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Dec 9, 2011

VIR Added Controversial New Curbs In An Effort To Get FIA (Car Racing) Grade Two Certification. But When Asked, FIA Has Approved Other U.S. Tracks With Curbs That Are More Bike-Friendly.

VIRginia International Raceway is attempting to gain an FIA Grade Two license and hopes to attract more and higher-profile auto racing events by installing new, additional curbing at many points on its 3.27-mile Full Course, according to track management. But photos of the new curbing have raised questions about its suitability for a track that also hosts motorcyclists.

"We're trying to get our Grade Two FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) license, and it's FIA curbing," VIR Operations Manager Kerrigan Smith told in a telephone interview December 8. FIA Grade Two curbing is required to host Grand Am, American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and IndyCar events, according to car racing experts. "They [FIA] have an extremely detailed spec on the curbing, and we went with, I would say, the most toned down version, the lowest end of the spec it can be [in terms of] height and depth.

"They have a class calculator where cars will have different speeds on the track, and they want it to be in different places with those speeds. But because we very rarely do big events and we are more driver education and different things like, smaller events, we decided to go with the most benign form of it we could."

The new curbing is being installed on the 3.27-mile Full Course and will not be used on any of the connecting sections used when the track is divided into the 2.25-mile North Course, the 1.65-mile South Course or the 1.10-mile Patriot Course. The curbing is positioned on the off-track side of the existing curbing as a deterrent to car drivers who drop wheels off the edge of the track to gain a competitive advantage--and in the process do damage to the landscape and kick debris onto the course.

"That original curbing," said Smith, "we've left some of the places where it was suggested it be ground by AMA [Pro Racing] and certain events. So places that were ground down, we've left that, but we're leaving the existing curbing, the old curbing the way it is because chances are we will hopefully be repaving VIR in a couple of years and chances are all of that old curbing will be pulled out anyway."

Smith said he contacted officials from several of VIR's motorcycle event clients, including race sanctioning bodies CCS and WERA, track day providers NESBA and Team Pro-Motion, and Keith Code of the California Superbike School seeking feedback before starting the curbing project in September. But photos of an unfinished (according to Smith) section of the new curbing in the Turn Five/Six area of the track published December 7 on have raised questions about the curbing's suitability for motorcycle use.

"The photos that I received from a driver friend show me a curbing design that appears to me to be particularly unfriendly to motorcycles, and more importantly, riders," veteran motorcycle road racer Jim Bonner wrote in an e-mail he sent along with the photos of the curbing to "The large steps within the curbing contain a series of sharp edges that could tear up machinery and protective clothing. The outside frame looks like a small wall simply designed to cause unnecessary damage to anything or anyone that makes contact."

"I know the scenes look threatening in different pictures," said Smith, who has seen the photos in question. "You can take any picture you want to make it look threatening, but unless you're coming backwards onto it, driving the track in reverse-direction, it's supposed to be going with flow and not a jagged edge that's going to catch you.

"Now, I know pegs on the bikes and the back wall and different things, yes. That's an unfinished product that a lot of people are seeing right there. The lift eyes are going to be filled in and they are going to be painted." So that back wall [on the outer edge] is supposed to be there? That's part of the spec?

"Yep, that's to keep dirt from getting into the curbing," said Smith.

We asked Alan Wilson, (designer of Miller Motorsports Park, Barber Motorsports Park and the soon-to-open NOLA Motorsports Park in Louisiana), if the FIA curbing spec required a concrete outer edge, or back wall. Wilson told, "Yes, there is, but the problem with that is, from my point of view, if a bike is sliding and the handlebar gets into it or a footpeg gets into it, it can get the bike flipping. And we know what happened to Wayne Rainey - a flipping bike broke his back. So I've stayed away from it [having a back wall]. It is in the rules. No question. But Miller passed FIA [inspection]. We didn't even discuss it. They looked at it and said it's fine.

"There's no doubt that some of them [the FIA curbing specs] are not compatible with bikes, but it's a point of discussion that we can always win by talking with the FIA," said Wilson.

"I don't know who's doing the curb design [at VIR] and I don't know who's working on it or making it happen, but if they go by the strict current [spec] book I don't think they're going to be suitable for bikes," continued Wilson.

"The whole question of curbing with the FIA is a matter of discussion and working with them, because just to quote you, in the FIA application process it actually says for them to license the track the FIA needs to be involved in the design and placement of curbing. I've had lots of discussion with them. I've had no problems at any of my tracks with curbing that works for cars and bikes," Wilson continued. "This is not one of those situations where you go necessarily by the written spec. You go by the practical compromise that works for both and you talk about it. You talk to the FIA and you talk to the bike people and you come up with a solution that you get the FIA to sign off on. There is no single solution because it's different on different corners and different speeds and things like that, but to go strictly by the book is likely to end up with some issues."

According to Wilson, Miller Motorsports Park and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, two tracks that have hosted FIM World Championship motorcycle road races (World Superbike and MotoGP, respectively) and ALMS and Grand Am races in recent years, both have hybrid FIA/FIM-approved curbing without outer concrete edges, a.k.a. back walls.

"Being FIA, all of the MotoGP and a lot of the European bike races run on the exact same stuff," said Smith. "This is the exact same stuff they have at Silverstone, although ours is lesser than what Silverstone has in terms of degree of rake and height.

"I know it's not FIM or ideal to what you guys want," Smith said. "It is to a spec. It's not something [from] our crazy imagination, and it's up for approval in February. This is something we're working hard on. We're not trying to offend people or scare people. We're actually trying to improve things at VIR a little bit. I can understand that some people feel it's threatening, but part of the reason why we are keeping the original curbing there is to give people run-off room and more area to be able to work with instead of getting on that stuff [new curbing] right away."

Asked if anyone had given him any feedback that the FIA-spec curbing could be hazardous to motorcycles or riders who crash, Smith said, "I haven't received any feedback from anybody saying that that is hazardous to motorcycles. Nobody has contacted me except for you." attempted to contact WERA Motorcycle Roadracing President Evelyne Clarke, ASRA/CCS boss Kevin Elliott, Team Pro-Motion's Glen Goldman, California Superbike School's Keith Code and the Silverstone Circuit for comment. Only Elliott could be reached, and he confirmed that Smith had contacted him prior to starting the project and that the curbing pictured is exactly as Smith described--except for the back wall.

"[But] if I was describing it to someone I probably might not have mentioned the back wall either because my assumption as a car guy is that's the way it normally is, but that's not it for us," said Elliott. "And I'm not throwing him under the bus. The slots themselves are exactly as he described. The only thing I wasn't aware of was the FIA requires the [back] wall. So that was me talking Motorcycle and him talking Car."

Asked if the back wall of the new curbing was a hazard to motorcyclists and an issue for him, Elliott said, "Yes, and it appears to me that it is easily solvable, too. I'm looking at this [photo] and it doesn't actually look like a wall. These actually look like separate sections. They could actually go back and pull these out of there.

"If they're going to put mortar in between the slabs that are going to stay I could see leaving that wall there until everything sets, then taking that out," Elliott said. "But I honestly agree the wall on the back side is a serious problem for us. I don't like this new curbing, but it's probably better than what they had before."