Safety changes in NASCAR can happen quickly or slowly. Moving from jeans and t-shirts to fireproof clothing took the death of Fireball Roberts to finally get major adaptation. Window nets happened quickly after Richard Petty was nearly killed at Darlington Raceway while his body hung out the window of a flipping car on the front straight. Five-point harnesses were invented in 1965 but not mandated until 1993.
Head and neck restraints were under development for years, but the death of Dale Earnhardt hastened the implementation of them in the sport in October of 2001. Steel and foam energy reduction barriers were under development at the time of Earnhardt’s death as well, but it wasn’t until 2006 that they were adopted at NASCAR tracks. The Car of Tomorrow came out at that same time with a bigger greenhouse, foam panels and crush zones intentionally designed to reduce forces imparted onto drivers during accidents.
Safety advances have slowed since the “soft walls” were adopted, although small changes continue to happen whenever an accident highlights a need. Unfortunately, with the Gen 7 car introduction last season, it appears as though safety has slid backwards. Before the car was introduced into action, there were numerous crash tests. While nothing was ever publicly released, there were many rumors about the amount of damage imparted onto “drivers” during the tests. The new car is much more rigid than the previous generation car and, at least over the first year and a quarter of use, it has seemed to repeatedly result in drivers being injured.
Kurt Busch has left racing behind due to concussion symptoms suffered from an accident last season. Other drivers have also had concussions, especially during rear impacts with the new car. The composite body and the common parts of the car have reduced the amount of money spent on the cars by the owners, but it seems to have caused an increase in the damage to their drivers.
Sunday’s (April 23) race was just the latest in the list of scary incidents with this latest version of the car. During the “Big One” at Talladega Superspeedway, Kyle Larson’s car turned down and then up across the track. His car ended up crossways directly in front of Ryan Preece, who t-boned the No. 5 of Larson.
In post-incident interviews, both drivers noted that the hit was one of, if not the hardest hits they had ever experienced. That opinion has been repeatedly shared by drivers over the last 15 months, since the Gen 7 car was introduced. In this incident, Larson’s car received so much damage on the passenger side that the door bars were bent inward and visible through the side window. Most every expert commentator during the race and the post-race coverage noted that they had never seen that kind of damage during an impact with a NASCAR Cup Series car.
To be fair, that damage may have been a blessing because it potentially dissipated energy that otherwise would have found its way into the driver. However, it is a very disturbing visual and unsettling to imagine metal piping pushing inward and encroaching into the driver side of the car, potentially causing injuries to a driver should they bend in far enough.
The driver side of the car has more structure and safety built into it than the passenger side so it should better protect the driver from an impact. Still, the repeated instances of concussions and other injuries to drivers, and the numerous notes of the hardest hits that drivers ever remember is sending a disturbing message that the powers that be in NASCAR need to take very seriously.
The R&D center in Concord, NC was established in 2002 as a location close to the majority of the race teams that would allow the sanctioning body to investigate various instances involving race cars. From testing engines to technically inspecting cars and certifying cars before beginning to compete in the sport. The facility is utilized to deconstruct wrecked race cars whenever major incidents occur to discover weak points and help strengthen them, ultimately making the cars safer, at least theoretically. Larson and Preece’s cars from this past weekend were among vehicles taken to the facility after the Talladega race weekend. Hopefully they will discover what occurred with Larson’s ride and make it better for the future.
The ultimate question before NASCAR right now is, why is there an increase in hard hits and injuries? We have come so far with the safety of the sport since we lost the drivers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is incredibly disturbing to see that we have taken a step or two backwards in the recent seasons. Everyone needs to cross their fingers in hope that the problem is identified and corrected before we actually lose a driver for the first time in more than two decades.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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