The Frontstretch: The Car Of Tomorrow And The Safety Delusion by Kurt Smith -- Friday October 16, 2009

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The Car Of Tomorrow And The Safety Delusion

Kurt Smith · Friday October 16, 2009

 

Don’t take this the wrong way, faithful Frontstretch readers, but sometimes I feel like the kid in the Emperor’s New Clothes story.

The Vegas Nationwide race early this year was an example. Despite the CoT and the current Nationwide cars being so vastly different, Goodyear usually brings the same tires for both races on race weekend. As a result, the Nationwide Series put on a miserable race that day. At the end, 17 cars were out of it, and five more were more than 25 laps down. Some of the best Cup drivers lost control of their cars as they struggled to find grip while driving a Nationwide car with Cup tires. There were 12 caution flags, and nearly a third of the race was run under the yellow. There were two red flags, surefire excitement killers in any race. The first 25 laps took over an hour, for an average speed of about 40 MPH.

To paraphrase one of racing’s most famous phrases: that’s racin’?

Zero of the drivers or announcers complained, which was too few to be a coincidence. It was as if six out of 13 figure skaters in a tournament all fell during their performances—and the announcer simply commented on what bad days everyone seemed to be having without questioning whether there was a possible problem with the ice surface.

Following this farce, I felt like I was in an alternate universe reading about how great this race was from so many writers. I even got into mini-spats with my family members at the Frontstretch about it. With little support from participants or viewers, I started doubting myself about it for a second, but only a second. Despite being alone in my conviction, I was firm. The Sam’s Town 300 stunk, with a capital Stunk.

I get a similar wilderness feeling today hearing repeated assertions of “safe” regarding the current Sprint Cup car. There have been so many offhanded affirmations about the safety features of the present machine, both from commentators and fans, that the idea that the new car is safer than the previous one is simply accepted as fact without scrutiny. It sometimes seems like I’m the only one that thinks this is a little weird.

The CoT was, of course, hatched with safety in mind first and foremost. And there are features of the car that are geared towards less risk, like the movement of the driver’s seat four inches toward the center and roll cage to the back. It was a good idea to move the exhaust to the right side. No one here is denying that such features are commendable and, for those, NASCAR should be applauded. And most of these things could have been done without a radical reengineering of the Car of Yesterday in an effort to equalize the cars for better racing.

It seems odd that a machine that NASCAR dubbed “The Car of Tomorrow”—as if to make fans think about future technology enabling cars to run without fuel or oil—handles worse than anything the sport has run in the recent past. Certainly, the Car of Yesterday (before 2007) looks sleeker and more modern than the Car of Today.

The CoT chassis may keep a driver injury-free in a crash, but if its design causes more accidents than the old body style, is it really safer?

This columnist wouldn’t mind hearing how much safer the current car is, except very often, there is no underlying explanation of what makes it safer. The compliments for safety are repeated most often when a driver climbs out of the car after a hideous wreck, like Joey Logano at Dover or Michael McDowell at Texas last season. No one says “he’d have been in trouble if the roll cage was where it used to be” or “it’s a good thing he had the air dam slowing him down.” It is simply declared so every time a driver walks away from a crash, as though it never happened with the old car.

It is also rarely mentioned that while driving the previous car, Ryan Newman, Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart and many others had emerged unhurt from colossal end-over-end wrecks at Daytona and Talladega, most of which were, visually at least, even scarier than Logano’s or McDowell’s crashes. (Nor is it noted that nearly all of the most frightening crashes in recent years have happened at restrictor plate tracks. Anyone notice that?)

One can argue that McDowell’s wreck resulted out of loss of control of the car, similar to Jeff Gordon’s hard hit at Vegas last season. A driver climbing out of a totaled racecar unhurt does suggest that the car is safe, but that a professional stock car driver lost control of the car in the first place because it is near impossible to handle in the best of conditions does not. Even NASCAR has said that the car is designed to be more difficult to drive. No one disputes that particular attribute of this machine. Isn’t a car that is difficult to handle at high speeds, by definition, unsafe?

The new car is “boxier” because it is higher, and a higher car means a higher center of gravity, which as we now know is brutal on right side tires. Imagine driving a bus around the racetrack at top speed and think about what would happen with all of that weight on the right side. Goodyear is not entirely to blame for frequent tire problems of late. Whatever deficiencies may afflict the Official and Only Tire Provider at the moment, Goodyear is making some better efforts these days, even if it took some disastrous races to get them going. But right now they are the color blind man who has been given a Rubik’s cube.

Goodyear continually says that they are trying to strike the right balance between a race-worthy tire and a safe one. At many tracks, it is clear that they haven’t figured it out yet. But like the adjustability on the new car, there is sometimes less than zero margin for error. To keep from blowing up on a speedway, a tire must be made so hard that drivers feel as though they’re on the edge of a wreck constantly. Being on the edge of wrecking doesn’t sound very safe either.

There is also the little matter of that splitter, which, on several occasions, has cut tires as a result of hard side-by-side racing, which there will be more of every time NASCAR legislates that all cars be created equal. And needless to say, driving with a cut tire is also fraught with danger. At a plate track, this is almost a formula for a Big One, and it’s surprising that it hasn’t happened yet.

The safety argument for the new car very often puts the cart before the horse. I have noticed that the new car seems easier to save when it goes sideways. And when that happens, D.W. or someone else will be sure to note that “A driver can get sideways with this new car. He wouldn’t have saved that in the old car.” Right, and in the old car he likely wouldn’t have gotten sideways in the first place.

Besides, the ability to save a car is only relative. It may seem like a safety feature, but in the long run, it really isn’t. Michael Waltrip wrecked his car in a Bristol practice because as his brother in the booth said “he never lifted”. Waltrip might have seen the great saves on TV and thought that a sideways racecar was no big deal. So ultimately the idea that the new car can go sideways and be saved doesn’t make it safer…all it means is that it has set a different limit to how far a car can be pushed. No matter where that limit is, someone is going to push it too far.

NASCAR and the racetracks are to be lauded for many of the safety measures they have taken, particularly the mandating of the HANS device and the installation of SAFER barriers. Both of these measures together, taken sooner, may have saved the lives of Dale Earnhardt, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and others, and I wouldn’t dispute that the measures have saved lives since then. If those drivers’ deaths meant anything, they have at least helped to make an extremely dangerous sport much safer for its participants.

But I’m not falling in line and agreeing that the flying brick is safer, at the very least not until Goodyear figures out what kind of tire to run it on, and something is done about the splitter. Teams may figure out a way to get it to handle better than it currently does. Until they do—and a boxier car by definition is not going to handle better—the new car design is cumulatively not safer than the Car of Yesterday, at least in this writer’s humble opinion.

Maybe a driver has a better chance of walking away from a hideous wreck, but I’d rather NASCAR took steps to see that the driver didn’t wreck in the first place.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • No one seems to have issue with the first five Hall of Fame inductees, other than understandably with the exclusion of David Pearson, so neither will The Official Columnist of NASCAR. I may run a future column with current participants in the sport who will be worthy of the honor. Short list of non-drivers includes Chad Knaus, Brooke Sealy and William (Billy) Bad Butt.
  • I can’t believe I found the time to do this, but my buddy Mark Young sent me a Facebook personality test to see which racecar driver I was. After taking the test, I was likened to Tony Stewart. And here all this time I thought I was most like Carl Edwards. Guess I’m not in as good a shape as I thought.
  • Someday I’ll comment on The Pursuit of Danica, but I’m looking for the most controversial way of tying her in with NASCAR’s Driver Diversity program. The two are inextricably linked in their regard for symbolism over substance.
  • And sometimes my editors, despite the best of intentions, forget to mention it in the newsletter, so check out the Foto Funnies from California this week. I’m kinda proud of the caption for the Brian France photo.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…
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Sal
10/16/2009 06:29 AM
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Thank you! I have felt the same way about the improved ‘safety’ of the COT too! Nascar has figured out that the best way to sell everyone on the rolling shoebox is to claim it’s safer than the ‘old’ car. That way, if you hate on the COT, you’re hoping a driver gets injured in a wreck. Amazing how they can ignore how many drivers have walked away from terrible wrecks…especially since the HANS device and aterations to the seats. A few inches of styrofoam and moving the seat 4 inches is a more dramatic improvement? And, as you point out, making the car harder to drive and handle in traffic doesn’t sound better to me. But as long as Nascar can wave that ‘safer’ flag, they can vilify anyone who thinks the car is a huge boondoggle.

Bill B
10/16/2009 07:26 AM
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Great article Kurt. I too cringe everytime I hear NASCAR and their talking robots in the booth try to justify the car using unsound logic.

The Turnip
10/16/2009 07:52 AM
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WOW! WOW! WOW!

Be warned though, your taking on not only “THE ESTABLISHMENT”, but the “FAN BASE” that BLINDLY has repeated the NA$CRAP line of “THE POS IS GREAT”!

Let me describe in my terms what the POS, and I REALLY DO MEANPIECE OF CRAP” really is:

1. it is JUNK!

2. it has not contributed to overall driver safety!

3. GOODYEAR IS TO BLAME for the tire problems, after all they agreed and paid for the right to supply tires for this car! IT IS A GOODYEAR PROBLEM, PERIOD!

4. the POS is UGLY to watch on the racetrack!

5. drivers do not complain because NA$CRAP threatened their very jobs if they did so!

And hopefully, a real race fan can relate to what I am going to say, but I can visually see the difference between the old car, and the POS as it goes around the track. the POS just has a funny, very funny, motion and attitude about it! That is why I simply don’t go to ANY races anymore, it just LOOKS STUPID, HANDLES STUPID, RACES STUPID!

And anyone that thinks this is a “real race car” is just plain _ _ _ _ _ _!

(sorry folks, just have to call it the way I see it)

RACING IT IS NOT!

And the worst thing, the VERY WORST THING about this whole mess is???

NA$CRAP REFUSES TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT!

Gee, come to think about it, did you mention they, NA$CRAP, claimed it also saves the teams money??

SAY WHAT? more testing is going on now to try and “figure” out this car than at any time in the past!

And those that can afford the testing win, those that cannot sink further to the rear of the field!

So much for “PARITY”! But then again, that’s what that “YELLOW” flag, (for phony debris) is all about, to keep half the field, or more, from getting lapped by the rich teams!

It’s all tied togather, and I feel sorry for the fans that blindly accept the POS!

Nice job summarizing what an awfull lot of us have known, and been saying, for a couple of years now!

Ghost of Curtis Turner
10/16/2009 08:01 AM
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Thanks for not drinking the Cool Aid!!!
Have you also noticed that in the past the only time you saw a car flip or get airborn was at Daytona or Taladega???…

But now with the CoT it seems any time a car is hit off center of the rear quarter panel this thing rolls over like a schnauzer.

But boy it sure is safe huh?

Just something to think about….

The Turnip
10/16/2009 08:38 AM
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And now you know the reason I call myself “THE TURNIP”!

Because NA$CRAP treats it’s fans like they are DUMBER THAN A TURNIP!

All NA$CRAP want to do is bleed all the money
from it’s fan base, THE TURNIPS!

Who cares what they (The Turnips)think as along as the money flows in!

Michael in SoCal
10/16/2009 11:26 AM
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Would making the width of the splitter 4 – 6 inches less than the width of the car result in less tires being cut down? Bring in the edge of the splitter so it’s not near the other cars’ tires, problem solved. At least I think so. There might be issues when the car is turning, but that can be figured out, can’t it? But I’m not an engineer, so if there’re any engineers out there, can you weigh in on this?

Glenn
10/16/2009 12:25 PM
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COT sux, no doubt. It created a IROC-ish vehicle which Americans cannot identify with so they needed some reason to sing it’s praises. At it’s worst NASCAR racing is safer than most major sports. They knew they laid an egg and were too proud to admit it. IROC failed for the same reason.

Christian Budd
10/16/2009 12:38 PM
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I agree on a number of points. If you were to believe everything the media says, you would think that the old car left behind the broken bodies of drivers at every track the circuit visited. Outside of Jerry Nadeau (PRE-SAFER Barrier, I may add), who was critically injured or killed on any of the national series in the post Earnhardt era?

The old car could have utilized many of the improvements that were put into the new car, without the huge expense to teams and the castration of the racing that we have seen over the past 2 years.

Sal
10/16/2009 12:51 PM
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They could have avoided the twisting on the ‘old cars’ if they had used a ‘claw’ type arrangement for them to go thru tech. That was another reason Nascar used to foist the COT on the public. And how much (and how long)does it cost in $ and time to get each chassis certified by Nascar? Still saving teams $$$?

midasmicah
10/16/2009 01:02 PM
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I’m glad Frontstretch is around so those of us who have opposing views regarding nas$car can voice our opinions. Too many of the nas$car commentators are shills who do not allow people like me to respond. We don’t exist. AE (after Earnhardt) has been a tough time for us older nas$car fans. The France family took a great series and sold it to the highest media bidders. nas$car as we know it does not exist anymore. The car is hidious and bears no resembelence to brand it represents. Safety is fine, but there has to be a way to incorporate racing and safety in the same package. nas$car blewit. In the process it sold it’s soul to the devil. In closing I’ll respond to anybody who tells me if I don’t like it, don’t watch it. Sadly, I have to say this. Last week-end for the first time in as long as I can remember I didn’t watch any nas$car racing. They’ve lost me. nas$car…R.I.P.

Bad Wolf
10/16/2009 01:17 PM
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I have to agree with everything “The Turnip” said.

Don’t forget Rusty at Dega in ’93. Disney-Pixar took that wreck frame by frame and recreated it for “The Kings” wreck in the movie “Cars”. I was in front of the TV that day and was scared that Rusty was dead, but he walked away with a broken wrist.

don mei
10/16/2009 02:26 PM
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If anyone out there is seriously interested in learning something about safety in motorsports then i strongly suggest you read “Rapid Response” by Dr. Stephen Olvey, the CART medical director from 1979 to 2003. Its a comprehensive look at the evolution of safety equipment, medical practices and procedures since the days of cardboard helmets and short sleeved shirts. Youll learn a lot of FACT from the book, not the BS that passes as true nowadays.I should mention that Dr. Olvey was not terribly impressed with Nascar’s attitude towards or efforts in safety until Dale Earnhardts death in 2001.Its a good read.

The Turnip!
10/16/2009 03:29 PM
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MMMMM, so many things, first, thank you “Bad Wolf”! Just common sense right?

And Kurt, those four (4) flat tires on your car, and those Big Bad Black Helicopters hovering over your house are just a “mere” coincidence to your article!

But did you notice the black helicopters all had FLAT GOODYEARS on them? And flying the YELLOW FLAG?

King Brain was supposed to be in one of those black helicopters, but he is still recovering from last nights binge!

The truth is just hard for some people to admit!

Again, a big thanks for writing about the obvious, sometimes the truth & the obvious make for the very best reading!

Richard in N.C.
10/16/2009 06:36 PM
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I suspect Jeff Gordon and others who have been in bad wrecks recently might just disagree with how much safer the new cars are, and I have to assume that DW knows much, much more about the safety of cars – ask him about that metal rod he had in his leg several years ago.

Fat Willie
10/16/2009 10:43 PM
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In answer to no one has an issue with the inducties to the Hall of Fame. I think since the France family owns NASCAR and Big Bill founded it, Sr. and Jr. should be in a different class. Since it is the first year for inducties 10 would be a better number followed by 5 the following years. I guess Bryan and Lisa France will be inducted next year along with some of the old inspectors, flag men and pace car drivers.I think the article about the COT safety hit the nail on the head. Even Jeff Gordon said NASAR needed to let he teams have more flexability to help with the handeling.

The Turnip
10/17/2009 08:19 AM
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Hey Richard in N.C., not sure what your point is?

Example, I was at Michigan International Speedway a year ago, watched Dario Franchitti get upside down and tumble his OPEN WHEEL RACE CAR at over 200MPH, he walked away!

And he was NOT DRIVING THE COT!

How do you figure that one?

What your implying, and as another poster here wrote, it sounds like any accidents “PRE-POS” caused deaths!

SIMPLY NOT THE CASE!

And your so funny using a NA$CRAP SHILL, in this case DW, as the “final” word in support of the POS?

Dang, now that’s rich!

You are now an official member of us TURNIPS!

Welcome to the club!

rgazenya
10/17/2009 12:42 PM
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Competition from other sports, start times, the economy…. NASCAR has experts who study these problems and report back with rationalizations as to the decline in attendance, viewers, fans. What they really need to study is the one thing they will not honestly address, the product they are trying to sell to the public. Since the first COT race(with very few exceptions) any true race fan can see that racing is NASCAR’s least concern and only through manipulations from the control center has there been any excitement at all. The COT is slowly killing NASCAR.

FS_Kurt
10/18/2009 06:47 PM
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Hey Gang—

Just got in from a weekend away from home, not because I needed to disappear after this article or anything :-), and just now read the comments. Good stuff all and thanks for reading. Appreciate yas.

Richard in N.C.
10/19/2009 08:13 PM
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Turnip, I’m saying I’m willing to take the word of the drivers that the COT is a safety improvement – at least until someone finds a driver who has been thru a big wreck and says he would just as soon have been in the pre-COT car. Besides, you only get 1 chance to survive a bad wreck.

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