News & Media

Drivers hit, then knock, barrier system at WGI

August 15, 2011, David Caraviello,

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- After some hard crashes, drivers openly suggest adding more SAFER barriers

David Ragan climbed out of his race car and walked gingerly to an ambulance. David Reutimann went down to one knee, the fabric of his firesuit ripped on his left leg. Ron Fellows had a sore neck and breastbone. Denny Hamlin was silent over the radio for several long, chilling seconds as he tried to gather the breath that had been knocked out of him.

Watkins Glen International took a physical toll on several drivers Monday, when a rain-postponed Sprint Cup event on the famous road course produced a series of tooth-rattling crashes that left competitors sore in more ways than one. Thankfully, everyone walked away -- but some tentatively after too-close encounters with tire barriers or the Glen's famous blue guardrails.

Painful Monday

Denny Hamlin was just one of many drivers who hit the wall hard at Watkins Glen.

"You're obviously traveling fast. This is obviously the fastest road course," said Ragan, involved in a spectacular four-car accident that marred the race's final lap. "It's crazy, though, in this day and age to not have SAFER barriers and a little better design. That guardrail and all has probably been here since the 1900s when this race track was built. It's kind of absurd. There are dirt tracks that have better SAFER barriers and wall systems."

Three incidents left everyone holding their breath. On Lap 49, Kurt Busch experienced some kind of brake problem and barreled hard into the tire barrier in Turn 5. Seventeen laps later, Denny Hamlin suffered a mechanical issue -- he either cut a tire that severed the brake line, or cut the brake line some other way, he surmised -- and lost control of his No. 11 car, which overran Turn 1 and slammed into the tire barrier hard enough to buckle the guardrail behind it. It was a crash reminiscent of Jimmie Johnson's frightening slam into a foam-covered wall in a now-Nationwide race here in 2000.

Hamlin was quiet on the radio for several seconds as he gathered himself. He credited a seven-point harness -- as opposed to the five-point variety some other drivers use -- with saving him from injury. But nothing could diminish the fright factor, even for someone who makes a living by managing and overcoming fear.

"This was just terrifying," Hamlin said, "because you know there's nothing you can do, and you're heading straight for the fence. It's the [most scared] I've been, by far."

It was that kind of day, given the combination of the tight, fast conditions that always exist at Watkins Glen, the level of aggression seen in Sprint Cup road races recently, and a green-white-checkered finish that dialed the intensity level up to full volume. All of that came to a head on the final lap, when Boris Said, Ragan, Reutimann and Fellows found themselves in a place too narrow for all of them. Replays indicate that contact from Said knocked Ragan into the outside guardrail, which he bounced off before sliding back across the track and into Reutimann. The No. 00 car then bounced off the inside guardrail, went airborne and flipped before impacting the fence on the other side.

Fellows was also caught up in the melee. Said was later involved in a post-race dust-up with Greg Biffle in the garage area. Everyone else limped -- some literally -- in and out of the care center. "[I'm] a little sore -- my chest, my back, my feet got tangled up in the pedals some," Ragan said. "That was the hardest hit I've ever had in a race car. It's tough seeing that thing -- barrier, concrete wall, guardrail. Guardrails don't move too much. I'd much rather see a SAFER barrier coming."

Fellows said he had the wind knocked out of him, and was feeling a little pain in the base of his breastbone. "That's as hard a hit as I've had, as I can remember," the veteran road racer said. Reutimann said a piece of debris hit him in the left shin, tearing a hole in his firesuit. His leg "hurt like crazy," he said. Like the other drivers involved in the accident, he characterized the hit as one of the hardest he'd ever taken.

"This was just terrifying because you know there's nothing you can do, and you're heading straight for the fence. It's the [most scared] I've been, by far."


"This is one of the bigger hits I would say, but it's part of the gig," Reutimann said. "You sign up to do this stuff, every once in a while you're going to hit something. As fast as we're going, you hit stuff pretty hard. I'm good and will be ready for Michigan next week. I'm thinking where I hit would probably be a good place for SAFER barriers. So, maybe we should look at that next time we come back. Overall, I'm OK and ready to get out of here."

Reutimann echoed a common refrain heard in the aftermath of Monday's race -- criticism of Watkins Glen's barrier setup, which in some places lacks the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) system that is designed to absorb impact energy. "That's just a bad spot," Ragan said of the Turn 2 area where his accident unfolded. "It seems like every year something happens in the esses down there."

One of those times was two years ago, when Jeff Gordon walked away from a frightening airborne accident in a similarly tight area of the race track that also involved Sam Hornish Jr. Gordon didn't get caught up in a crash Monday, but could relate to those who did.

"You can't have walls like that," he said after finishing 13th. "You're going to find those places eventually, so they've got to fix them. And unfortunately, this one has been found before. And we've seen what can happen, and we're very fortunate we don't have any injuries coming from that, because obviously it could have been much worse. But anytime you're in a race car and you're trying to go fast, accidents are going to happen. And when they do, you have to make sure they have a clear path for cars to exit the race track. In this situation, they've got a wall that [produces] not only a big impact, but puts it right back out into traffic."

In fairness, Watkins Glen does feature the SAFER barrier in areas like the inner loop chicane and Turn 7. The track also pushed back the guardrail in the big carousel turn, and spent $1.3 million to improve fencing, barriers, and runoff areas in the wake of Gordon's accident two years ago. Monday, track officials didn't seem averse to the prospect of further changes should they be deemed necessary by NASCAR.

"Driver safety is certainly our No. 1 concern, and I think our past shows that we're more than willing to do what's necessary -- such as two years ago, when we made those changes with the extended runoffs and SAFER barriers," track spokesman Ryan Lake said. "After this race, we'll certainly speak with NASCAR, and if they come back and say we need to make changes, we're certainly going to do that."

Not every driver had issues with the track's barrier and fencing system. Race winner Marcos Ambrose said it was fine as it is.

"I don't drive around this place looking at any one spot saying, 'Ooh, that looks nasty to me.' I think they've done great with what they've got," he said. "If you don't have a guardrail off Turn 2, you end up going down a bank, so that's not good, either. So I think the track itself is fine. I think we just have to keep working on safety. All the drivers walked away. I've got no complaints about this place. I think it's a safe race track. We're just driving these cars flat out, and it creates problems. ... I think the track is a classic road-racing circuit. You don't want to make it too sterile. You've got to have bumps and lumps and change of camber and roughness and all that kind of stuff that makes it what it is."

Even Fellows, still sore from the impact of his crash, professed a fondness for the part of the track where his accident unfolded. Monday's incident, he believed, was the product of over-anxious driving more than anything else.

"It's fast. The corners are fast, and that's OK," Fellows said. "As a race driver, Turn 1 up through the esses is my favorite part. The difficulty is, there isn't any room for error. Two-wide is doable, if guys will give and take, but three-wide just doesn't work. Everybody's a little antsy at the end of a race here. It's too bad."