The number one question received by Big Machine Music City Grand Prix circuit designer Tony Cotman is about how the organizers of the inaugural Nashville street race plan to keep NTT IndyCar Series cars from doing their best “Dukes of Hazzard” impressions by leaping off the bridge that spans the Cumberland River.
Should a crash take place on the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge, Cotman (pictured above) says the new barrier and fencing system is more than capable of keeping cars and drivers high and dry in Tennessee.
“We have the absolute latest safety system,” Cotman said. “This is the first time in the U.S. that we’ve used it on a temporary [circuit]. And when you see it, you’ll realize why it’s the best. It’s a very good Geobrugg system out of Switzerland. Everything’s about mitigating risk. So, number one was, ‘What is the best option out there?’ And the best solution; let’s do it. Number two, I know everybody looks at it from the peripheral: We’re going [over] a bridge. But when you’ve got the barrier and fence up, you look at it more like it’s a racetrack.
“It’s not like you go up to a peak and you drop off the other side; it’s quite gradual. Just like you would going up the hill at Road America or something like that. When you’ve got the walls and the barriers up, it’s a racetrack.”
Building the Nashville track, which revolves around the Tennessee Titans’ NFL stadium, requires three weeks of work to assemble miles of barriers and infrastructure to administer the race, and about 10 days to tear it down once the checkered flag waves over the event.
“It takes a lot longer than we used to, to install, because there’s so many methods of tying everything together,” Cotman says of the hefty barrier system. “These are 9400 pounds each. What’s unique about them is it’s not just a barrier mold filled with concrete; it’s a mold filled with reinforcement with big steel ends that tie each other together. So if a car does get into the barrier — and the barrier acts as a first line of defense — the barrier reacts, meaning it can move; the amount of movement in these barriers is far less, number one. And number two, the pure strength taken to pull them apart is pretty excessive.
“Combined with that, it’s all fastened to become one complete safety system. So, the debris fence panel which is mounted to the top of the barrier is actually bolted to the top of the barrier and then each post is bolted to each other. The mesh on the front of the racetrack side of the fences is high-tensile steel. And each panel, if you will, has like a helix coil; we then have to fasten all those panels together. So, when I say it’s time consuming, trust me, it’s time consuming, but when it’s done, it’s an incredible system.
“It’s passed some pretty stringent FIA tests where they throw large balls into the fence — massive 750 kg (1650 lb) balls, and try to see what you can break. The company that designed it originally designed the mesh for things like rock falls on highways and things like that. That’s what it’s designed around. I’m pretty confident we have the best [system] out there. And from that perspective, you can’t do much better.”
What if, by chance, a car manages to scale the fence and land in the river? Cotman says it’s far from a new concern to prepare for at an IndyCar race.
“We do have boats and medics and divers and every other thing under the sun below the bridge,” he said. “Just as we would have at St. Petersburg if a car went off into the water; we have divers there. Just as we would in Detroit. Anywhere there’s water that IndyCar races, it’s standard practice. But here, because of what they have, it’s above and beyond others. But obviously, that’s certainly not top of mind, expecting something that catastrophic.”