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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: The Car of Tomorrow & The Safety Delusion

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.

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, DW 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 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.

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