Exclusive: Watkins Glen track president says safety changes on the way
Aug 20, 2014 at 11:56a ET
Two weeks ago, Watkins Glen International played host to one of the most dramatic and exciting races thus far in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. For the third year in a row, the closing laps were full of drama and intense racing, as AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose battled hard for the victory, with Allmendinger coming out on top.
"Marcos and AJ, I don't know how they beat the prior years, but they did," WGI track president Michael Printup told FOXSports.com Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. "That was some fantastic racing at the end."
Once considered a novelty in NASCAR, road-course racing seems to have gained in popularity in recent years, with Watkins Glen often delivering some of the best racing of each season. However, this year's Sprint Cup race once again also featured a violent multi-car wreck -- something that has been a trend over the past few years at WGI.
This time the incident occurred exiting the Carousel corner, when Ryan Newman's No. 31 hit the Armco barrier before shooting across the track and into the path of Michael McDowell's No. 95. After the two cars made contact, McDowell's car lifted in the air, hitting another Armco barrier, leaving a hole in the wall and causing a lengthy delay as crews made repairs.
While both drivers were able to walk from their cars, Newman -- among other drivers -- heavily criticized the state of safety around WGI, saying the track has not adapted to the changes in safety developed over the years.
"The barriers, the SAFER barrier, that doesn't exist here," said Newman, a long-time advocate of safety in NASCAR. "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."
Throughout the years, Watkins Glen has made a number of changes to the track, run-off areas and walls with the goal being to produce safer racing, including in the area of the track where Newman's incident occurred.
After hard wrecks by the late Jason Leffler in the Nationwide Series and Sam Hornish Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton in the Sprint Cup Series, the track paved the grass that was next to the track and adjusted the wall and barriers where both Leffler and Hornish had hit.
For Printup, "safety is obviously paramount" to WGI, saying the best thing about the Newman-McDowell incident was that all drivers walked away and nobody had to go to the hospital.
While admitting there always is room for improvement and innovation, Printup said he does not fully agree with Newman's tough words.
"I think Ryan's a little off in his harsh criticism, because it that was a SAFER wall -- like Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. said, you don't want to be hitting concrete," he pointed out. "Concrete stops you, the barrier gave; but there are definitely issues we have to address."
For the record, Earnhardt Jr. actually called for concrete and SAFER barriers in that section of track, saying the Armco barriers were not enough.
"I'd love to have some concrete walls and SAFER barriers but it's a lot of concrete that would have to be put up here," Earnhardt Jr. said during the race's red-flag period that day. "We've been running through guardrails for 50 years, so I don't think they've got them perfected. They do the best they can and we're going way faster here than we used to go and so when the car bounces back out on the race track it's hard to avoid. And you're going to get slung into the guardrail and hit that thing harder than you would expect, but I don't know what else they can do.
"It would be too expensive to put walls around it and SAFER barriers and all that stuff. You trust in what they're doing and I'm glad nobody is hurt."
Meanwhile, it was Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick who praised the track for its innovations over the years, saying it was better to hit an Armco barrier than a concrete wall with a SAFER barrier.
"They have spent a lot of money on sand traps and moving walls back and there's been a lot of changes after we had the wreck off of Turn 1," Harvick said, talking about the dramatic David Ragan-David Reutimann wreck in 2011. "So, obviously, as drivers, we want to see the safest barrier as possible put in. What that is in this particular instance, I don't know.
"I know we've seen Jimmie Johnson pile-in headfirst all the way into the barriers and get out of his car and walk away and we've been a lot of pretty big wrecks here. We've seen everybody walk away. So, you always want to see them evolve and I don't really know the exact circumstances. I know that I'd rather hit that Armco over there rather than a solid concrete wall. So, it's just all about the circumstances that you're in."
Printup indicated after that after the race at The Glen, he flew to International Speedway Corp. headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., and spent three days working with ISC president John Saunders and the design team to address the issue.
"We'll get the University of Nebraska up there, we'll get NASCAR up there, we're going to evaluate everything we can," he said. "We'll do whatever we need to do to make sure it is the safest track we can."
While driver input is always a valuable resource when looking at safety innovations, Printup indicated they have to marry that up with the University of Nebraska safety experts, and let them take the lead.
Hosting only one NASCAR race a year, Watkins Glen also features a host of other racing series, all of which use "the boot" section of the track that NASCAR does not. Any safety innovations implemented with an eye to the NASCAR weekend will also have implications for the other racing series as well.
"We use the boot for every other series but Cup and Nationwide, so we just have to look at that," Printup said. "We just have to look at that. Some of the things Ryan addressed, we can look at and make better where it won't affect the other racing series.
"There was some curbing there that made the back of that car hop. A lot people can't see it. It's a black-and-white checkered curbing that is about a seven-inch curb rise. So when the car hits it, it pops it up. So that was one thing we have to look real hard at and see if maybe that curbing doesn't need to be there. But for the road-course guys who race the boot, they want that curbing there. So, we have to figure out that happy medium."
Serving as track president since June 2009, Printup understands that his lone NASCAR weekend each year has to not only put on a good show on the track, but also be accommodating for everyone involved -- and the results show his team is doing its best to get the job done.
"It's about the fans, corporate sponsors, and the media," said Printup. "I tell you what, when your TV ratings spike like they did for us, our attendance was up, camping attendance was up, our youth population was up. We're hitting all the marks and doing it the right way. It's very important for us. We want to keep that momentum going in the right direction. Year after year, Watkins Glen has been showing it, so we just want to keep showing the world that Watkins Glen is on the map for a reason."
Taking in the race at Michigan International Speedway last weekend, Printup said he had not reached out to Newman, and even admitted he tried to avoid him in the driver-crew chief meeting.
"I just figured he was probably still mad, so I figured better left untouched," he said. "I did want to talk to him to make sure he was good and OK. I had nothing else to say to him, I had no bones with him."
VIDEO: A look at Watkins Glen wrecks through the years