Safety isn't an exact science - and air fence isn't always the answer.

If you missed the MotoAmerica round at Road America in June, let's just say you missed a lot of action. The event had everything: Broken track records in Friday's qualifying sessions, followed by a rain-soaked crash-fest on Saturday, capped off with a gorgeous day that included the closest finish in MotoAmerica history in Supersport (.001 second)!

We're going to focus on that Saturday crash-fest here, because today's blog was actually spurred by some social media discussion centered around one of Saturday's mishaps. During Sunday's Superbike race, Sean Dylan Kelly lost the front while braking into Turn 12, Canada Corner. SDK's BMW dumped in a very uncharacteristic way, falling to the outside of the track rather than tucking the front and dumping to the inside as a bike normally would. Even more odd, his momentum carried him off to his left and dangerously close to the concrete wall! Thankfully, SDK did not make contact with the wall (although his bike did). 

Screen grabs from the MotoAmerica broadcast show Sean Dylan Kelly's very unusual crash trajectory. 

Video of this crash was posted by MotoAmerica and the comments section was riddled with criticism of the series' safety crew:

"How the hell is there not air fence there on that wall...?"

"I was wondering the same thing on Saturday."

"Why are there still sections of wall there not covered by airfence🤨 its BS for that to happen nowadays. Its really unsafe"

I've got news for those of you who were taken aback by SDK's crash: There were many similar incidents over the weekend which were far worse, and several riders did hit concrete walls. Most of these impacts came in Turn 5, with no fewer than five riders hitting that outside wall over the weekend even in dry conditions. One of these riders was our own Sonya Lloyd, having been hit from behind under braking during Twins Cup. Thankfully she was okay, as was everyone else (aside from the usual bumps and bruises). Coming off the front straight into Turn 1 on Saturday, King of the Baggers racer James Rispoli lost the front under braking and fell to the outside of the turn just as SDK did. It was a wild crash and while he took out a couple trackside features, James did not come close to hitting the wall (which is further off-track than the T5 and T12 walls). On Sunday, Supersport rider Alfonso Linares had a mishap on the back stretch and hit the wall at well over 100 mph. Amazingly he was okay, aside from a concussion.

Bison racer Sonya Lloyd bounces off the wall after Kevin Olmedo (foreground) made contact with her into Turn 5 at Road America.

Before I continue here, I think it's important to note that we're approaching the second anniversary of our dear friend Scott Briody's passing at Brainerd International. Scott was killed when he lost control of his ZX-10 and shot off track towards the pit wall, where he impacted the concrete barrier just feet away from an air fence panel. In the aftermath of that crash many people criticized MotoAmerica for their air fence placement, however having seen the video I can tell you Scott's incident was very unusual and he did not crash in a "normal" manner. The bike started to slide, hooked up, and went straight offline carrying him along for the ride until he voluntarily bailed off. Sadly, had the bike simply slid and crashed, Scott would have gone well into the air fence. Literally no one could have predicted that.

I bring up Scott's crash because having lost a friend to this situation I have become even more sensitive to track safety. By proxy given my career, I already think about motorcycle safety every single day but this is amplified anytime someone gets hurt or passes away on track. In this case, Scott was the first death of a rider in Bison gear and I did not take that lightly. I still don't. And while all of the first responders have told me there was nothing that his suit could have done to save him and it held up great, that doesn't take away the sting nor quell the "what-ifs".

All that is to say, when I see multiple crashes where riders pinball off of concrete walls in one weekend, I find myself asking "What would I do differently there as a track safety manager?" In the case of the Road America crashes, I genuinely can't think of a simple solution. These weren't head-on impacts, they were situations where the riders were sort of glancing off the walls - and therein lies the challenge.

How an air fence works

Air fences or air barriers were invented in the early 90's to safely decelerate a rider and prevent impact with hard barriers such as concrete walls and metal Armco rails. Air fence sections are typically 30 feet long and made of durable rubber/canvas. They are unrolled and inflated prior to each event, then deflated and stored again for the next use. Each section of fence is made up of ribbed inner channels and equipped with special valves that allow the section to deflate at a very specific rate upon impact, thereby absorbing and decelerating the rider (and/or bike) at a safe rate. 

Limitations of air fence

Like anything designed with rider safety in mind, there are limitations to the type of protection an air fence can provide. In the case of the "glancing blows" the riders at Road America experienced, not only would air fences not have been helpful, they might have made the situations even more dangerous. Allow me to explain.

Air fences can be secured in a few different ways, but typically they are strapped to the permanent wall behind them and each section is tied together. Obviously these straps and anchors have tensile limitations however this is not typically a problem in direct impacts. Glancing impacts are a different story.

You don't have to look further than a few years back at Daytona for an example of this, when in late 2020 the lead rider in the CCS Middlewight Superbike race clipped the soft barrier at the top wall in NASCAR turn 1 during the opening lap. The barrier detached from the wall and flipped right into the race line, collecting several riders behind. Greg Melka was in second position at the time and got the worst of the incident - in fact, he spent three weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Injuries sustained by an air fence, mind you. If you want to see video of this incident, click here but be warned - it's a little unsettling.

(Photos screen grabbed from YouTube @Greg Melka)

MotoAmerica Race Director, Walter Walker echoes my sentiment about when and where safety fence should be used. "Inflatable soft barriers (Airfence and Alpina are brand names by the way, MotoAmerica deploys Alpina that is provided by the [Road racing World Airfence Fund]) are designed for straight-on impacts [and] designed to bleed off air pressure at a metered rate to dissipate energy. In this case as well as the crash in T5 the riders would have impacted the end of the soft barrier. The [safety fence] would not bleed pressure the way it was designed to resulting in a harder impact or the rider would have gone under the [safety fance] and still hit the wall", says Walter. The alternative? "Straw bales can sometimes be an option for walls running parallel to the track but wet straw bales are not very soft either, trust me."

The nature of Road America

Unfortunately, for all it's amazingness, Road America is an imperfect venue for motorcycle racing. While there is a healthy amount of runoff at key corners, concrete walls do line both sides of the track right off the shoulders should you stray off on a straight or tumble in a braking zone as SDK or Sonya did.

Having ridden RA at speed on a very fast BMW S1000RR, I gave the analogy to someone that blasting down all three of the high-speed straightaways feels akin to navigating an X-Wing through the Death Star. Trees and bridges overhead, walls and high fences in both peripherals. It's a visceral feeling, however I've never felt unsafe at Road America. The fact is, the walls are necessary for multiple reasons and they're placed pretty thoughtfully even by motorcyclist standards. At no point on the track have I ever thought about going into a section a little slower out of a concern for my safety.

In my opinion, the crashes that sent riders into the walls this past weekend were pretty freak accidents but there were so many of them that it's easy to ask, "How can we make those areas safer?"

So uh... How could they make those areas safer?

Again, this is less of a MotoAmerica problem and more about the nature of the beast that is Road America. The only real way to avoid the types of scares and impacts we saw this past event would be to physically move the track's concrete walls. Keep in mind, Road America is the longest race track in the United States and it is completely lined by concrete on both sides, with thick wooded areas and steep grades on just the other side of said walls. That's nearly 10 miles of concrete barrier partitioning this circuit from nature. 

While it's not feasible to move most of the walls along the fast, kinked straights, there appear to be relatively simple opportunities to push back the outside walls on T1, T5 and T12 - all of which happen to be on the outside of the track coming off the three fastest straights. Will they do it? I highly doubt it but time will tell. 

James Rispoli ditched his Harley-Davidson bagger to the outside under braking into Turn 1 and took another odd path off-track.

Balancing the odds

After five or six big incidents coming close to (or actually hitting) outside walls, it can be easy to look back at the Road America rain day and think these types of crashes are "the norm". That's truly not the case. Again, most of these crashes involved a front tuck under braking with the Rider falling to the outside of the bike. A very rare case. Two of the T5 incidents that actually took riders into the wall involved impacts with other riders that caused them to careen off-line. But does that mean we should be okay with the current location of the walls?  

As with anything in life, there is a balance. Track safety is balanced with logistical sense, infrastructure and yes - finances, unfortunately. Just as it is impossible (and impractical) to line the entire 10 miles of concrete walls at RA with air fence, it may not be practical to move those walls that you and I see as simple fixes. But you know what? I personally think the walls on the outside of Turns 1 and 12 are a more than acceptable distance from the race track. As for Turn 5, there is room for improvement (pun not intended) and maybe Road America execs could make a change in that section? One obvious downside to cantering the wall inward would be a potential drastic downgrade in the viewing experience, as fans would no longer be able to stand alongside the wall with a clear view of the hill as racers come into the corner. As a related note, it's one of the best vantage points for racing anywhere, and I encourage everyone to check it out if they're attending a race at RA. 

Track infrastructure aside, I can tell you this much: The organizers and planners at MotoAmerica do their very best with what they have and Rider safety is priority #1. Having spoken to numerous people within the organization in addition to Walter, I can tell you they consider every possible solution and every foreseeable outcome when planning their attack on track safety. To see some people on social media bashing the folks who do their very best to keep our riders safe (and carry the burden when they're hurt) is awfully upsetting. And that leads me to my closing point.

There is no exact science when it comes to safety

Given my field of work, I think about safety all the time. I've mentioned this before - I think about it standing in the shower, lying in bed, or when I'm riding on the track as a participant. "How could I make this better? Safer? Is there something I can try that no one else has done before?" I think a majority of race track owners and organization planners think the same way. After all, most of them are (or were) participants in this sport themselves, and the people out on the track are their customers, the lifeblood of their business. They're also friends.

Naturally, I've had customers - friends - hurt (or worse) while wearing Bison gear. It's an unavoidable part of this industry. I can't tell you how upsetting that is to us when it happens - even when there is nothing our gear could have done to prevent injury. Trackday and race organizers feel that burden as well. While we should never stop analyzing and improving safety, it's important to take a step back every now and then and remember this is a dangerous sport and it's in everyone's best interests to keep our riders, crews and fans safe at all times. Everyone is doing their best, but it you think you can do it better... Step up and make it happen.

 

Bison Co-Founder Robert Lackey

Rob Lackey has been a motorcycle gear connoisseur for years, mostly because he crashed a lot there for a while. After spending 20 years in the automotive industry managing service departments with a focus on culture and customer service, Rob decided to combine his passion for making people happy with that of racing and "going fast while staying safe". He founded Bison Track LLC with his wife, Tosha and they now roam the country with their two youngest kids, Edith and Carter, growing The Herd and educating others about the importance of safe riding gear. Every now-and-then he still gets to race.

 

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