Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Safe at Any Speed? NASCAR Puts Safety to the Test at Michigan

At the conclusion of a one-day test at Michigan International Speedway, one thing is crystal clear: the track is blazing fast. Tony Stewart had the fastest lap of the day with an average speed of 201.896 mph. Drivers reported reaching speeds of 218 at the end of the frontstretch. NASCAR, as always, was optimistic about the racing surface following the test.

NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said Friday, “We’re getting good reports from the teams on how the new surface is doing,” said Pemberton. “That, plus the fact that Goodyear has done another outstanding job with picking a good tire for this event, things are shaping up for a really good event here on Sunday.”

While Pemberton said that NASCAR received positive feedback from teams, drivers were divided on just how much they liked the higher speeds, though they did say that there was a good amount of grip in the tires, which made them more comfortable.

“It is quite a rush for the driver to be going this fast. There seems to be a good combination with the new surface and the tire that Goodyear brought. I feel comfortable in the car, although it’s still quite the challenge as a driver to get around at these high speeds,” said five-time series champion Jimmie Johnson Thursday (June 14).

Johnson even posted a video of one of his laps, taken on his phone (don’t worry, the phone was mounted on Johnson’s headrest!), which shows how fast the cars can get on the straightaways.

Greg Biffle was slightly more reserved in his opinion, saying that the track’s width is its saving grace. “It’s really, really fast here. The one thing that I have liked seeing is that the track is pretty wide. The groove is all the way up in the middle of the second groove and that is certainly going to help racing around here at those speeds because it gives us some options,” said Biffle, adding that “every lap is like a qualifying lap and you are holding your breath.”

Many drivers did praise the tires that Goodyear brought to the track for the weekend. There had been talk about the possibility of NASCAR mandating the use of restrictor plates, which limit the air intake on the car, which in turn slows them down and are used at both Daytona and Talladega.

But NASCAR has said that they don’t think the plates will be necessary, because unlike Daytona and Talladega, Michigan is relatively flat and forces drivers to lift out of the throttle going into the corners, which slows them down in the places where they are most likely to have a problem. NASCAR says the track is safe at those speeds.

But is it safe enough?

That’s the big question mark this weekend, and there are several factors to consider.

First, of course, Thursday’s test was a success. Despite the speeds, nobody got hurt. But there are two sides to every story, and this one is no different. On one hand, Thursday’s test speed are likely to be the fastest of the weekend, or at least the high end of what we can expect to see. The weather was cooler than is forecast for the weekend and the track was green, with no rubber on it from tires. That will make for faster speeds.

On the other hand, teams don’t take chances during a test that they might during a race, like trying a groove that isn’t quite there, or diving too deep into a turn. The test may or may not be a fully accurate measure.

And then there are the tires. While most drivers praised the grip they got, there were issues. Some drivers, like Mark Martin and Landon Cassill, reported blistering on some of their tires during the test. A blistered tire is a compromised tire and a blown tire at the speeds we saw Thursday would be a serious test of NASCAR’s safety equipment. And a blown tire at Michigan has had disastrous consequences in the past.

During a routine Saturday practice session in Aug. 1994, Ernie Irvan was doing what he did every week during that Saturday session, putting the final touches on his race trim and making sure his Ford was dialed in for 400 miles on Sunday. It wasn’t different than any other practice session.

See also
That's History Profile: Ernie Irvan

Until Irvan cut a tire going into turn 2. Unconscious and unable to breathe on his own, Irvan was cut from his car and given less than a 10% chance of surviving the night.

Irvan did survive his injuries, a fractured skull and collapsed lungs. He spent days in a coma and two weeks on a ventilator. Doctors weren’t sure he’d survive or if he’d suffered permanent brain damage due to the swelling in his brain, including the brain stem which controls vital functions.

It would be over a year before Irvan could return to the drivers’ seat and to some, it was a miracle that he even survived, let alone got back in a racecar.

When Irvan lost control of his car, he was going 176 mph.

NASCAR has vastly improved safety since that day, requiring tracks to install energy-absorbing SAFER barriers and drivers to wear full-face helmets and head and neck restraints, all technology that didn’t exist in 1994. Since the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001, there have been no driver deaths in NASCAR and that’s likely in part thanks to these devices.

The SAFER barrier has been tested at various angles and speeds and every driver has walked away. That’s impressive, but have we become complacent? Do we rely on these devices to save every driver, every time?

While it’s comforting to know that in many cases, we can rely on them, we need to remember that there is a speed they can’t counteract, and angle they can’t compensate for. It comes down to how great a test we’re willing to put them to.

When Earnhardt hit the wall at Daytona, he was going an estimated 160 mph.

Drivers can be injured in a race in a variety of ways. They can even die in a variety of ways, but the most common is caused by rapid deceleration in which the car stops, then the driver’s body stops, then his head and finally his brain, which is stopped only when it slams into the skull still traveling at the speed at which the driver hit the wall.

While the SAFER barrier absorbs much of the energy that was formerly transferred to the driver and the HANS device stops the head from snapping forward, they are not infallible. They’ve worked at the speeds Earnhardt and Irvan were travelling on those fateful days. They’ve been tested in simulations. But they haven’t been tested in an actual race at the speeds the cars will hit this week.

But should NASCAR mandate restrictor plates this weekend?

Not so fast. Restrictor plates have their purpose and they do their job on the high-banked superspeedways. But they also rob the racecars of throttle response, which is necessary to both avoid an incident and to correct a slide or spin. Plates make for pack racing, where an incident is more likely to occur, and the flatter track would mean different impacts with the wall. Plus, on a flat track, they would almost certainly rob the fans of a good show.

In theory, as the sanctioning body and teams become more expert with the electronic fuel injection system, cars should be able to be slowed by retarding the amount of fuel pushed into the engine, but this is not something that NASCAR has explored yet.

Putting the potential danger aside, the higher speeds don’t necessarily mean a more exciting race for fans. While Pocono last week was an exception, repaved tracks typically don’t produce great races, because they generally have to age for at least a couple of seasons before multiple racing grooves emerge and are useable by everyone.

Johnson warned fans on Thursday that the on-track action might not be what fans expect.

“I just want everyone to be ready that just because we are going faster doesn’t mean that the race on Sunday is going to be more competitive,” Johnson said. “The faster we go, the more important aero becomes. At the same time the faster you go the more narrow the race track gets and right now we have a narrow groove because of the repave.

“For the best side-by-side racing the old Darlington, Atlanta, all those old porous used-up racetracks or asphalts as surfaces this is where that comes from. So we won’t have that here, clearly.”

As speeds rise, questions of safety become apparent. What’s less apparent is the solution. The sport is evolving, and safety devices make high speeds safer than ever. They do their job and do it well. But we can’t trust them implicitly and shouldn’t do so.

None of this means that NASCAR can ever become complacent. There are some very real safety questions that have yet to be answered as cars average laps of over 200 mph, something that has not been seen in nearly three decades.

Yes, the track should be slower as temperatures rise and tire rubber gets laid on the surface. Yes, there are SAFER barriers and HANS devices that drivers like Irvan never had. Yes, the drivers feel pretty comfortable so far. Right now, the best we can hope for is a safe race and that the question of how fast is too fast remains unanswered this weekend.

The worst extreme is the one we never want to think about. The most likely scenario is that this will be like any other race, just faster and perhaps with passing being at even more of a premium. And the ideal scenario at the end of the day? It might be reported like this: “The winning driver was going over 200 mph when he and his fellow drivers took the checkered flag without a major incident.”

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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