Drivers pleased with safety improvements at Watkins Glen

Watkins Glen International hopes to stay ahead of the “curves” when it comes to safety initiatives.

During the offseason, the Glen replaced all but one of the gravel pits with asphalt and added SAFER energy-absorbing barriers in Turns 6 and 7. New runoff areas, rumble strips and an adjusted guardrail were constructed in the “Carousel” (Turn 5) after last year’s horrific crash triggered by Kasey Kahne, who slammed into Sam Hornish Jr. and sent his No. 77 Dodge bouncing off the tire barrier and into oncoming traffic, collecting Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Andy Lally in the process.

Burton witnessed the changes firsthand when he performed a tire test for Goodyear at the track June 1-2. The veteran racer was “impressed" with the changes made to the 2.45-mile course in the interest of safety. Burton also feels that removing the sand traps, or “kitty litter” as commentators often refer to the runoff areas, will decrease the time the race spends under caution.

“The sand traps are great ideas in the event of brake failures or something like that, but where the inner loop was, it’s much more appropriate to have a runoff with SAFER barriers,” Burton said. “There were two big wrecks here last year coming off the Carousel; they changed that area of the racetrack to try to make it so if something did happen there it wouldn’t be as severe.

“They put soft walls here in Turn 11. They made a lot of improvements trying to make the racetrack safer and to prevent what happened last year, as well as look at areas of the racetrack that could improve the quality of racing and be productive for safety. I think what they’ve done is really good.”

Jimmie Johnson was one of the first drivers to encounter the improvements in the inner loop (Turn 5) when he spun out during first practice. Johnson said he “didn’t hit anything too hard,” so he didn’t get the full experience of the changes on Friday.

“I was here for that Grand-Am race and got a good look at it then and was impressed with what they had done,” Johnson said. “I think asphalt from wall to wall on road courses, wall to wall on ovals (is better) — that’s where you create problems …  the grass looks nice and it’s tough to asphalt in around a road course and all, but the less grass the better, and I think that with adding some softer walls in a few spots will control the impact to vehicles.

“We had some tires off of Turn 11 in the past that work well for a head-on impact, but with a glancing blow, they’ve rebounded vehicles into traffic, tipped cars over and stuff. A SAFER barrier won’t do that as badly, I think they’ve made some great changes.”


Separating fiction from reality

Red Bull GM Jay Frye has heard it all:

Red Bull is closing down at the end of the season.

The Red Bull sponsorship is moving to Chip Ganassi, Richard Childress or … (enter your favorite team owner’s name here).

The Red Bull operation will be running Chevrolets in 2011 with engines from Hendrick Motorsports and either Mark Martin or Kasey Kahne will fill one of the seats.

Truth be told, Frye signed a multiyear deal with Toyota last season, and unless something catastrophic happens, the organization will keep plugging along.

“We’re doing our best to piece together the best season we can at this point,” Frye said. “It’s frustrating. In the team meetings I have to address it every week. It’s almost become a joke now.

“I think the team in general — no one pays attention to it any more. But I’m sure in the back of their minds, there’s still that wonder.”

Yes, it’s been a difficult year for Team Red Bull. With Brian Vickers sidelined from a blood-clotting condition to the revolving door of driver replacements in the No. 83 Toyota and a crew chief swap between the teams, the company has struggled to build momentum from last year. To add salt to the existing wounds, Red Bull’s Formula One effort has blossomed with Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel currently first and second, respectively, in the standings. Frye adds the F1 teams’ performance is no worse than their own “self-imposed pressure.”

“Two years ago, we were ahead of them,” Frye said. “Now, they’re kicking butt — and we’re happy for them. We can learn a lot from them from an operational standpoint. And every other month we have guys going overseas and learning the latest technology. The relationship benefits both of us.”

Vickers continues to tell those close to him he intends to come back next season. The 26-year-old driver has been out of the seat since May. Frye says Vickers will have his three-month check-up in the next few weeks but “his job right now is to get better.”

And while Red Bull re-signed Scott Speed in May, a performance clause in that contract will determine his future. Currently, Speed is 26th in the point standing in his second full season on the tour and has not picked up his program under the direction of Ryan Pemberton. Speed has posted just one top 10 since Pemberton came on board June 6.


Numbers game

  • When it comes to racing at the Glen, Tony Stewart is the man to beat. He’s won five of the last eight races, completed every circuit in 11 starts and has led a whopping 22.6 of those laps.

  • Denny Hamlin isn’t known as a road racing ace. But his average start of 6.2 ties Stewart as the best on the Sprint Cup tour. In four starts, Hamlin has produced four top-10 finishes.

  • Marcos Ambrose has been the best breakout story of late at The Glen. Ambrose came from 43rd to finish third in his first start then backed up his performance with a second-place finish last season after winning the Nationwide Series event.


Say what?

Californian Kevin Harvick does not pretend to have all the answers when it comes to Auto Club Speedway.

The report that the two-mile track in Fontana will lose one of its dates in 2011 did not come as a surprise to the Bakersfield native. Harvick believes “one of the problems is people don’t want to sit in 110 degree weather and watch a race.”

Since the addition of a second date in 2004, the track lost a bit of the luster and exclusivity as a single race event in Southern California, and in recent times Harvick admits there were economic concerns.

“When we first went there, we had good crowds,” he said. “You just look at the differences between then and now and one of the things is that sometimes people say, ‘well, they are having two races this year so I am going to the second one.’ So, instead of having the whole crowd at one race, you have them at two. Sometimes, more is not better for some venues.”