WATKINS GLEN – The powder-blue Armco steel rails that line Watkins Glen International, and have for half a century, were called into question during Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.
A violent crash triggered on the exit of Turn 5 and ending where the short course and "the boot" meet sent Ryan Newman's race car careening back into traffic, which in turn sent Michael McDowell's car flying into the catch fence. The resulting red flag lasted more than 90 minutes to repair all the damage.
Most vocal was Newman, who was also critical of The Glen's safety measures several years ago following a practice crash.
"It's just a very antiquated racetrack and the safety is not at all up to NASCAR's standards and it's a shame that we have to have accidents like that to prove it," Newman told reporters after walking out of the Ernie Thurston Medical Center. "Hopefully something will change the next time we come back."
Dale Jarrett went so far to suggest WGI use money from the recently negotiated TV contracts for 2015 to make changes.
Others were a little less knee-jerk in their reaction to the crash, and The Glen's iconic blue rails.
"Unfortunately, I’ve been part of incidents over there by the carousel and it’s a very fast portion of the racetrack and when things happen, cars seem to get knocked back out into the track," said Jeff Gordon, a four-time winner here. "The Armco barrier, I think, did its job. It tore the car up, but it softened the impact and prevented the car from going through there.
"So you don’t want a concrete wall – you want a SAFER barrier – but that’s tough to do on a track like this, a multi-purpose track."
Prior to NASCAR's safety revolution, Jimmie Johnson was involved in a well-publicized crash in a 2000 Busch Series crash. He went through a foam block and into the rail at more than 120 mph and escaped unharmed. The rails were lauded by drivers and the press then, but the introduction of the SAFER barrier made people question The Glen's guard rails, which seem out of date.
In 2010, the brakes failed on Denny Hamlin's car and sent his car into the Turn 1 rail and tire barrier at more than 140 mph. The rail posts - sunk eight feet into the ground and placed every three feet - moved four feet backwards. That incident was enough for NASCAR to approve the rails going forward with placement changes at points around the 2.45-mile short course.
"If that was SAFER barrier, it's not going to give – its only going to give 18 inches, the 10 inches of crush zone of the steel tube, 18 inches and then cement wall," said WGI president Michael Printup - who has had to address this same issue on at least two other occasions after a nasty NASCAR crash. "We reevaluated that wreck with Denny and this rail does give, and that's what you're trying to do - to reduce the G-forces and spread out the impact of that crash."
Printup certainly isn't the first track president to have to comment on the rails, Craig Rust did so a couple times - one spurred by comments from Newman, who holds a engineering degree.
"We've had this going back to 2000 when Jimmie Johnson hit. We'll sit down with NASCAR and have a review session to see if they suggest anything for us to do to make it better," Printup said. "It's difficult from our point of view to categorize or look at each event. But, we can't play out every scenario - that was a tag from behind, they went off the track and came back on the track and it started a chain reaction."
Kevin Harvick summed it up saying, "It's changed a lot through the years. They have spent a lot of money on sand traps and moving walls back, so there's been a lot of changes after we had the wreck on Turn 1. So obviously drivers want the safest barriers possible out there, but what that is in this particular instance, I don't know. I know we've seen Jimmie Johnson pile in head first all the way to the barriers and get out of his car and walk away.
"You always want to see them evolve, but I don't really know the exact circumstances. I know I'd rather hit that Armco over there than a solid concrete wall."