CONCORD, North Carolina — On a week that 2 drivers announced that they’d skip Sundays race due to injury, NASCAR conducted a crash test in Ohio to further figure out on how to help less the stiffness of these new Next Gen race cars. 2 drivers have missed time due to concussion like symptoms that developed after rear end impacts and the other with a leg injury after hard contact in Texas.
The safety aspect has been questioned by the drivers and teams and NASCAR isn’t taking it lightly.
“I don’t know. You tell me,” Elliott said on how we got here. “I don’t have a good answer for you on that. I really don’t. That is what baffles me. I have no idea how we got here. I don’t know.”
It almost feels like the 2000, 2001 and 2002 era all over again that lost drivers frequently. For a sport that has come a long way since that dark period and prides itself in not losing a driver in a race since Dale Earnhardt’s tragic crash in the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, you get the sense that the sport is tempting fate, again.
“No one’s immune to it; it could be me next week,” Elliott said from the Talladega Superspeedway media center last Saturday morning. “It could be any of my peers or fellow competitors. I just hate to see us go backwards and I’m afraid that we have.”
After a very routine hit with the Turn 4 SAFER barrier at the Texas Motor Speedway, there’s no way that Bowman should have been facing symptoms like he’s having. It looked like nothing. However, here we are as he’s the second driver of the year to miss time for a head injury following rear end impact with this new car and now like Busch, it will last multiple weeks.
“We just want to feel less inside the car,” Christopher Bell said on Saturday. “You look from the outside and you watch crashes and it doesn’t look like anything is happening. But our body seems to be absorbing the majority of the impacts instead of the car absorbing the impacts. We just want the car to help us out where we’re not absorbing as much.”
Kyle Larson said he feels safer in a sprint car than he does in his Cup car. Ryan Blaney agreed with both of his peers.
“The unfortunate side is we knew about this stuff before coming into this year and we thought it would be OK and it wasn’t,” Blaney said. “It is harder. Heck, you had guys saying right away in preseason testing like, ‘These hits feel a lot harder than what it was last year,’ and to us it’s frustrating that no one listened or believed because we’re the only ones who feel these hits.
“No one from NASCAR is strapping in and going and feeling these hits. I’ve always said, ‘All right, go strap in this thing and go wreck it at 160 (mph) with the old car and then go wreck this new one at 160 and you tell me how you feel after the hit.’ You’re gonna know it’s harder. That’s what it’s designed for, but some of the medium impacts feel way harder than the last car, for sure.”
This isn’t the first time the drivers have warned that this car hits harder than its predecessor.
“My whole body, literally my jaw hurts,” Hamlin said after his Daytona crash at the end of August. “I feel like my jaw was one of those boxers who gets his whole face demolished. That was certainly the first real big one I’ve had in this car. Everything they’ve been telling us (about the impacts), all the other drivers, it’s true.”
Kevin Harvick also previously had some choice words about safety himself.
“The safety cannot be slow,” Harvick stated. “This car is screwed up as far as the way that it crashes. And whether the data says it or not, every driver in this garage will tell you that’s not right, and it hurts — feet hurt, hands hurt, head hurt.”
Instead of this new car going forward with safety, it’s gone backwards.
“You come off a week like we had at Texas and somebody getting injured and you’re coming into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point tomorrow and probably not lightly,” said Elliott. “Do you just not show up? Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask.
“I don’t feel like we should have ever been in this position to need to go forward. We should have gone forward with a new opportunity at a new car, in my opinion. You have all these years of experience and knowledge and time of racing and crashing these cars and teams working on them and building them, and it just blows me away that we can have something new in 2022 that offers all this technology and all this time and experience of so many just super talented people in this sport and we allow to go backward, especially with safety.
“I think it’s just super surprising to me that we allowed that to happen, but we did, and now it’s just about how do we go forward from here making sure we make the right choices to improve what we have and keep things like what happened to Alex this week from happening, and what happened to Kurt.
“We had time to test this car and crash it and do all the things we need to do to make sure some of these things aren’t happening that are happening now. We had a ton of time to do that, and this car was delayed an entire calendar year on top of that. You have to think, we had an extra year of time to work on it, and we’re still in this position. There’s no excuse for going backward. We have too many smart people, too much technology, too many years of crashing and racing at all these same racetracks to have some of these things that are going on that are. Test next week or no test next week, we should not be in the position that we are in. When you come out with a new product, you should take steps forward, not stay the same or go backward.
“There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. My frustration, as I’ve referenced here in the past few minutes, is I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had the choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry and that just should have never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that, that we had years in time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t. And now, we’re having to fix it and I just hate that we did that. Like I said, I think we’re smarter than that and I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”
Denny Hamlin said they got pointed in this backwards direction from “bad leadership.” How do they get out of it?
“New leadership,” he says.
As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”
“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.”
There’s trust issues developing, but Elliott is confident that they’ll make the right changes to make this right.
“I’m confident that we will, but it’s crucial that we do, in my opinion, because having guys out in the playoffs or any time for that matter, shouldn’t be happening,” Elliott continued. “I think it’s taking away from our product on Sunday, which that should be the focus. Who wins? Who loses? How the race was and how a guy did driving his car, and how a team did executing a good or a bad race.”
That’s why NASCAR went to Ohio to figure this out this past week and by all accounts, that test went really well. NASCAR had a 20 slide presentation ready for the drivers on Saturday morning but due to such an open dialogue, they only got through a handful of them.
There was mixed messages on how well the meeting truly went but by all accounts, it was a good start. NASCAR has said that they’d be open to continuing Saturday meeting on race morning when there’s more time to go over what they found.
Time was limited on Saturday due to practice and qualifying coming up. However, more time could be had on Sunday as NASCAR is taking the right steps and wants more dialogue with the drivers and willing to give all the time that they want.
“It was definitely tense from the driver side,” said Christopher Bell. “NASCAR did a good job of trying to answer the questions asked, but you can tell that there’s frustration. We got through two slides. I believe that they had a much larger presentation available to us, but we got stuck in open conversation that took up the majority of the time.”
The result found was beneficial too because changes are coming for 2023 to help the safety aspect.
Joey Logano said that while he’s happy to finally be having these conversations with NASCAR, it’s way too late. He feels like they should have occurred the Monday after Busch’s Pocono crash. He knows that they have to race the rest of the year status quo and have that big risk that someone else could still get injured because it’s clearly too late to be making changes now.
“We need to hold them honest now,” Logano said after earning his 25th career pole on Saturday afternoon. “We got a meeting out of it, and I hope it’s not because a couple of guys got fired up in the media. I hope that’s not how we make change in the sport.
“It will be calm when the car is fixed.”