Opinion: Sonoma Reminds Us That SAFER Barriers Need to Be Everywhere

By: Toby Christie – @Toby_Christie

One of the greatest safety innovations in racing history is the SAFER barrier, or the metal walls, with energy absorbing foam that sit in front of the existing concrete walls at race tracks around the country. Fans, drivers and members of the NASCAR industry have called for tracks to add SAFER barriers at every section of the track inside and out, but every now and again cars in severe accidents find exposed concrete walls.

This weekend, at Sonoma Raceway during the Toyota / Save Mart 350 we were reminded once again how important the softer SAFER barrier walls are.

On the final lap of the 110-lap twisting and turning event, Kasey Kahne was slammed into by the lapped car of Kevin O’Connell. The contact sent Kahne careening into the wall near the start finish line into a section of wall constructed out of movable concrete barriers.

The crash caused considerable damage to the No. 5 Microsoft Windows Chevrolet SS, and it seemed to daze Kahne.

“Yeah, it was a hard hit,” Kahne said. “No. 15 no clue who he is, I saw him a lot today lapping him, but he went low down the front stretch and then just, I was going to his outside and he just turned right and just hit me, put me straight in the wall getting the white flag there.”

Kahne slammed into the concrete barriers with incredible force, which pushed two sections of the concrete walls backwards. Luckily Kahne walked away from the car with what seems to be no serious injuries, but things easily could have been worse.

The crash was one of those weird accidents that you wouldn’t expect to happen in that straight section of the 11-turn road course, but that is the infamous way that concrete wall hits have hurt drivers over the years — in spots on the track that you wouldn’t expect drivers to hit.

In 2013, Denny Hamlin was spun on the final lap while battling Joey Logano for second place at Auto Club Speedway. Hamlin slid to the inside of the track, eventually slamming head-on into the wall — which had no SAFER Barrier present. The severe impact ended with a broken back for Hamlin, which ruined any chances the driver of the No. 11 Toyota had at making the Chase that year. Luckily Hamlin was able to return to the track after missing four races.

Two years later, Kyle Busch was sent for a wild ride in the season-opening NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway. With 9 laps to go in that race, Busch was caught in a big pack crash. The crash sent Busch sliding through the infield grass heading toward turn one. Busch’s car slammed into the inside wall at approximately 150 miles per hour. The wall had no SAFER barrier, and the impact broke Busch’s leg and foot.

This incident sidelined Busch for a significant chunk of the 2015 season.

Rest assured that NASCAR understands the severity of Kahne’s crash on Sunday.

Steve O’Donnell — NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer — commented on the crash saying, “Anytime you see a hit like that, you’re going to learn and react.”

Concrete walls were great for a long time in NASCAR because they replaced the even more dangerous guardrails that were commonplace at most race tracks. But as safety innovations evolve, it is up to the race tracks to evolve their facilities. Before someone gets seriously hurt or worse again, this is my plea to every race track on the NASCAR circuit — please put SAFER barriers everywhere that there is a concrete wall at your facility.

Photo Credit: @LASTCARonBROCK on Twitter.