The Frontstretch: Talladega's New Catchfence A Needed Improvement Despite The Spin by Tommy Thompson -- Thursday October 8, 2009

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Talladega's New Catchfence A Needed Improvement Despite The Spin

Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Thursday October 8, 2009


To date, the most exciting and talked about ending of the 2009 Sprint Cup season was the death-defying finish of the Aaron’s 499 in April, held at the always treacherous Talladega Superspeedway. A frantic last lap ended with Brad Keselowski winning in only his fifth Sprint Cup start while challenger Carl Edwards’ car, battling Keselowski for the victory as the checkered flag was in sight, got airborne and slammed into the frontstretch catchfence after the two made contact. The violent impact into the fence, designed to protect spectators, caused the metal wiring to buckle, subsequently raining debris and injuring seven fans.

The spectacular wreck and the scene of Edwards exiting his demolished No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford and jogging to the finish line on foot was shown time and time again by not only sports news broadcasts, but national mainstream news broadcasts, as well. The footage should have been at least mildly embarrassing for the FOX broadcast crew covering the race, a crew who immediately and erroneously announced that no one had been harmed in the stands and that the fence had done its job.

Of course, we know now the reality of the situation was far different. Certainly, the fence prevented Edwards’ out of control 3,400-pound missile from landing in the stands — but it failed to prevent injuries to seven fans!

On Monday, Talladega Superspeedway President Rick Humphrey announced that the track will complete a project that should hopefully prevent such a problem from ever happening again. Construction will soon begin to increase the height of the existing frontstretch catchfence from 14 to 22 feet, an improvement expected to be in place before the Cup Series comes to the famed Alabama track at the end of October. Additionally, Humphrey announced that similar enhancements would be made to the backstretch fencing before the start of the April races in 2010.

Yet despite the dedication to fix the track, Humphrey maintains — as he has since that April incident — that the catchfence in question performed as it should. “It was pretty obvious that day that the fence that was there did its job,” he said of the Edwards incident. “We said we would have someone look at, evaluate, and see if any recommendations or anything needed to be done to … enhance what was in place.”

“We did that. Our company hired an outside engineering firm, and they came back with some recommendations. And we’ve taken them up on those recommendations.”

OK. Well since the fence is being heightened … wouldn’t it be feasible to think that the choice to almost double the height of the fence and better angle it over the track was a major concern of the engineering firm — a safety measure needed to improve the protection of fans from being injured from debris in the future? It sounds like far more than an “optional” enhancement to me. For had the management at Talladega Superspeedway sincerely believed that the fence had done all that it was supposed to, there would have been no need to contract an outside engineering company to look at improving it.

So why does Humphrey keep insisting things were the equivalent of 100% safe? To keep the issue in perspective, the catchfence did primarily perform its function of keeping a race car out of the grandstands. When Edwards’ out of control Ford was hurled against the fence, it was repelled and landed back on the track. However, when the fence buckled due to the incredible force of the impact, debris, probably from the fence and public address equipment mounted in and around it, flew into the stands hitting spectators. To that end, the fence left something to be desired.

The debris that flew into the stands caused by Carl Edwards’ crash into the Talladega catchfence was more than enough to justify needed improvements to the track this Fall.

Sitting about 20 rows higher and some 60 feet further up the track from the impact point, it was immediately clear to me and others in my group that there were, in fact, fans injured. Why the FOX crew did not recognize the situation for what it was at the time is hard to say. Perhaps their camera angles and high vantage point prevented them from seeing what everyone around us witnessed. However, in the aftermath, the proper response to the incident should not have been “the fence did its job.”

At least there’s one thing we can all agree on: a huge tragedy was averted when the track’s fence caught the No. 99 and prevented it from entering the grandstands. The injuries incurred were relatively minor, particularly considering what they could have been had the catchfence failed to repel a disintegrating Sprint Cup race car. That, too, is inarguable. So…give the catchfence a B+ for keeping Edwards out of the grandstands. But when it comes to safety, there’s a rather large difference on the grading scale of B+ compared to an A.

The proper response from the speedway at the time should have been something a little more truthful. Something along the lines of, although they were grateful that there were no major injuries and that the fence did successfully prevent the No. 99 from entering the stands, the speedway would investigate the accident and consider further measures to protect its customers. Given the facts of what happened, that would have been a reasonable and understandable position to take.

Certainly, accidents happen, and there is always a risk to fans that attend motorsports events. Fans have been injured, and sadly killed, at not only stock car races, but off road events, drag races, sprint car and midget programs, and IndyCar events, to name a few. Heck, a very similar accident to Edwards’ occurred at Talladega in 1987 involving Bobby Allison, who tore out about 150 feet of the catchfence not far from where Edwards landed this Spring. Almost eerily, fans were injured in similar ways as a result. The catchfence Edwards tested was simply an improved version of the one that Allison destroyed some 22 years earlier.

I have whiled away many afternoons looking at that catchfence, and at one time thought it to be built with adequate protection. It sure seemed tall enough, and the heavy chain-linked steel mesh along with the galvanized cable and turnbuckle rigging seemed impenetrable.

But as I understand now, it’s clear the fence still needed improving. Had it performed as it should have, even a fool would know that International Speedway Corporation would not be spending the undisclosed tens of thousands of dollars they have committed to upgrading not only Talladega’s fence, but Daytona International Speedway’s, as well. Yet instead of being forthright with the racing community and admitting that deficiencies were identified in the present catchfence design – fans are fed corporate gobbledygook instead.

It never ceases to amaze me how little regard many of those in control of this sport have for the intelligence of its fans. In this case, they are attempting to deny that what fans saw with their own eyes and is documented actually happened. Perhaps even more puzzling in this instance is why would they even bother to spin the story. It is doubtful that it was for legal reasons, as whatever liability the track may have to those injured is whatever it is going to be. If anything, the upgrade to the catchfence could, in itself, be argued as proof that the current height and angle was indeed deficient.

Curiously, the performance and safety of the fencing never was a big issue amongst most fans or the media, even in the initial days following the accident in April. In their eyes, it prevented a major catastrophe, as nothing more serious than a broken jaw was reported. But in my eyes and the eyes of many others who were there, things could have ended up far, far worse.

The good thing is with the announcement of improvements on Monday, much of that debate will soon become irrelevant. For the truth of the matter is that the track has identified and taken measures to to construct a new, improved catchfence that will better serve to prevent injuries from fans being hit with debris in the future.

Why couldn’t they just say that?

And…that’s my view from Turn 5.

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10/08/2009 03:49 AM

The cars don’t even need to hit the fence for debris to be flung into the stands. While at an IRL race at Fontana, a car wrecked right in front of me during a restart, so by no means was the car even going close to the speed it would have been at normally coming out of turn 4. The car smashed the wall and was not flung up into air. Yet a ton of debris managed to make it over the fence and land in the area between the fence and the stands (about 30 feet). Fontana’s fence also curves over the track about a full lane’s worth. So I honestly have no clue how that debris managed to get over the fence, but there were a lot of pieces way larger than what could fit through the fence laying there.

Dale Earnhardt wrecked at Daytona once where he never hit the wall but rolled his car over the top of another one. This happened in the middle of the track. The wreck caused his hood to come off and fly into the stands, injuring at least one person. In that case, the fence would have had to been at least 100’ tall to stop the hood. Did they raise the fence, no, they mandated hood tethers. (This was also the wreck that while Earnhardt was sitting in the back of the ambulance, he looked at his car and asked if all 4 tires were still on it. They replied yes. So he got out of the ambulance and hopped back in his car and went on the to finish the race. LOL Man I miss him.)

So unless we want a fence that covers the entire track with super fine mesh, or bullet proof glass, there just isn’t a way to stop all the debris. A lug nut getting ripped off a wheel could easily kill someone… and easily be shot a long distance. So to be truly safe, we would need to cover the entire track or completely enclose the stands.

Come on, get realistic.

Why don’t you complain about tracks that don’t have the SAFER barrier covering every possible wall. Many tracks don’t have their straights covered, yet time and time again, drivers prove that they can hit the straightaway walls just as hard as they can hit the walls in the turns.

Gripe about something that happens a little more often than people in the stands getting hurt… especially when they are making improvements to the fence.

Other than the height, do you even know what other improvements might be part of their plan? Hell, do you even know if that height is just the highest point of the new fence and that it might not include that it stretches 30’ out over the track.

And BTW, raising a 14’ wall 8’ is by no means even close to doubling the height. LOL

I have to say that this is probably the worst article I have ever read on this site.

The Turnip
10/08/2009 07:40 AM

MMMMM, not sure where this article is, or was, headed?

No coverage of what causes these “accidents”, at The Dega, does “RESTRICTOR PLATE RACING”, come to mind?

But, an article about the “wishy/washy” safety of NA$CRAP is welcomed!

By the way, your comment “Heck, a very similar accident to Edwards’ occurred at Talladega in 1987 involving Bobby Allison, who tore out about 150 feet of the catchfence”.

I was right there with a group of people, Bobby got airborne just to our left, and was into the fence right in front of us. We were maybe 20 rows back, and it is a helpless feeling knowing there is nothing you can do to get out of the way.

So, as you, firsthand experience!

AND! Based on that accident, and something I have NEVER seen in ANY recent articles regarding speeding race cars vs. spectators, is the development & implementation of THE ROOF FLAP!

You can take your safety barriers, your catch fences, your Han’s devices, BUT NOTHING HAS IMPROVED SAFETY AS MUCH AS THE SIMPLE ROOF FLAP!

And another important yet overlooked point is????

As long as they use “fencing”, as in open weave fencing, I don’t care how tall they build it, how many cables connect it, DEBRIS/LIQUIDS WILL ALWAYS GET THROUGH THE OPENINGS!

Maybe they need to go to a HOCKEY STYLE GLASS SYSTEM! (as suggested by Fred above)

only then will everyone be “totally safe”!

Why all the rhetoric about making a larger/taller/stronger sieve?

The Turnip
10/08/2009 07:49 AM

And more (yet), why don’t they simply eliminate the first, say, 5 rows of seating and move people away from the track? after all, they don’t sell all their seats anyway so it should not impact attendance figures, would even make the existing stands seem even fuller! Save paintng them all for TV!


10/08/2009 01:45 PM

The “safety-crats” are at it again. One thing is certain, you are much safer in the grandstands at T-Dega than you are on the Hiway heading home. This new fence is a total waste of money but will look great with the empty grandstands behind it. They need to focus on the fans actually showing up, instead of a fluke accident that caused minor injuries to an immeasurably small percentage of the crowd. In the real world there is no “completely safe” venue or sporting event. Glass walls in Hockey break, foul balls hit fans, it is part of it.

10/08/2009 11:31 PM

Turnip, while I believe spectator safety is critical, there has to be a compromise. It isn’t possible to still be at the track unless your are in an underground bunker watching the race via video feeds to be 100% safe from an ontrack accident. So you might as well stay home.

So where do you draw the line at safety versus being able to watch the race?

While some tracks may need to improve their catch fences (I haven’t done an analysis of the tracks), it seems to me that the compromise between safety and fan enjoyment is pretty close to where it should be.

With the Edwards’ ‘Dega wreck, the catch fence did exactly what it was designed to do… it kept his car out of the stands and saved possibly hundreds of lives. Did they just sit back and say, well only a few people got hurt, no reason to change anything? No, they now had some great data (from a scientific/architectural view) to see how well the fence worked and decided that there was room for improvement. And what are they doing? Improving the fence. Other than height though, no other details about their improvements were given in this article.

From the Earnhardt wreck I mentioned above, a catch fence would not have helped at all in that case. His hood shot up into the air like a Frisbee fired out of a cannon. It landed way up in the stands. Yes, they do use tethers now, but that didn’t stop a tire from bouncing into the infield and hitting a motorhome last year (or was it earlier this year?).

So what I am saying is that there is no practical way to make it completely safe. Hell, you might as well make an argument that the typical grandstands steps at almost every place uses the 2 normal steps, then a long space, then 2 normal steps configuration. Those things are serious harder to walk up and down than continuous evenly spaced steps. I know I tripped up quite a few times on them at many different stadiums over the years… especially when you are trying to see what is happening on the track/field as you walk down them, while at the same time trying not to block people’s view.

Maybe they should even cancel the fly-overs before each race because you never know when an airplane may have a problem and crash into the stands.

Like I said before, get realistic.

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