Brad Keselowski doesn’t flinch at the idea of driving 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour) at the most treacherous racetracks, even if it comes with the likelihood of a multi-car crash.
But the 2012 NASCAR champion’s attitude changes dramatically when he thinks of road courses.
“It’s funny because a lot of times we end up talking about Daytona and Talladega, and they don’t ever worry me as much as road courses do, I can promise you that,” he said. “Road courses remain the most dangerous tracks in motor sports for a good reason because of that, but we know that going in.”
“The answer I do have is that there’s only so many of those hits you’re going to take before someone gets killed. It’s just the way it is. I know that,” he added.
Keselowski has a good reason to be wary of the tracks that require turning both left and right. Two of the hardest crashes in his career came during test sessions at two different road courses.
He destroyed his Penske Ford on July 26 while testing at Watkins Glen International ahead of Monday’s Cheez-It 355. His brakes failed. He slid through a turn, and he slammed head-on into a tire barrier.
Although his car caught fire and the front end was pushed into the dashboard, Keselowski wasn’t injured.
“In general, I’m not comfortable with tracks that have run-offs that lead to very harsh angles, and that’s certainly the situation that that track has, and always has had it,” Keselowski said.
He wasn’t as lucky when he crashed while testing at Road Atlanta in 2011. Keselowski slid through a corner and into a tire barrier. He was airlifted to a local hospital with a broken ankle.
“At the end of the day, I am still standing here,” Keselowski said. “Odds are that if 100 people take that hit, one or two are not going to be standing here anymore.”
No protective barriers
While crashes at road courses aren’t as common as massive pileups at Daytona and Talladega, accidents at the twisting layouts often are vicious because high-impact areas generally aren’t protected with Steel and Foam Energy Reduction barriers.
“I understand there are some limitations there because a lot of these road courses run different series and so forth, and they don’t want to get into a situation where a minor spin damages some rich guy’s $300,000 car,” Keselowski said. “So there are some trade-offs there, I understand, but that’s just part of it.”
One of the worst crashes at Watkins Glen came in 1991 when JD McDuffie had a mechanical failure and slammed head-on into a tire barrier. The impact at 170 mph (272 kph) was so severe, his car became airborne and rotated before landing upside down.
He died instantly.
The track reacted by adding a chicane leading into the turn to keep cars from being at full speed in the turn. Watkins Glen also added a large gravel trap between the track and the wall to scrub speed.
In 2009, Sam Hornish was knocked into a steel wall coming to the opening of pit road. His car veered across the track and slammed into cars driven by Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. Hornish’s car spun like a top. Gordon hit head-first into a steel wall. All three were shaken, but everyone survived without any serious injuries.
“I think there is no doubt that on a road course it’s hard to create the best ways to absorb impacts of these angles and things, especially when you have a track that has a set of corners that we don’t use, so we are shortening up the circuit,” Gordon said.
David Reutimann and David Ragan crashed hard on the final lap at Watkins Glen in 2011. Ragan was forced off the track and into a concrete wall. His car came back on the track and struck Reutimann. The collision sent Reutimann on his roof and into a steel barrier. Both miraculously walked away without serious injury.
“To some point we’ve signed up for a certain level of risk, and that’s right on the edge of what’s acceptable risk,” Keselowski said. “I think every driver has their own line, and if you’re looking at it from that perspective, I think every driver is saying that that’s the acceptable risk they’ve signed up for, and it falls within those parameters.”
Improvements with head and neck support collars, driver seats and steering wheels that absorb energy have reduced the risk of injuries and death. But the likelihood of a hard impact remains the same.
“We’ve seen some terrible wrecks there,” Matt Kenseth said. “There’s just a lot of weird angles there, and you’re going really, really fast for a road course at that place. So, yeah, if you had to rate them, it is certainly one of the more dangerous tracks that you go to just because you’re not contained like you are at an oval.”
Which gets everyone’s attention.