Nicole Wakelin reported a story on a death at the Exotic Driving Experience at Walt Disney Speedway on Sunday. It brings attention to the barriers at American racing venues, and how some entities are trying to standardize how they’re built.
The accident that killed 36-year-old driving instructor Gary Terry is currently under investigation by the Florida Highway Patrol. The cause of death hasn’t been released, but several photos of the incident suggest that the Lamborghini Gallardo crashed into the blunt end of a steel guardrail that lead into short turnoff of the racing facility.
— News Mayotte (@NewsMayotte) April 12, 2015
A Closer Look at Walt Disney Speedway
According to the information at ExoticDriving.com, the website for Petty Holdings LLC, which operates the Exotic Driving Experience, “[the] Exotics Course at Walt Disney World Speedway is a hybrid design which utilizes the tri-oval’s backstretch and turn two, before taking drivers into a newly designed interior section which includes a series of fast right and left hand turns inside of street-course style barriers.” The map above shows the layout for the Exotic Driving Experience.
Interestingly, as of 9:00 EST this morning, the Exotic Driving Experience portion of ExoticDriving.com was still up and running. It’s where we got the map at the top of this article. As of 10:23, the clicking the brings you to a Page Not Found message, and the Walt Disney Speedway location is no longer on the map of locations on the website.
There hasn’t been any official word as to where the accident took place, but using a photo from the AP and an overhead view of the track from the blog Walt Disney World News Today, you can get a good idea of exactly where it happened.
The photo showing the accident scene shows that the car struck the end of a steel barrier at a short spur off the race track.
Using the overhead photo, you can see that there are only two spurs off the track that have a visible multilane roadway in the background: One is immediately after the right and left-hand esses at the Exotic Driving Experience, and the other is after Turn Two, where drivers are accelerating to the highest speed they can attain on the course.
Given the location of the culverts on either side of the spur, which you can see in the photo of the crash site, it appears that the accident took place on the high speed section of the course.
The Future of Steel Barriers
Steel barriers keep race cars and passenger cars from flying off into the woods — or worse — after a crash.
Steel barriers have become more or less ubiquitous on American highways. They’re made up of several components, including — in this illustration from Wikipedia — (S) the guardrail itself, (D) the distance piece or spacer that holds the guardrail away from (P) the sigma post. The only piece not shown in the illustration is the “End Terminal,” which we’ll get to in a minute.
That’s what 2014’s second best NASCAR driver Ryan Newman spectacularly crashed into last summer at Watkins Glen. While he exited The Glen’s Carousel Corner, he lost control of his car and plowed into the steel guardrail, which ricocheted the car out into the path of Michael McDowell’s car, sending him crashing into the steel guardrail on the other side of the track.
Both drivers walked away from the crash, but Newman was highly critical of the safety equipment at Watkins Glen, suggesting that the track was far behind the times.
“The barriers, the SAFER barrier, that doesn’t exist here,” said Newman. “The Armco walls, there’s no concrete walls. It’s just a very antiquated race track and the safety is not at all at NASCAR standards. It’s a shame we have to have accidents like that to prove it.”
The SAFER barrier that Newman is referring to is an acronym for a “Steel and Foam Energy Reduction” barrier that has been arriving at race tracks around the country since 2002. Research has shown with the SAFER barrier, G-force energy on impact can be reduced by 50%.
The SAFER barrier uses steel bars held out from a concrete wall with collapsible foam blocks that extend the length of the crash, absorbing crash energy and redirecting the car down the track, rather than slingshotting it out into traffic.
But SAFER barriers don’t address the quandary of the “end terminal,” the part of the barrier that it appears 24-year-old TaVon Watson crashed into while driving the Lamborghini Gallardo at the Exotic Driving Experience.
As the name suggests, the end terminal is the place where the guardrail ends, and they’ve been a huge challenge since race tracks started looking for something other than hay bales and tire walls to keep race cars within the confines of the track.
There are several ways to terminate a guardrail. The old way used to be by just burying it in the ground in what’s called a “roll-over end section.”
That’s all well and good if the section is somewhere that cars aren’t likely to hit it, but if you hit that section at any kind of speed, it would act like a ramp and you’d be Bo-and-Luke-Dukin’ it in a heartbeat.
The “Slotted Rail Terminal” is a different design with — you guessed it — horizontal slots in the rails that help the barrier to bend bend out of the way when a car crashes into it.
Last summer brought news of issues with a new guardrail end design from Texas-based Trinity Industries called the ET-Plus, that featured a metal plate at the end. “Despite intending to be safer, there have now been reports that this metal plate has caused vehicle occupants to become impaled,” wrote Nicole Wakelin for BestRide in October of 2014.
The ET-Plus terminal is supposed to move along the guardrail with the vehicle, with a feed mechanism that actually shoots the metal guardrail in the opposite direction, like a ribbon. The problem was that the guardrail wasn’t moving through the feeder channel, turning the end of the guardrail into a spear that was causing more harm than good.
So if guardrail end terminals are such a challenge on American highways, what are they doing at the highest speed section of a race track?
The solution that racer John Fitch developed for end terminals may still be the one that most race tracks should be using. Instead of mechanical devices within the guardrails, the Fitch Barrier is an impact attenuator that uses large barrels full of increasing volumes of sand as the barriers get closer to the end terminals.
The barriers closest to the exiting car contain the least sand, and each successive barrel contains more. The barrels shatter, and kinetic energy is dissipated by scattering the sand. The vehicle decelerates smoothly, rather than violently, reducing the risk to occupants.
Striking an unprotected end of a steel barrier on a race track is often deadly. In June of 2012, a drag racer named Rich Moore was killed at Thompson Raceway Park in Thompson, Ohio when his eight-second Dodge Dart struck the end of a barrier. Moore’s car had the SFI-approved Spec. #25.5 funny car roll cage required for cars racing between 7.50 and 8.49 second quarter mile times, but as you can see, the steel barrier sliced the car and the cage open upon impact.
NOTE: The video here is disturbing, but doesn’t show anything other than a wrecked car.
It’s unclear what kind of end terminal was in use at Walt Disney Speedway.
What is clear, though is that the Richard Petty Driving Experience and the Exotic Driving Experience was slated to close this summer at Disney World, and the entire track was slated for demolition.
According to Walt Disney World News on February 12, 2015, “Walt Disney World announced yesterday that the Richard Petty Driving Experience and Exotic Driving Experience will be closing in late-June 2015 for ‘future transportation improvements.’ The Walt Disney World Speedway is expected to be demolished sometime after that.”
An excellent article on Opposite Lock at Jalopnik talks about the danger of the cars at Exotic Driving Experience driving the wrong way the course was designed.
(Image Source: Walt Disney World News, ExoticDriving.com, Wikipedia, RacingMadeSafer.com)