NASCAR tracks play it safe for fans

Thousands of fans walk through racetracks every week, taking for granted that the walkways will be clean and free of hazards -- and that the race cars will remain on the other side of the catchfence.

Track operators spend months preparing for each race, studying the fencing and walls to make sure they are in good condition, studying pavement and walkways and campgrounds to make sure they are free of potential hazards. Long before the first ticket to a race is sold, the study of safety at each facility has begun.

Then on the rare occasion when something does happen tracks and officials immediately go to work to make sure that a similar incident won't be repeated. Or that if it is, the result will be similar but improved, such as when Carl Edwards' car went into the catchfence last year at Talladega. The fence bent, held and returned his car to the track. Some small parts went into the stands, but only a handful of fans suffered minor injury.

Safety is a moving target in any high-speed sport. The cars go faster, the drivers use more of the track, the number of fans increases. What worked 10 years ago just might not be the right solution anymore -- and those involved in protecting the competitors and spectators at NASCAR events know that.

The tragic death of a fan at an NHRA event this past weekend has once more cast a spotlight on safety at racing events. In that glare, it is clear just how much work NASCAR tracks put into maintaining their own level and high standards -- all year.

It's why NASCAR began requiring head and neck safety restraints and introduced SAFER barriers. It's why tires and hoods are tethered to cars now. It's why drivers can flip and roll and slide across tracks and emerge unscathed -- and why, as a general rule, the parts stay inside the track and out of harms way.

While some have questioned NASCAR's due process in the past, it's clear that research and development have netted a more solid and safe product. From the car itself to the track standards, stock car racing is keeping pace with the technological changes that test the safety barriers in place.

"You look at a wide range and variety of things to try to prevent things from happening," Talladega Superspeedway President Rick Humphrey says of maintaining safety year to year. "It's not just in the grandstands, not just on the racetrack. From our standpoint, we've got thousands of acres here that we have to maintain and keep safe as well. You try to look at it and go over different things and then sometimes you have to react to things that happen as well."

That's obvious in how few incidents occur at tracks and in the day-to-day safety enhancements that go virtually unnoticed simply because they do their job and do it well. Reaction, when it is needed, is carefully researched as well. For example, after study the fence at Talladega and sister restrictor-plate track Daytona International Speedway was raised.

Talladega, like other tracks, watches that fencing and the wall closely and inspects it prior to any race. That's more than a mile of fencing on the frontstretch alone, enough to wrap around a smaller track where drivers race. Then there are the additional acres of property and campgrounds to maintain as well as the actual grandstands themselves.

It is not just the actual racing that draws scrutiny from operators when it comes to safety. Every aspect of every facility is studied and considered. New technology, such as fan texting programs to reach track workers quickly, has come into play in recent years.

NASCAR has a lengthy record in terms of spectator safety for a good reason. The sanctioning body and all of its track operators work diligently. They study other racing series and incidents, trying to learn from those as well as the accidents in their own arena.

And then they make the call on potential changes.

Tracks are changed whenever something is found that can make them safer, regardless of whether there is a history of trouble in that area or not.

"Fan and competitor safety is of the utmost importance," veteran Humphrey says. "It's important to react quickly, but it's also important to react appropriately."

While any incidents gain headlines, it is the seemingly small day-to-day activities at each NASCAR track that have cemented the strong overall safety record in the sport during recent years.

From the obvious on-track changes to the more mundane issues, tracks face a plethora of potential pitfalls on any given race weekend. Months of planning and preparation go into making each race as safe as possible.

Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, is preparing to host a race weekend March 7. One might think his staff would be frantically going over details and double-checking things at the last minute. Instead, it's a year-long process of preparation for track operators.

Clark says there's a typical ritual of checking fences and the track. There's also, though, attention to new ideas and changes that could benefit the overall experience for everyone involved.

"There's always something, there's always a new challenge every race," he says. "It keeps us fresh and when these new things they come up with come along, you put them on your list and ... it just becomes second nature to do them next time and kind of continue that along."

Clark has supervisors that are responsible for checking specific areas of the track, from grandstand sections to the infield.

Perhaps the most important thing that he's learned over the years is that all one can do is be prepared and have a staff capable of handling any situation -- because there's always going to be something unique that comes up.

"You want to make it as safe for the competitors as possible, but also for the spectators and anyone else attending our events," he says, pointing out the importance of being proactive. "I think we've got a pretty good track record ... There's not a race that goes by that we won't have some kind of issue that we have to address with fans. ... But we have the people in place to do it and when those issues come up, you just take care of them. "

Clark and his group, like other tracks, work closely with local officials to coordinate various safety aspects. They are prepared for any kind of crisis that might crop up, but have also done everything possible to eliminate the possibility of any problems. They have a response program in place and meet with local emergency officials in advance to be prepared for any issue that might arise on a race weekend.

Any time a new issue arises, tracks address it. That's the case of Watkins Glen, a track where drivers have found increasing speed and therefore widened some of the sections where they have traditionally raced in single lines. The facility has to work with numerous sanctioning bodies, but orchestrated a series of improvements this season that will include paving portions that were previously all sand and gravel traps and adding SAFER barriers in new places.

That will serve a double advantage -- it ends any potential safety issues in those areas before they even become an issue and makes the racing more competitive.

So for competitors and spectators, it's a win-win situation.

And that's the goal for everyone -- to make the racing experience so safe that no one even thinks about all the enhancements and hours that have gone into making it that way.

Watkins Glen President Michael Printup summed up the issue succinctly in making the announcement of improvements at the track earlier this year.

"From a fan side we increase competition and make it safer at the same time and we make it a better race experience," he said.