Pit road is no place for the faint of heart
By Mike Mulhern
Mark Martin's savage collision with the butt-end of a pit road wall opening in Sunday's Michigan 400 is a wake-up call for stock car racing safety experts to jump into action. And NASCAR officials say they are reviewing the incident.
The crash certainly has shaken up some NASCAR drivers. And Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman both have some suggestions for making pit road safer both for drivers and crews.
There is no similar pit road wall opening here at Bristol Motor Speedway, but there are at next week's tour stop, Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In fact the Atlanta track has another, more dangerous aspect than Michigan -- the lack of an outside pit road safety wall.
"I have had a fear for a long, long time about cars getting on pit road. Going back to when I wasn't even in the sport, and watching Steve Park crash at Atlanta -- I thought 'What if that was during qualifying, when everybody is standing out there....'"
Video of that Atlanta incident: http://bit.ly/PH3eSe
"I have always had a fear...and I hope we can find a way to incorporate a wall system at all the tracks," Johnson says.
"The question is where does the wall start? Because somewhere there's going to be a blunt end.
"But I do think we can find ways to surround that blunt end (of the concrete pit wall). And over-do it, with barrels, tires, whatever, to protect pit road a little more."
It is not only drivers who might hit that blunt end and get injured but a careening car could hit a pit crew working on a car and blindside them. Kasey Kahne said one of his crewmen at Michigan actually got hit in the Martin incident, though not seriously injured.
"I mean if Kasey's guys had been there working on the car...." Johnson said.
"I understand the functionality of the openings on pit road; but I guess you could close them up and at the (far) end of pit road, near turn one, that could be the way you go back to the garage.
"So there could be a remedy for Mark's particular incident."
A quick and easy fix, if not aesthetic, would be to insert Jersey Barriers in the pit wall openings for the race itself.
The video of Martin's crash at Michigan: http://bit.ly/O9FqGZ
"I've been thinking about this, and if you could have a 'flare' there (a flared-out wall extension), then if Mark came through there the way he did, the flare would send him back out to the other wall," Newman said. Newman is an engineer as well as driver.
"Just put a cheese-wedge of wall there, so when someone is coming through there at that speed, it shoves them back out.
"You could put up sand-barrels (at the butt-end), but all that would do (if someone hit them) would be to blow sand all over everybody's pit box.
"A flared wall would help.
"And you see a little of that at places like Darlington. So it's something we've dealt with, and there are no issues.
"That would be the fix, in my mind."
The dangerous end of pit road (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Maybe an outside pit wall too.
The threat of race cars careening off the frontstretch and down toward pit road is nothing new.
Much of the time the cars lose speed as they travel across the infield grass.
Still out-of-control cars do reach pit road, where pit crews working on jacked up cars have only safety helmets for protection.
Pit road is dangerous, no doubt about that. Check this video http://bit.ly/OcFPqt before you sign up for over-the-wall duty.
Obviously Martin could have been seriously injured when the butt-end of that pit wall sliced into his car. That, though, is just part of the issue here.
Maybe it is time for drivers and crews to insist on more, and to push NASCAR officials and track bosses to improve pit road safety.
The simplest, most obvious solution would be for each track to add a concrete wall protecting pit road.
Many tracks already have such protection. California, Dover, Martinsville, Phoenix, Darlington, Richmond, Bristol, Pocono, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Homestead-Miami, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Daytona has long been weak on pit road safety, considering the speeds involved and the pack racing. For one thing, Daytona's pit road is much too much to the race track itself, particularly the section near the first turn.
Atlanta has a particularly dangerous section of unprotected pit road, the fourth turn end.
Talladega, Charlotte, Texas, Las Vegas, Kentucky, Chicagoland, Kansas.
Juan Pablo Montoya skidding down Michigan pit road, in an incident similar to Mark Martin's (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)