Are Changes Needed At WGI? Some Drivers Say Yes
Who would have ever thought a Sprint Cup event on a road course could have a wild finish featuring cars crashing hard and flipping and spinning in the air?
Welcome to Watkins Glen International, a track where races are beginning to resemble demolition derbies instead of traditional left and right contests amid the green grass and rolling hills of the New York countryside - at least its been that way the past two seasons.
Road course greats, such as race winner Marcos Ambrose, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, to name a few, have routinely made their marks on the seven-turn, 2.4-mile track. But for the second consecutive year, the Sprint Cup event at WGI ended with an incredibly frightening crash at the end - preceded by others - and tempers flaring among a few of the competitors.
Are road course events usually calm? For the most part they were at WGI for many years.
Sprint Cup events on road courses have always had a distinct following since being added to the regular NASCAR schedule in early 1960s.
Fans either appreciate the road courses or tolerate them. After all, they aren’t the traditional ovals that dominate the schedule.
To be completely fair, officials at WGI have made many improvements over the years. The track does feature the SAFER barrier in areas like the inner loop chicane and Turn Seven.
The guardrail near Turn Seven in the big carousel turn was redesigned at an expense of over a $1 million to upgrade fencing, barriers, and runoff areas in the wake of Jeff Gordon’s accident two years ago that mimicked today’s scary last-lap crash that involved Jeff Burton and Sam Hornish Jr.
Track spokesperson Ryan Lake said WGI would meet with NASCAR to see if any safety recommendations would be suggested and if so, further changes would be made.
Brake issues contributed to Kurt Busch spinning early in the race and looping again and crashing in turn five on lap 50, enough to end a rather frustrating day.
Seventeen laps later, Denny Hamlin found himself in what he called the scariest position he’s ever experienced in a race car. His Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota also suffered brake problems and slammed hard into the tire barrier in Turn One. It moved the steel retaining wall as well as the concrete pillar supporting it.
Hamlin was thankful for the safety built into his cars as well as those that carry fellow racers.
“Something blew out in the left front and when it did it must have cut a brake line, so I had no
brakes,” Hamlin said. “I was trying to do everything I could to weave or anything I could to get speed out of the car, but there’s just nothing you can do. The front tires locked up and you can’t steer.
“It’s a shame. Our Toyota was really good all day. We were going to be right there about fourth or fifth in line on this restart, but it wasn’t meant to be today.”
So how hard was the hit?
“The only thing really maybe harder was the Talladega one I had when I had the concussion a couple years ago,” Hamlin said. “That was about the worst. This was just terrifying because you know there’s nothing you can do and you’re headed straight for the fence. That was the most scared I’ve been in my car.”
What happened to Hamlin seemed a bit tame compared to the bizarre last-lap crash involving David Ragan, Boris Said and David Reutimann. Said made contact with Ragan, who careened into a wall betweens Turns One and Two in an ugly crash that totally destroyed his Roush-Fenway Ford.
Reutimann was clipped by Ragan and sent hard into an inside wall and then flipped wildly back onto the track.
“It’s just a product of close quarters racing at the end,” Ragan said. “I felt like I had Boris cleared and I think he got a little better run that we did and he just hooked us. He certainly could have given us a little more of a break and we all could have gotten through there and not torn up anything. But he was aggressive and we were all aggressive. He hooked me and I hit hard.
“I'm OK, I’m sore. That was a hard hit. I looked down at my feet and my pedals and my leg rests were all pushed over.
“It’s a shame that a race track we go to in 2011 doesn't have a better wall design all the way around the race track, so hopefully they’ll look at that. I’ve been to some dirt tracks that have better walls than that. It was a hard hit, but our cars are safe. Thanks to everyone back at home that builds us safe race cars.”
As for Reutimann, he, too, was OK after his horrendous crash, other than a slight injury to his leg from a piece of debris that left his uniform torn.
“This is one of the bigger hits, I would say, but it’s part of the gig,” Reutimann said in a matter-of-fact tone. “You sign up to do this stuff and every once and a while you’re going to hit something. As fast as we’re going, you hit stuff pretty hard. I’m good and will be ready for Michigan next week.
“I’m thinking where I hit would probably be a good place for SAFER barriers. So, maybe we should look at that next time we come back. Overall, I’m OK and ready to get out of here.”
Ambrose, an ace on road courses who has come so close to winning in Sprint Cup competition, finally got his first career victory. He grew up on road courses in Australia and doesn’t have a problem with WGI’s present configuration.
"I don't drive around this place looking at any one spot saying, ‘Ooh, that looks nasty to me.’ I think they’ve done great with what they’ve got,” he said. “If you don’t have a guardrail off Turn Two, you end up going down a bank, so that’s not good, either. So I think the track itself is fine.
“I think we just have to keep working on safety. All the drivers walked away. I’ve got no complaints about this place. I think it’s a safe race track. We’re just driving these cars flat out, and it creates problems.
“I think the track is a classic road-racing circuit. You don’t want to make it too sterile. You’ve got to have bumps and lumps and change of camber and roughness and all that kind of stuff that makes it what it is.”
The immediate reaction to today’s crashes prompts one to think more SAFER barriers should be added at WGI. I agree, especially in the area between Turns One and Two where Ragan and Reutimann crashed so violently.
Some drivers have said the track should also be refigured a bit to allow drivers a place to go should they bounce off the SAFER barrier with such force.
NASCAR officials are constantly looking for ways to make their race events as safe as possible for competitors as well as fans who attend their races. Unfortunately, change, at times, comes after breathtaking crashes occur.
At least at WGI no one was seriously injured.