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Feature Writing
Fourth Place
Mike Hembree, USA Today

Safer Barrier Has Enduring Legacy

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Dean Sicking is the stereotypical college professor -- eyeglasses down the bridge of his nose, rumpled shirt, a vocabulary that would send laymen running for a dictionary.

Yet Sicking has fame of a sort most of his campus colleagues will never enjoy. It is not exaggerating to say some of the world’s leading race car drivers –- not to mention many people who drive fast on America’s freeways –- owe their lives to Sicking.

The leader of the design team that developed the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier, perhaps the most important safety advance in NASCAR history, Sicking has watched as the “soft walls” have turned many major racing accidents into minor ones. The dampened impact often has allowed drivers to walk away from hard crashes that probably would have resulted in serious injuries -- or worse -- 20 years ago.

The positives have been proven over and over again since the first SAFER barrier was installed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2002. No NASCAR national-series drivers have been killed in a race crash since Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

Sicking said he “fully expected” that at least one driver would have been killed during the 13 years of the SAFER barrier era. “But drivers who have hit walls and had no right to live have,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “In my view, that’s an amazing record. I’m very, very happy.”

The barrier’s impact has perhaps been most appreciated because of where it isn’t -- still lacking on some concrete walls at tracks where NASCAR’s national touring series visit.

That was evident Feb. 21, when Kyle Busch’s car slammed into an interior concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway at about 90 mph. Busch suffered a broken right leg and left foot and remains sidelined. Angry competitors lined up to praise the barrier and ask why it isn’t more widely used, with reigning Cup champion Kevin Harvick complaining he had hit the same area the year before: ‘’We know what fixes these walls,’’ he said.

Busch’s crash produced an apology from Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood III and NASCAR and assurances from DIS and other tracks that they would add SAFER barriers to unprotected areas. Since Busch’s wreck, several tracks have announced SAFER and-or tire barrier additions, and others have promised more SAFER barriers as they become available. The barriers cost about $500 per foot, and supply has not kept up with demand this year.

Now, NASCAR heads to Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s biggest, fastest track and one that is still in the process of adding barriers to some of its concrete walls after track president Grant Lynch told USA TODAY Sports after the Busch crash the facility would reevaluate its safety measures.

Sicking endorses drivers’ interest in spreading the technology to all applicable areas of speedways, but said he understands why the advances are happening slower than many would like.

“I think that in the long term they have to have most of each track covered,” Sicking said. “There are some sections of some tracks that won’t benefit from it, and those require tire barriers or something else. Obviously, you can’t bankrupt a track to demand SAFER barriers everywhere, but, by the same token, you can add some every year.

“I think they should give tracks a reasonable amount of time, but not forever. Tell them to analyze their tracks and figure out where SAFER barriers and other barriers should be and then get them up during a specified time frame.”

Jeff Gordon, who has had big crashes into walls protected and unprotected, said the barriers make a huge difference.

“It’s a top priority to really make the tracks even safer than they are today and do it in as timely a fashion as what’s possible from their suppliers,” Gordon said.

Sicking’s relocation from the University of Nebraska, where the SAFER technology was first researched, to the University of Alabama at Birmingham places him only 50 miles from Talladega.

Sicking, 57, also has close connections to another auto racing facility in the neighborhood. His research lab is 15 miles east of Birmingham’s city center at Barber Motorsports Park, one of the nation’s best road courses and host to an annual IndyCar Series race.

Sicking’s calling card through decades of research is based on this axiom: lessen the power of impact and lessen the chance of serious injury.

That has certainly happened in auto racing, where the SAFER barrier proved its worth quickly in its first installation at Indianapolis.

“The IndyCar people wanted to make the barrier out of plastic because plastic is soft and steel is hard,” Sicking said. “We tried to convince them that plastic allows the vehicles to gouge into it, and it wraps around the front of the car, both of which are bad news. But they said they wanted us to prove that plastic won’t work, so we tried to make it work.

“After beating our heads against the wall for about two years, we told them the steel worked much better. So we got the go-ahead to work on the steel and foam barrier in August 2001. The first one was installed at Indy in March 2002.”

Driver Robby McGehee hit one of the IMS barriers in practice for the Indianapolis 500 later that spring and left the scene with only a foot injury.

The Indy barriers were hit several times during the 2002 Indy 500 with positive results in each case. Sicking, who missed the debut of his invention because he was attending his daughter’s dance performance, got those updates via telephone.

Kurt Busch became the first NASCAR driver to hit a SAFER barrier, slamming into Indy’s third-turn wall during the 2002 Brickyard 400 after contact with Jimmy Spencer. He was uninjured.

Sicking had begun research on the SAFER barrier concept in 1998 at the request of IMS and then-IndyCar executive Tony George. NASCAR, after the on-track deaths of drivers Tony Roper, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr. within a six-month span in 2000, signed on that year, sharing the research costs with IndyCar.

A year later, NASCAR lost its biggest star when Earnhardt Sr.’s car slammed into the Turn 4 outside wall at Daytona. He suffered a basilar skull fracture.

The Earnhardt accident delayed the project, Sicking said. As a leading expert on car-crash impact, Sicking was called in for the official reconstruction of the crash and was involved in writing the report analyzing the accident. That investigation put Sicking and other investigators inside the crumpled, blood-stained No. 3 Chevrolet.

“We learned a lot through the work on the plastic barrier that helped us get to the steel stage faster, but if we had had the blessing to go forward with steel right away, there’s a reasonable chance it would have been up at Daytona when Earnhardt was killed,” Sicking said. “I can’t say that it would have prevented it, but it surely wouldn’t have made it worse.”

Once a lead player in the attempts of NASCAR and the IndyCar Series to improve, Sicking no longer is formally involved in auto racing circles. He is working on the development of safer boards for hockey arenas and a football helmet designed to significantly reduce the number of concussions suffered by players.

Sicking also is in discussions with 1998 Olympic Super-G gold medalist Picabo Street about the possible development of an improved helmet for skiing. He has a long-range goal of making UAB a national headquarters for research on sports safety and design of products geared toward reducing impact-related injuries.

But Sicking, also a national leader in developing barriers designed to improve highway safety, retains an interest in motorsports, an area of emphasis that played a big role in President George W. Bush presenting him with the National Medal of Science and Technology in 2007 for his research and development efforts.

He continues work on a football helmet design, scheduled for introduction this fall, that he and the engineering school at UAB have developed.

Meanwhile, Sicking’s hope is that he can do for football players what he has done for drivers — save them from life-threatening or life-changing injuries.