June 10, 2014

Do we need a safety rating system for tracks?

You spend a lot of money on a helmet, a HANS device, proper harnesses, a well built roll cage and an FIA homologated racing seat.   You discussed with your friends and other racers, you scoured  the internet for the latest information in the quest for safety.

But how much do you know about the safety of the surface you will be driving on?

Photo:Jefferson County Sheriff's Office
This past week end there was another accident which took the life of a driving instructor.   It happened during what is supposed to be a low risk, low speed novice event at Summit Point's Jefferson Circuit.

The picture tells the story, it does not take all that much speed for a tree to do that to a street car, which is why trees have absolutely no business sitting unprotected on the side of any racing surface. (at least one that is not rallying, which is why a real rally car is built from the cage out).

Summit Point is a complex of tracks in rural West Virginia.  The main track is a favorite or club racers, it has very nice layout but the safety standards are mostly of 1950s vintage.  There are substandard tire walls,  no fences around the track allowing for four legged chicanes to suddenly appear and there are actually berms lining the sides of the track.

Hit one and the predictable outcome is either a launch into the trees or this:

People have complained about this track for years but they keep going back,  mostly because alternatives are few.  I'm sure this is a situation repeated around the world.

Online discussion about this latest incident predictably broke up into two camps: the "motorsport has to be dangerous and drivers know what they are getting into"  group and the opposing camp.

The contention of the first group is that people should know the risks and make decisions based on that.  But, let's get real, nobody checks track safety, certainly not the guy who signs up for his first ever discount track day after watching countless internet videos of professionals sliding supercars with impunity.   Fact of the matter is, even if one wanted to,  there is no rating system for tracks, a standard by which a track can be rated and available for drivers to base their decisions on.

Serious injury to your person or your car for free track time or for setting the fastest lap in a Track Day session might not be what you had in mind in your value/safety calculations.  Given the choice, I would much rather be on a racing surface that allows you to make mistakes and get away with maybe just some flat spots and a red face.

A rating system would likely not be popular with track owners, safety is expensive and people's eagerness to close their eyes to glaring problems in order to get track time means they can get away with it.

Please discuss, I think ultimately it will come down to drivers voting with their money and a public shaming of track owners who don't want to invest in the safety of their customer base.


  1. Sorry I don't buy it. Anyone with an IQ over 10 would know the safety of the track in question is non-existent. Yet people show up and race anyhow. So you assign the track safety rating a 0 because there aren't any safety features and the track is narrow. Do you think anyone stops showing up for track days because of it? I don't. The issue at hand is the potential lawsuit the track should face over the lack of safety from the family of the crash victim. Frivolous lawsuits suck. This one would probably have a serious basis when you consider anything stopping cars from reaching the trees would be a significant upgrade... a gravel trap, a fence, anything.

  2. One dude on Los Jalops recommended something like the ski slope rating system, which makes perfect sense to me. Everyone understands it already. http://jalopnik.com/absolutely-i-see-no-reason-why-tracks-cant-institute-1588714035

  3. Absolutely, I couldn't agree more. What's even worse is the hush-hush attitude most have to track accidents. If you don't know how many there have been, how serious they were, and how severe weather conditions affect them, how can you truly be capable of measuring the risk? Calculating risk is a major part of amateur lapping/racing. There's no money, no fame, no career at the end of the tunnel. Not all of us take that into account, but a good portion of us do. And one of the biggest challenges when talking about safety is our inability to imagine both the completely unexpected happening, and the weight/forces at play during the fractions of a second of a major impact. You just can't imagine it sitting in your stationary car, and nothing reacts the same as in a low-speed collision or quick stop. It's always been a huge source of disappointment for me that so much time is spent on "driver development" but no one spends time teaching us how to safely crash, what the goal is when the collision is imminent, where to aim at (if possible) when all's lost. The best I've seen so far is Safe Is Fast with Bobby Rahal which is the most amount of info in one place.

  4. Absolutely we need a safety rating for tracks. That would at least be a start. An instructor was impaled last year at Summit Point main on a section of wooden fence posts. He survived but barely and his life is forever changed. I love driving Summit, but after 2 avoidable catastrophes within a year I don't think I'll be instructing there any more.

  5. There are ratings systems of sort for tracks. The insurance companies sign off on what is there. Also, there is an FIA rating for tracks. I'm not saying they are good or bad, but systems do exist Check out http://argent.fia.com/web/fia-public.nsf/0311B5A442CB0EB6C12577FC004CD946/$FILE/D%C3%A9cembre%202010_Annexe%20O%202010_Modifications%20en%20cours%20d'ann%C3%A9e%202010%20en%20rouge%20.pdf. There is also a list of tracks and what their FIA rating (if any) out there.

  6. There is actually a track rating system of sorts - the FIA grades circuits but the US being the US, not everyone even applies for an FIA rating. The most recent list is from 2011 (which doesn't include VIR now being Grade 2 after adding new curbs and renovating): http://www.mediafire.com/view/np2nmsc93m3e39y/CIRCUITOS_LICENCIADOS_FIA_2011.pdf

    and the rules are here: http://argent.fia.com/web/fia-public.nsf/0311B5A442CB0EB6C12577FC004CD946/$FILE/D%C3%A9cembre%202010_Annexe%20O%202010_Modifications%20en%20cours%20d'ann%C3%A9e%202010%20en%20rouge%20.pdf

  7. I've instructed at Summit Point for years on the main circuit as well as Shenandoah. I've never turned a wheel on Jefferson in either it's original or the recently lengthened layout.

    Summit main is neither great nor awful. I compete w/ SCCA there in a P2 sports racer which is generally at or near low lap time of an event - 1'13"s or thereabouts. That's carrying higher corner speeds than pretty much everyone w/ the attendant risk that the barriers would be needed if something bad happens. I've taken a close look at what's where, and most of it could be a lot better. When motorcycles race there they bring their own airfence to set up.

    Speaking specifically to the activities that were taking place on Jefferson at the time of the accident; I'll go on record as saying that the "Hyperdrive" model is not a good idea. I don't agree with the notion that it's possible to get a first timer up to speed safely in one session. Learning a line, braking points, references for turn-in, apex and track out in 15 minutes is a challenge for an talented racer let alone a newb who's not yet comfortable with the speed and has never come close to threshold braking or using all the grip on the street. Assume they know nothing about weight transfer and couldn't draw and explain the friction circle at gunpoint.

    Now, put that first timer (in their 400hp car on what appear to be regular all-season tires and most likely stock brake pads and unknown fluid) on track after a day of watching road racing and drift competition. Perhaps his friends are watching. Perhaps they're on track at the same time.

    This isn't a recipe for success. Sure, the accident was a worst possible case result, but the failure chain - and like plane crashes, track accidents generally have an initial cause that's well before the dust settles - started well before the tree.

    Had there been a grass berm or some Armco or concrete and tires we'd not be discussing this. In the video above of the car that rolls exiting Summit T1-2 - that's the driver's fault in my view. Practically anyone who's been to Summit has had a moment driving across "Lake T2" it's always there. When it looped, had he gone both feet in it would just be a spin. I did it there 3 times in one very wet club race on ancient rains - it's possible.

    But people who haven't learned yet make mistakes, and it needs to be assumed that if you let inexperienced people on your track - even with the best instruction - they'll find a way to hit everything.

  8. Couple of things....history; if you ever get a chance watch the F1 documentary, it shows how drivers can and will change things in the interest of safety, with Senna being the last F1 victim in 1994, it shows how far we've come regarding driver/spectator/worker/track safety.

    So if we consider all the steps taken to adjust track safety to match modern cars - it should be a no-bainer; no sane racing institution or hosting entity should consider running an event if it doesn't meet defined safety standards.

    OK, using the so called pinnacle of motorsport as an example might be a bit of a stretch, but here is how I see it - driving physics always apply, be it an F1 car or a Geo Metro on steroids or any non modded street car - the unmovable object always wins.
    And not to be taken out of context, we are talking about closed road circuits, not hill-climb, rally or any other challenges along these lines.

    I've been to Summit Point only a few times to coach and prepare up and coming racing drivers and to be honest, this circuit felt like the Nürburgring in the 80s. While the safety crews and medics are top notch, I still couldn't convince myself to go close to competition speeds because some out of date or missing safety features, and to top it, the wildlife obviously never got the notice and causes additional concerns. To me, that's enough reason to skip HPDEs or races at the Point.

    And as an instructor for 20plus years and additional 20yrs in Rally racing, the message I try to relay in classroom session is always the same - everyone who drives on a race track put their life intentionally in danger, if things go wrong then there is no reset button, period.
    Having said all that while browsing through some of the Internet forums to see where other people stand on this, it becomes the cold and hard truth that circuits like this are simply not up to par with today's modern, high powered cars.

    Someone called it a fluke or accident and I disagree; there are no accidents, everything that happens has its cause; and when driving physics and inexperience come together in a worst case scenario then even the very best of driving instructors, the car's supporting technologies or personal safety gear wont save the day if the environmental safety does not support the effort.

    If FIA scrutineers all over the planet apply well engineered safety standards to road circuits in order to keep EVERYONE safe, then the same attitude needs to be applied for our lower competition run groups and HPDEs; and the only way to enforce it is by not attending any event on a track where you feel unsafe.

    Could this uncontrolled spin out have been avoided....probably only with more experience and training, but an instructor loses his life because of no safety barrier - absolutely not acceptable!!

    Your personal safety gear could be of the top shelf but one lousy tree will render it useless.......take it from an old Rally fart who hugged unwillingly a few trees in the past, and walked away in one piece just because of plain luck.

    Implement, control and upgrade if necessary higher safety standards for race tracks to meet today's speeds and technologies, educate the people who are driving/instructing.....and if it doesn't look or feel right - walk away.

    The instructor paid the highest price - how many more does it take before people finally wake up and take a closer look at the environment in which they are racing or driving / instructing......

  9. The driver in the featured video actually tried to hang his steering wheel from a hook on the cage, while the car was on its roof. LOL, too funny.

  10. Racing is dangerous. Man up or go scrap booking.

  11. oh well, Thruxton is grade 3, a month ago two drivers went in the woods during a BTCC race taking off on a bunch of old tires



  12. Well the FIA does have their proprietary rating system that has some of the best practices known today. However, this rating is expensive and usually requested by tracks that plan on having FIA sanctioned races. Most tracks in the USA will never have a FIA sanctioned race. So here lies the issue. We do not have a single standard, each sanctioning body whether its SCCA, USAC, FIA, IMSA, etc all have their own rules and regulations. Most do rely on a good relationship with the FIA and apply most of the FIA recommendations but most tracks are independent of FIA and do what they can with the resources available. The FIA rating clears tracks for a "type" of race car i.e. Formula 1, GT, open wheel, etc but the details of those ratings are proprietary. Also, the grades mean a MINIMUM standard has been achieved. You can always improve above and beyond a minimum and that is where a public rating system can be helpful. Also, issues like what type of fire extinguishers are used and where they are, training of the staff, medical facilities, closest distance to a trauma hospital, jaws of life availability, last inspection date, accident report of injuries and fatalities, etc. These are all important factors that drivers should be able to reference before they drive a track to have an INFORMED decision for themselves. We can all trust the FIA and other sanctioning bodies with our lives and most of us do but would't you rather make the decision for yourself using your own judgement?

    Here is a poll we started on our forum asking this very question:


  13. Okay, sure. So you're saying the only people who should go racing are those with nothing else to live for, or those who are willing to die and leave a spouse and children

    behind? That will bring new folks into the sport and help it grow so we can all enjoy it.

  14. That's easy to say when you're young and stupid. If you have a family depending on you, then disregarding safety is downright selfish and irresponsible.

  15. I'm an amateur. I have done one HPDE there. No where else. Now, knowing there are safer tracks, I will not return.


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