety.

Sicking suggested moving the fence supports as much as 8 feet from the concrete walls, then supporting the fence with a cantilevered system.

"The solution is that you move the poles away, and that can be done," Sicking said. "If you can back the poles away from the fence, get them far enough away, most of your problems go away. We had a feasibility study funded a long time ago that we looked at, and that's what we concluded."

The support posts would have to be significantly bulkier to provide enough support and dissipate the energy, and that brings the matter of cost into play. However, Sicking said he's more than willing to undertake further study, if funding can be obtained.