NASCAR at Watkins Glen: Is It Time to Replace The Tire Barriers?

David YeazellSenior Analyst IAugust 11, 2009

Watkins Glen has seen its share of great racing, and its share of great crashes.

Driving hard into turn nine, Sam Hornish Jr. was bumped by a loose Kasey Kahne. Sliding off the track and into the tire barrier, Hornish Jr. was then launched back across the track into oncoming traffic. The result was a horrifying crash involving Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and several other cars.

The 1991 Budweiser at the Glen was on lap six when J.D. McDuffie came in contact with Jimmy Means as they were approaching turn five. McDuffie’s car, followed closely by Means car, veered off the track, slid across the grass and hit the tire barrier at over 100 mph.

McDuffie’s car was launched into the air, high enough for Means’ car to slide completely under it and out of harms way, and then slammed to the ground on its roof.

It was the second violent crash in turn five that week. Jimmy Means walked away. J.D. McDuffie was crushed inside his car and died.

Before the next race at the Glen, NASCAR implemented some changes. The bus stop was one of those changes.

This small deviation from the original track would force drivers to slow down before entering the deadly turn. After the reconfiguration, turn five became turn nine.

The second change was to the car. A small bar was placed next to the window net. This bar, called the Earnhardt Bar, would decrease the chances of the roof crushing the driver in the event the car ended up on its top.

Jeff Gordon said he saw the 77 car leave the racing surface, and knew it would be shot back across the track, but felt he had enough time to clear.  

According to tape, it took four seconds from the time Hornish Jr. started sliding, until he was hit by Gordon’s car, and then a host of others.

While computing his decision, Gordon had traveled the length of two football fields in that short amount of time.

Everyone walked away from the crash, this time.

A tire barrier is good for protection and does absorb a considerable amount of energy. It also retains that energy, then releases it and creates an out of control pin ball effect for the cars. Is it really a safe safety barrier, or another catastrophe lying in wait?

The COT is extremely safe, but what about the tracks? Is it time to implement more changes for Watkins Glen?

Sand and gravel traps have proved very effective in slowing down or stopping cars without adverse or severely uncontrolled effects. 

Should NASCAR take a look at the dynamics and safety of these tire barriers before we experience déjà vu?