(EDITOR’S NOTE: 51’s X-Factor is a new, weekly feature on Speed51.com that features opinions from 51 columnists on racing’s hottest topics. Rob Blount, the author of this editorial, is the Northeast Editor for Speed51.com. The views which are expressed in the following column are his own and not necessarily the views of Speed51.com and/or its partners.)
If you’re a follower of racing and a frequenter of social media, there’s a good chance you saw pictures or video of Will Kimmel’s red No. 69 car exit turn one at Mobile International Speedway (AL) during Saturday’s ARCA Mobile 200 where it then bounced violently in the grass, and plowed through a concrete barrier before ultimately coming to a stop in the parking lot as a result of a hung throttle.
Although his race car was destroyed, Kimmel was thankfully able to walk away with no injuries, which he credits to his seat from Joie of Seating. And amazingly, his car just barely nudged the tow hitch on the back of a race fan’s pickup truck, but it could have been much worse.
As a result, the debate over whether all race tracks should have walls around the outside of the track has been reignited.
“At first I thought there should have been,” Kimmel told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I’ll be the first one to say it. But after talking with my dad about it I think the best thing would have been some sand traps.
“I’m just thankful for the safety equipment in my car, including my Joie of Seating racing seat, that kept me safe and uninjured during the crash.”
In May 2014 at Stafford Motor Speedway (CT), part-time NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour competitor, Richie Pallai Jr., crashed almost head-on into the turn three guardrail. His crash was also the result of a stuck throttle. He took a trip to the hospital, but he was in good shape aside from some minor bumps and bruises.
“There’s no reason in 2015, in my opinion at least, why a race track doesn’t have walls immediately on the edge of the race track,” said Pallai. “Something has to stop you at some point. If you’re asking if it’s worth spinning off a race track with just woods there and having my car split in two by a tree compared to my race car being in the fence I’m going to go with the fence option.”
But Pallai’s car was left destroyed. And that’s where much of the debate comes from.
The ability to save the race car from heavy damage as a result of a minor spin is why a lot of tracks don’t have walls around the outside edge of
Vermont’s famous Thunder Road International Speedbowl only has a wall on the frontstretch to protect the fans, but the corners and backstretch are open. Long-time motorsports promoter Tom Curley, the owner of Thunder Road and the president of the ACT Late Model Tour, is a proponent of fewer walls at short tracks, and Kimmel’s crash did nothing to change his mind.
“Every track is different,” Curley said. “We’ve had some horrendous wrecks at Thunder Road with our run off. We have a high-banked quarter-mile. If you run over that edge and hit the right spot you bounce. We had them bounce outside and into the parking lot at Thunder Road. If we had a wall at the edge of the race track that would not have happened.”
But Curley made sure to mention that the last time an incident like that occurred at Thunder Road was 20 years ago.
“On a given night throughout the season we’ll have about a dozen cars that will go into the runoff area,” Curley said. “They’ll avoid injury and having to repair cars. So in the big picture I would not rethink my philosophy.”
Beech Ridge Speedway in Maine is another track without an outside wall. Many drivers spin off the track just to power back out of the dirt and back onto the track with no damage done to their machines.
“If Beech Ridge had a wall around the top of the turns I can think of several Legends Cars and a couple of Super Late Models of mine that would have needed clips,” said Bobby Timmons on Facebook. Timmons finished second in points at Beech Ridge in 2014.
Brandon Jones took a dip into the creek behind the third turn at Watermelon Capital Speedway (GA) during practice for SpeedFest in 2014, also as a result of a stuck throttle. Since he went off the track and didn’t hit a wall he was able to run the race that weekend and came away with a respectable 11th-place finish.
Mobile, like Thunder Road and Watermelon Capital Speedway, is without a wall at the edge of the track. Instead it has a large runoff area before concrete “K-Rails” are in place to keep cars from entering the spectator parking lot in turn one.
Installing concrete walls at the edge of the pavement would be an expensive proposition for the race track. It would be expensive for just about any race track, and considering this is a time period where many race tracks seem to be experiencing financial difficulties, it’s probably not a viable option.
But there may be another option for short track promoters hoping to control costs, as well as maximize the safety of their drivers.
“There are two types of barrier systems out there,” said Chris Scribner, owner of Scribner Plastics. “There’s the containment system and then there’s an energy dissipation system. Our barrier is an energy absorption barrier.”
If you’ve been to just about any go-kart facility recently then you’ve seen Scribner’s barrier system. It’s a heavy-duty plastic barrier system that links together, known as a “link barrier.” While it got its start at karting facilities, they’ve since moved into bigger facilities. The barriers can be stacked on top of each other to make them even stronger.
While Scribner’s system wouldn’t be placed at the edge of the race track like a concrete barrier, he still believes that it would have kept Kimmel’s car from entering the parking lot.
“Our application at a place like Mobile would have been to put in a couple rows about 20 feet before the concrete barrier,” said Scribner. “It takes a lot of force to move a thousand-pound barrier system like ours. It takes a lot of force and it would greatly reduce his energy.
“There’s a great possibility that if our system was out there he would have still reached the concrete wall but he would have hit that and that would have been it. That concrete wall is the containment system. But in this instance it didn’t contain him and that’s a unique instance.”
For a long time, this writer has been a proponent of having race tracks completely surrounded by a barrier of some sort. Whether it’s concrete or a guardrail, I’ve long felt that a barrier should be there. My immediate thought after Saturday’s crash was “This wouldn’t have happened if there was a wall there,” but perhaps that’s the wrong line of thinking.
While that could be true, the points Curley makes are certainly valid. Hitting a concrete wall at a high speed greatly increases the risk of injury. Hitting a concrete wall at any speed greatly increases the chance that a driver and team will now have to spend a lot of time and effort to fix damage to a race car that could have been avoided if no wall was there.
So maybe we’re all missing the point. Kimmel’s crash was an extremely rare situation. But what caused the crash was not.
Stuck throttles are all too common in racing these days and they almost always seem to lead to some of the scariest crashes we see in racing.
There’s no way to completely eliminate the potential for a stuck throttle, unfortunately. Parts break, things fail, and we all know that. That’s part of life and it’s certainly a part of racing. That’s something that Kimmel seems to agree with.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever stop it,” Kimmel said. “We do know what happened (with ours). The throttle piece on the carburetor came back past the bolt head on the stop. That’s what is supposed to stop it but it was too far over to the passenger’s side on the bolt head. Before when we checked we’d just make sure it hit the stop, but obviously that’s not the case because we hit the stop. So now instead of checking forward and backwards on the throttle we check left and right too.”
Ultimately, while we may not be able to completely prevent anything and everything from happening, we can still do all we can to avoid it from happening in the future.
“Overall we’re in a dangerous sport,” said Curley. “We know that going in. For all the money spent on safety nothing is fool-proof.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Northeast Editor -Twitter: @RobBlount
-Feature Photo Credit: Speed51.com