The story behind SAFER barriers

April 09, 2013, Farrah Kaye,

The effect of SAFER barriers was no more apparent than in 2008 in Texas

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On April 4, 2008, Michael McDowell pulled onto the track at Texas Motor Speedway to turn a qualifying lap. Instead, his No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine slammed into the wall and barrel-rolled eight times down the embankment. Safety crews pulled a shaken McDowell out of his car, who had a slight limp.

Safety innovations such as the HANS device, the new car (then known as the Car of Tomorrow) and SAFER barriers were credited with saving McDowell’s life -- and no doubt many others.

SAFER, which stands for Steel and Foam Energy Reduction, started out in the IndyCar league in 2002 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Developed by the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it first took the form of PEDS (Polyethylene Energy Dissipating System) barrier.

After unsuccessful results, the team went back to the drawing board with requirements for the new barrier. The SAFER barrier we know today was put to the test at the 2002 Indianapolis 500. During the first day of practice, Robby McGehee hit the wall and the wall worked as it should.

Four years later, every oval track that hosted an IndyCar or NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race had SAFER barriers installed.

What about road courses? In the past few years, Watkins Glen has had three cautions that brought this discussion to the forefront. In 2011, Denny Hamlin had a solo wreck into the tire barrier while Boris Said, David Ragan and David Reutimann had a three-car crash that sent all three flying into guardrails. (All were OK.) In 2009, Sam Hornish Jr. hit the tire barrier, bounced off and slammed into Jeff Gordon, who was then hit by Jeff Burton while still spinning from the Hornish contact.  

The debate began over SAFER barriers being added, but the team at UNL wasn’t sure they would work all around the track. Some areas were outfitted with them while others were reinforced.

NASCAR and the tracks will no doubt keep a close eye on safety. Thinking back to the days of tiny guardrails that sent drivers flying out of the track is unfathomable at this point. The SAFER barrier system works as an energy absorber. It has a steel outer skin with steel tubes welded on top of one another, forming an impact plate. There's plastic foam behind the steel skin to help absorb the force of impact.

The design has worked well, and tracks have shown they are willing to add SAFER barriers when needed. For example, in March 2008, Gordon hit the inside wall of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, hurting his back and speaking out against the wall not being a SAFER barrier. The next time the circuit came to Vegas, SAFER barriers had been installed in that area.

The development of SAFER barriers showed how a team effort can improve the safety of the sport, and that effort should continue to benefit drivers like it did McDowell in 2008 in Texas.


McDowell's wrecked car from 2008 on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
A look at a piece of the SAFER barrier McDowell's car impacted.