The 2020 Daytona 500 was a reminder that drivers can still get hurt in these race cars and we can never be too safe. Ryan Newman‘s accident was one of the scariest we’ve seen in this sport for a long time. Newman is currently recovering, having been released from Halifax Medical Center on Wednesday afternoon. Luckily, the outcome of the incident was much better than originally anticipated. However, we can still take a lesson from Monday night’s accident. Safety is the most important thing.
We have just three races left with this current superspeedway package, as NASCAR will introduce a new racecar in 2021. Will adjusting the rules do anything to help the safety of these racecars or was this just a freak accident? Should we change the rules at the superspeedway tracks?
Slow the Cars Down!
There is no such thing as being too safe. That’s why in NASCAR safety and rules are always evolving. Some fans may not like the advancements NASCAR has made with safety because it has hurt the competition but find me a fan that likes what they saw on Monday night. Racing is a dangerous sport and there is no guarantee that the racing will ever be 100% safe, but there are certainly steps NASCAR can take to make the racing safer at the superspeedway tracks.
One of major steps that NASCAR can work on is the speed of the race cars in the draft at Daytona and Talladega. NASCAR no longer has restrictor plates on these racecars, instead they use a combination of tapered spacers and a big spoiler to help slow the cars down. Speeds in the draft reached as high as 206 mph, speeds we haven’t seen in almost three decades. It’s mind-boggling to me that the speeds were that fast and we thought we could have a safe race. NASCAR has always been a step ahead of the competition when it came to reducing the speed of the cars but in this case, they were a step behind. Slowing these cars down will not eliminate dangerous wrecks, but it will certainly make them less likely to happen.
Speeds at that rate mean that reaction time is slowed and the cars are more likely to lift off the ground. Newman’s car got airborne as soon as it got sideways. It hit the wall with massive force and then toppled over, leaving him exposed to be hit by Corey LaJoie’s Ford. Had speeds been lower, would Newman’s car have toppled over so quickly or would he have hit the wall so violently? Definitely not.
There was of course Ty Majeski’s wreck in the truck series race on Friday night in which his truck turned over. However, the two wrecks were completely different. Not that Majeski’s wreck wasn’t scary, but the violent nature of Newman’s crash and how high Newman got in the air was a reflection of the speed that the Cup cars have compared to the Trucks. Newman also slid on his roof a lot longer than Majeski. The drastic difference in speed played a big role in that.
The truck race also reiterates the fact that slower speeds doesn’t mean bad racing. Ask many fans what they thought of the truck race on Friday night. Most, if not all, would say it was an excellent race. The Truck race allowed the drivers to lean on each other a bit more and bump draft a bit easier. With the racing as tight as it is, bump drafting is essential for passing to occur. I believe with the speed of the Cup cars, it makes it more difficult to do that without causing an accident.
There are other things that we need to look at as well. The first 170 laps of the race had nothing to do with the last 30. We need to bring handling back to the cars a little bit and let these drivers get away from each other. Make the entire race important, not just the final stage. For many of the veteran drivers the strategy was to hang in the back until about 30 laps to go. The race has become a race of survival and that’s not what these races should be about.
However, I think it all begins with slowing the cars down. It would change the way we race and it would help the drivers maneuver a little bit more without losing control so easily. Some of the best superspeedway races have come when the speeds were well below 200 mph. While there are only three superspeedway races left to run in 2020 before the next generation of car comes in 2021, slowing down the cars at the superspeedway races would go a long way in preventing another major accident like we saw Monday night.
It’s time for NASCAR to make some rule changes and slow these cars down. There is no need for stock cars to approach speeds over 200 MPH. That usually leads to chaos and puts the drivers safety at risk. – Clayton Caldwell
Manage the Mindset – Not the Machines
Ever since NASCAR downsized the cars in 1981, we’ve encountered challenges with how to prevent the types of accidents that have become synonymous with superspeedway racing. From roof flaps, SAFER Barriers, various ducts, wickers, and spoilers, the brightest engineering minds have poured everything they have into driver (and spectator) preservation.
In the 1980s, it was how can we keep these cars on the ground? Some of the most iconic video and still photos from this era endure today. Connie Saylor blowing over at Daytona, Cale Yarborough looking out the passenger side window on a 200+ mph qualifying lap– with all 4 wheels off the ground. Ricky Rudd being flung about and nearly out of his window at the 1984 Busch Clash, culminating in Bobby Allison coming perilously close from ending up in the grandstands at Talladega – and narrowly missing the flag stand as well. It took a few years, but ultimately the decision was made to keep speeds under 200 mph with a restrictor plate.
In the 1990s, the restrictor plate brought us slower speeds, but bunched up fields were producing field clearing wrecks in the process. Some that readily come to mind: the 1990 Pepsi 400 at Daytona on lap 2, a Monday race at Talladega in 1991 that saw Kyle Petty break his left and Alan Kulwicki nearly losing a foot in a crash that wiped out half the field. The halfway point of races used to pay a bonus, and that was enough in the 1992 Daytona 500 to wreck so many racecars that only six were left on the lead lap at the end of the race. In 1993, cars started becoming airborne again. Rusty Wallace barrel rolled, tumbled and flipped end over end down the backstretch at the Daytona 500 – and was sent skyward at Talladega a few months later coming to the finish line, trying to block Dale Earnhardt.
The restrictor plates moved around in size here and there, but the biggest improvement during this time were roof flaps designed to help keep cars from taking off once they got backwards. Developed and manufactured by Roush Racing, they were largely successful, but not foolproof. Still, a successful safety innovation that allowed superspeedway racing to remain a viable product. The issue remained of big packs where there was nowhere to escape trouble when something went wrong. Ken Schrader taking a tumble at Talladega in 1995, Ricky Craven being launched six stories in 1996, and Earnhardt’s horrific 1996 crash at Talladega, to his blowover in 1997, cars were still getting upside down, and fields decimated. It was during this time that the term “The Big One” was coined – and there was little it seemed that could be done.
Speeds weren’t terribly fast back then – high 180s to mid-190 mph, putting out less horsepower than today, and about what you can rent in a Mustang or a Camaro at Hertz for $100 a day.
Through the 2000s and following the tragic death of Earnhardt on the last lap of the Daytona 500, it seemed every wreck became worse. Elliott Sadler had a couple of wild rides at Talladega, as did drivers in the Xfinity Series. The Car of Tomorrow with its giant rear wing seemed to exacerbate the airborne issue. Newman experienced this firsthand with a Top Fuel-esque reverse end over end maneuver in 2009.
Regardless of what was being done, we continued to have cars get airborne, despite a speed reduction that saw cars going 220 mph on the backstretch in the mid-1980s, to almost 30 mph slower in the early 1990s. The behavior of the cars was similar as well. There were three crashes at Daytona in similar spots in 2000, 2009 and 2020.
Ricky Rudd got hooked by a spinning Bobby Labonte coming to the line in the 2000 Bud Shootout – at a time when they lapping at speeds under 190 mph.
At the 2009 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Tony Stewart turned Kyle Busch head on into the wall, very close to where Ryan New struck Monday night. The speeds during this era of an actual plate and the COT wing that created a lot of drag were in the low to mid 180s in the draft.
Compare that to Newman’s impact at right around 200 mph.
These are three generations of cars, traveling at speeds varying by 15 mph, and the results were nearly the same. The difference was Newman and Rudd’s car both flipped over, but Kyle Busch’s remained upright – it just drifted back into traffic and into Kasey Kahne’s lap. Rudd’s accident could very well have ended up like Newman’s had there been more cars in the field, rather than the limited Bud Shootout lineup. The bottom line is, when racecars turn right head-on into a wall, bad things happen. In the 1980s, the big issue was cars spinning to the inside, air getting under them and flipping, barrel rolling, and launching parts everywhere. When they turn right, they tip over.
The other issue – and perhaps the bigger culprit – is the yellow line. It puts the lead car and those attempting to pass in a bad spot. For the leader, his objective is to not let anyone under, and guard the yellow line. NASCAR has rarely enforced the OK to pass if forced below rule, so the car attempting to pass doesn’t have a lot of options. The car following is traveling 5-10 mph faster with momentum, with a line of cars following. Lifting will likely cause the car attempting to pass to get ran into, or creating a chain reaction crash behind them. When any of this does happen, the common refrain of the past two decades is “oh well, product of plate racing.”
Talladega 2009 saw this play out in the worst way possible, with the passing car refusing to go below the yellow line as the leader tried to block his advance.
Ultimately, as an industry we’ve been pretty lucky over the last 10 years. Carl Edwards, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and now Ryan Newman (multiple times) have been put involved in near fatal accidents at the biggest tracks on the biggest stage. In most cases, fans have suffered worse injuries in these accidents than the drivers. Iconic images that while seared into our collective memory, have done little to date to affect the change that is most needed – behavior and mindset.
In the 1990s if there was a crash, it was rarely from getting a bumper beaten in, or the rear wheels lifted off the air from behind. When cars had a run, they could pull out to pass. There wasn’t a yellow line to worry about, but a ¼-mile of grass that would cause accidents. It was an era when cars couldn’t be used to move others, because that would cave the grille in, or wrinkle a fender rendering it noncompetitive.
To try and develop a new package with this current generation car for three remaining superspeedway races seems like an incredible amount of expense, effort and time for teams to invest to either have a net effect of zero improvement, or create another issue that didn’t exist before and possibly make things worse. In the past the answer has been to just slow the cars down. All that has done in the past is just make for a bigger pack and nowhere to go when there’s trouble.
When an accident is caused in Formula One – or a near-wreck – the race stewards investigate and take action when they deem a move was too risky or dangerous driving led to an accident. These are different cars and obviously a different style of racing, but what if there was a consequence to starting a 20-car accident? Would Joey Logano have blocked Kyle Busch as aggressively as he did through two corners had there been a real possibility of punitive action taken against him either monetarily or for the Daytona 500, with the Clash being part of Speedweeks? Would Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have caused the accident that sent William Byron spinning?
If the cost of delivering a monster bump draft down the backstretch that gets someone’s rear wheels off the ground was a 50-point penalty, perhaps that would temper some of the aggressive driving that has resulted as the cars have become more resilient. Teams are already estimated to spend almost $800,000 per car for the 2021 machine. Throwing yet another 11th hour engineering exercise at them for three races seems particularly financially punitive.
Also, while we might have a surplus of inventory this year with the 2021 platform changeover, do we really need THREE attempts at a finish under green? And why are the “greatest drivers in the world” on racing slicks spinning out, trying to come up to speed with less horsepower than anyone with a 600 credit score can finance at any Chevy, Dodge, or Ford dealership? One attempt at a green-flag finish, and that’s it. If you cause the wreck that cuts it short, you get fined points. If it’s determined you did something unsavory to end it to assist a teammate or yourself, you get suspended.
All of this is cheaper and more effective than creating a different package that leads to a different style of crashing.
If there was no penalty for going below the yellow line – even if it was on the final lap – would the contact from Ryan Blaney resulted in the accident that have everyone searching for a candle or a rosary Monday night? A long slide down the asphalt or spinning through the grass would be preferable to the 200 mph wall hit and subsequent roof-strike suffered by Newman. The good news is, the NextGen car for 2021 will being an even safer evolution of the Gen6 car, with additional measures in place following this latest catastrophic test of the current machine’s capabilities. I think it’s safe to say this current car is just about perfect based on the end-result that showed Newman walking out of Halifax Health Medical Center Wednesday afternoon. Changing the behavior and officiating is the quickest and most effective way to help prevent the frequency of these massive video-game scale accidents that we’ve been enduring in recent years. And if there’s anything that was reinforced on Monday night, this isn’t a game.
As Clint Bowyer tweeted after the race, “This shit is real.” – Vito Pugliese
About the author
Clayton has been writing NASCAR for the last seven years and has followed the sport for as long as he can remember. He's a Jersey boy with dreams of hoping one day to take his style south and adding a different kind of perspective to auto racing.
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