Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday April 2, 2007
Sunday afternoon in Martinsville, Virginia, the Car of Tomorrow, or whatever moniker you choose to put on it now, saw its second action of the season. The results, as with last week at Bristol, were once again a mixed bag. The racing appeared to be the least of the car’s problems; side-by-side battles were as good or better than the track has always provided, and the new car already appears to prevent the bump and run maneuver that many despise. However, there are still some serious questions being raised as far as driver safety. Wait a minute; the car’s supposed to be all about safety, right? Isn't it ironic that the biggest concerns surround whether or not the car is putting drivers in danger?
Such pitfalls occurring with the Car of “Toxicity” reared their heads early and often on Sunday. During the 12th caution flag of the race, Kevin Harvick pulled onto pit road with black smoke billowing from his car. It was later revealed that the foam insulation now being placed to help with energy reduction during crashes had caught fire, filling the cockpit with noxious fumes. Harvick wasn’t the only one with this problem; there were reports of no less than 12 cars showing signs of similar smoke coming out of them during the race this past weekend. The foam has been placed in the right side of the vehicle, helping to reduce the potential for driver injury in the event of a side impact. However, if the foam is actually putting off volatile fumes that could ultimately be more damaging to a driver, is that extra foam really a safety measure, or is that replacing one danger with a far greater one?
After the race at Bristol last weekend, there were also reports of multiple drivers complaining of headaches from what some observers are saying appeared to be symptoms similar to carbon monoxide poisoning. Rick Mast is just one driver that everyone knows of whose career was cut short due to the serious, long-term effects that type of poisoning can produce. Those extended consequences of inhaling fumes in a race car will always be debatable, but the bottom line is it’s never a good thing to breathe in excessive amounts of exhaust. Whatever the source of the gases in the car are, whether it is a design flaw, a problem with the way the exhaust fumes are routed, or teams using metal that is too thin for the application intended, the failure of the system is evident. Fumes are leaking into the car more than ever before, and there needs to be an immediate solution before someone is damaged for life.
In the midst of all these safety concerns, the debates concerning expenses of building these cars have also started to rear their ugly heads. While any transition to a new car is obviously going to require teams to put out a greater amount of capital to conform to the new rules, many people in the industry are saying that the expense involved in meeting technical specs and the continuous changing of the inspection process is actually causing a greater expenditure than any teams had budgeted for. While the ultimate result may be that teams will save money because the cars will be interchangeable no matter which race track the team is going to, the current situation appears to be putting undue financial stress on all of the teams, especially on the smaller budget ones that do not have the resources to keep up with the constant development needed.
Now, this car was certainly designed with driver safety in mind, and in the long run, that safety will hopefully make all the money worth spending. But the question is, couldn't some of these problems have been avoided if NASCAR hadn't been so hard set on meeting the time deadline of Bristol? It would seem like a little more testing could have been done to make sure the exhaust gases were properly expelled from the car, poisoning the driver compartment and obviously endangering the drivers' lives in the process. The foam, on the other hand, was never a problem in any of the test sessions, and it may just be a symptom of the fact that NASCAR relaxed the technical inspection process so that the cars could make it in time for the first race. There will undoubtedly be quite a bit of testing now that the foam issue has presented itself, and NASCAR will ultimately figure out a safe composition and technical specification that will prevent any further issues with foam catching fire. But that doesn’t change the fact there was a calculated risk involved in relaxing the inspection process in the first place, a risk that ended up putting several drivers’ lives in danger. Who knows how much longer it would take before these problems were resolved in the lab; but in this case, later is better when tragedy can strike around every corner of every lap.
The end result is that there have been a few problems with the new car, to say the least, and there will probably be a few more as the racing continues this year in the 16 races it will compete in. As with any new car or specification, there will be things that come up that were not anticipated or uncovered in testing. As long as NASCAR learns from these experiences and makes the modifications necessary to make the car safe for everyone involved, then this discussion will be moot. It’s just a shame that people had to get sick and exposed to some potentially deadly gases in order for these serious problems to be discovered and addressed.
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