NASCAR wants cars slower at Talladega
Ryan Newman's injuries could have been a lot worse. The NASCAR driver could have died during the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February, when his No. 6 Ford Mustang went spinning, flipping and flaming through the air.
Instead, Newman was released from the hospital a few days later with what he called a "bruised brain" and returned to racing along with the sport amid the coronavirus pandemic in May. He said he felt "completely normal" a few weeks after the wreck.
"It doesn't get enough credit," Daytona 500 and Sunday's Homestead race winner Denny Hamlin said. "We all need to realize that Newman's crash was the best, right? No long-term injuries or anything like that. Bumps and bruises here and there, but essentially everything did its job."
NASCAR's safety and R&D team didn't do much sitting around and patting themselves on the back amid Newman's miraculous recovery, however. While still at the track, the team launched an investigation into how to further improve car safety, and announced those updates in early May.
"While stock-car racing is inherently dangerous, our safety experts continue to make significant strides in this area," NASCAR SVP of innovation and racing development John Probst said Monday. "Our work in safety is never complete. We view that as an ongoing project for us, and for all our competitors for that matter."
The crash investigation process included taking photos outside and inside the vehicles involved in the wreck. In this case, it was Newman's No. 6 car and Corey LaJoie's No. 32 car, which hit Newman on the driver's side after he spun out.
The safety team also looked at the drivers' restraint systems, as well as information on the incident data recorders and high-speed video cameras, which sit inside the drivers' compartments, to collect crash data. Those findings were then added to NASCAR's collective crash database and evaluated, NASCAR director of safety engineering John Patalak said.
"All of this information that was found from those inspections was compared to the available data and video sources in order to create a step-by-step understanding of the crash sequence," Patalak said.
NASCAR returns on May 17, 2020. After the No. 6 driver survived the crash at the Daytona 500, he will be behind the wheel at Darlington. He's only missed three races because of the COVID-19 pandemic. BY STEPHANIE BUNAO
Monday - before the sport heads to the next superspeedway race at Talladega this weekend - officials elaborated on the safety changes, which are primarily aimed at slowing cars down and reducing the likelihood of tandem drafting, the racing maneuver that caused Newman's car to spin out from contact to his rear bumper by Ryan Blaney.
"Slowing the cars down surely should and would help from an aero liftoff standpoint," Patalak said. "I would say our findings from the Ryan Newman crash, his liftoff was not due to an aero event but from him getting into the wall."
"The idea there is that reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down, we would expect speeds under the 200 mph barrier here," Patalak continued. "So from that standpoint, slowing the cars down, keep them from having as violent wrecks."
Specifically, here's what NASCAR is updating for Sunday, and why:
New rule: Elimination of aero ducts at superspeedway tracks.
What it is: The aero ducts are essentially aerodynamic holes that allow air to flow out of the vehicle in front of the tires.
Why the change: Probst said this change helps mitigate the likelihood that cars will be able to tandem draft, which is considered a dangerous move in which cars run directly behind one another nose-to-tail to increase speed, although the maneuver is still often implemented.
"I think with the reduction in power, the aero ducts going away, that will make sort of a smaller hole, if you will, that should make it much more difficult to get into that configuration," Patalak said.
New rule: Reduction in size of throttle body at superspeedways (only)
What it is: The throttle body helps control the amount of air flowing into the engine in response to a driver accelerating, so the reduction in its size is aimed at reducing car speed and the likelihood of tandem drafting. Probst said NASCAR expects to see horsepower around 500 HP at Talladega with the updates, and would like to keep cars running below the 205-207 mph range.
Why the change: "It's an expected horsepower loss of somewhere between 35 and 40 horsepower," Probst said. "Which general rule of thumb the teams use is 30 horsepower per second, so with the 40 horsepower, we expect the cars to slow down by over a second compared to what they would have run."
New rule: Oil reservoir tank or overflow expansion tank must contain a check valve, mandatory at all tracks beginning with Talladega.
What it is: As the car races, pressure in the oil tank changes, and can potentially overflow into the oil reservoir tank or overflow expansion tanks. The check valve basically seals the tanks to prevent hot oil from coming out if the car flips and the oil is overflowing.
Why the change: "One of the items that was seen post-incident was the fluid coming out of the trunk that was confirmed to be oil," Probst said. "So these fixes are intended to mitigate the loss of oil in that situation when the car is upside down." Basically, it's to prevent hot oil from spewing onto the driver or track.
New rule: Addition of a lower main roll bar support bar, intrusion plate and upper main roll bar support bar, mandatory at superspeedways and optional elsewhere.
What it is: The roll cage is the network of tubes that forms a sturdy structure around the driver for protection in case the car flips. Newman actually had a front bar added and unofficially named after him (the "Newman bar") in 2013 after campaigning for NASCAR to update its safety enhancements following an earlier incident.
Why the change: According to Probst, the newest support bar has been added to do just that: Support. Specifically, the addition of the steel plate and bar makes the structure on the drivers' side stronger to prevent the cage from collapsing in on the driver if the same hit occurs in the future. Plating in the triangle just behind the driver's seat (lower left picture) was required after drivers Kyle Busch and Danica Patrick had major wrecks at Talladega, but until now, NASCAR did not require plating above that area. Probst said there was no reason why the support bar wasn't already in there.
New rule: Updated roll bar padding specifications, mandatory at all tracks beginning in June.
What it is: Roll bar padding is essentially the padded material that surrounds roll bars to provide more cushion upon impact.
Why the change: Teams have typically manipulated required padding to make the car more aerodynamic instead of using as intended for safety, according to one longtime crew member.
"I think NASCAR is going to crack down on where the roll padding goes and the type of roll bar padding teams have to use," said the crew member, who was granted anonymity to avoid repercussions. "There are no more of these games of trying to cover window openings and all this other stuff."
New rule: Slip tape must be applied along the entire length of the lower rearward facing surfaces of the rear bumper cover and extension, at superspeedways only.
What it is: Slip tape reduces friction between two vehicles when they make contact. "It's almost like ice," Probst said. "We're trying to make the rear bumper of the car being hit, like ice, where (the cars) slide across, don't contact and start influencing the car in front laterally, left to right, if you will."
Why the change: Most teams already used slip tape across the rear bumper to allow another car to push without causing it to spin out, but it likely won't cause a major change.
"I think it's just a mental thing that says let's make these cars harder to spin out because theoretically, (the tape) makes it better," the crew member said. "But it's not like you're gonna see cars spinning out less. It's not like you're going to see different drafting. It's not gonna affect anything that you'll see. It's just an idea. Most teams already ran it for years."
Probst confirmed: "The idea there is that if (drivers) are tandem drafting or bump drafting, to minimize the ability of (one) car to upset the balance of the other. It won't eliminate it, but it should be a mitigating part."
Patalak and Probst also said there would be a more uniform specification for the window net mounting, as teams sometimes manipulate that to use as an aerodynamic device rather than for its intended safety purposes. Officials have not yet debriefed with Newman and his Roush Fenway Team about the findings since that part of the process was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, but the most substantial changes have already been announced.
"Safety is a never-ending journey for us as we see things like this that come up that we weren't able to predict. We do react and apply more safety to the cars," Probst said. "If we could today, with a crystal ball, know how every car is going to wreck between now and eternity, I would do everything in my power to try to prevent it."
Crashes in the sport are essentially unavoidable, but resulting injuries, and even death, are now farther from that.