Energy-absorbing SAFER barriers may have made no difference in the crash that killed NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, the developer of the system for NASCAR competition said Friday.
"You know that it is impossible to know whether the SAFER barrier would have made the difference in the Leffler crash," said Dr. Dean Sicking, an engineering professor and associate vice president of product development at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“Although it is unknown whether the barrier would have helped, I am somewhat skeptical.”
Leffler was killed Wednesday night driving a winged sprint car on a dirt track in New Jersey. During a heat race, Leffler’s car turned suddenly into the wall as a result of what the New Jersey State Police said was a “malfunction in the car.”
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Like most dirt tracks, there were no SAFER barriers in place, but Leffler was using a head-and-neck restraint system. The Delaware (Pa.) County medical examiner’s office said Leffler died of blunt force neck injury.
Sicking said sprint cars are not compatible with the SAFER barrier.
“The SAFER barrier was designed to function with stock cars and open wheel cars that have much stiffer frames and are generally traveling at much higher speeds,” he said.
In 2005, NASCAR mandated that all oval tracks in its three national series – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Trucks – have SAFER barriers in place.
This year, however, NASCAR carved out an exception for Eldora Speedway in Ohio, a dirt track owned by Cup driver Tony Stewart which will host a Truck series race next month.
Leffler’s accident has raised questions about whether NASCAR’s decision to waive the use of the barrier for a national series race is a good one.
“The safety standards weren’t what caused the problem,” said Stewart, a close friend of Leffler’s. “I’d be grateful if you guys would understand that what happened this week wasn’t because somebody didn’t do something right with the race track. It was an accident.
“Short track promoters are doing everything they can do to operate and just stay afloat.”
The addition of SAFER barriers to a track can cost more than $1 million, cost-prohibitive to short tracks that may draw 10,000 to 20,000 fans for their biggest events.
Reigning Cup series champion Brad Keselowski said he shies away from running events that don’t include the safety standards and devices used in NASCAR.
“I don’t run those races for a reason. There are a handful of drivers that run at the local level. I don’t very often,” Keselowski said Friday at Michigan International Speedway.
“I’m not going to say I never have, but I don’t very often because they don’t have SAFER barriers and they don’t have the safety standards that we have here in NASCAR.
“That said, that’s not to say that all tracks in NASCAR have it right, either. There are quite a few that could use some serious upgrades and facelifts, but it’s even 100 times worse at the local level.”