By Anthony Rhoads
The fastest speedway in NASCAR is getting a little bit safer.
Atlanta Motor Speedway is installing SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) walls, which are designed to reduce impact during race crashes.
The $1.5-2 million project at AMS is about 80 percent complete and is expected to be finished in 10 days, well before its Oct. 31 race weekend.
Jonesboro native Joey Clanton has first-hand knowledge about the effectiveness of the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) walls. He also knows what it's like to crash into a concrete wall going at speeds of nearly 200 mph at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Back in March in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck race at AMS, Clanton wrecked in Turn 4. While it came without serious injury, Clanton did suffer a mild concussion.
Clanton, who also has raced in the NASCAR Busch Series, also wrecked at Richmond International Speedway, which has SAFER.
"It really makes a difference," Clanton said. "The impact you feel when you hit a SAFER wall is much less than when you hit a solid concrete wall. It's good for everybody involved. Anything for safety is good. There has been so much progress to make the cars go faster and when you are racing at those kinds of speeds, you need to make the racing safer."
In the past several years since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001 and the deaths of Kyle Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper in 2000, NASCAR has placed more emphasis on safety.
The SAFER walls are just another step to make the sport safer for the drivers, AMS president and general manager Ed Clark said.
"It's something I'm personally thrilled about," he said. "As a track operator I'm thrilled and enthusiastic."
The SAFER walls shouldn't affect the racing that much as the walls extend only about 30 inches beyond the regular track wall.
"In turn 1, it may alter their line a little bit but I don't see from that standpoint that the racing will be any different," Clark said.
The walls are made of steel tubes and energy-absorbing foam. NASCAR studies have shown that impacts can be reduced by as much as 70 percent.
Tests have been done on SAFER walls with cars crashing into the walls at 125 mph at 25 degree angles.
"It's an awesome video to see that the wall looks like rubber (during the test crashes)," Speedway Motorsports Inc. construction manager Randy Wray said. "It's a lot better wall to hit than concrete."
While safety is the No. 1 concern, the walls will have another positive effect for racing -- it should save race teams money because the cars don't get torn up as bad.
Clanton said there have been some races this season where drivers have wrecked at tracks with SAFER walls but they were able to fix their cars and continue racing. They might not have been able to finish their races if they had crashed into the regular concrete walls.
"It's a lot safer for the drivers and it can be cost efficient for the teams," Clanton said. "It shouldn't cost the teams as much. It's a good thing all around."
The SAFER walls were first developed at the University of Nebraska for Indianapolis Motor Speedway about five years ago but the walls were soon developed for NASCAR.
Right now, 13 NASCAR tracks have the SAFER walls with plans to have all but two of the tracks fitted in 2005. The only tracks not slated to have the SAFER walls are the two road courses, Infineon Raceway in California and Watkins Glen in New York.