There was a time when a significant element a racecar driver needed to find speed wasn’t something that could necessarily be seen, confidence: Confidence in the equipment, the racecar, to stick to the track, hold the corner, and keep the driver safe should that driver push the envelope a bit too far.
All those elements haven’t changed with the Next Gen car, except perhaps one: safety. In recent weeks after hard crashes sidelined two drivers with concussions, and the talk in the industry has been all about safety.
For drivers in NASCAR’s Playoffs safety is something they can’t worry about when it’s time to race.
“Honestly, I can’t speak for everybody, I can only speak for myself, but it’s not something I think about when I strap in the car,” Ryan Blaney said Saturday at Charlotte prior to Sunday’s cutoff race on the ROVAL. “You think about that stuff during the week and when we have these meetings, ‘OK, how can we improve this,’ but when I strap in the race car I don’t think about my safety, I think about how to go as fast as I can. That’s just something that I have to do. If I think about multiple things, I’m not focused on the task at hand, so that’s not something that pops into my head when I strap in, so that’s the best answer I can give you. That’s just me personally.”
As for the confidence when it comes to safety, Blaney said he relies on what goes on prior to the race for that.
“Personally, for speed and confidence in your equipment, the way that I look at that is confidence that my car has enough grip in it to drive it hard,” Blaney said. “I have confidence that my team has done everything possible in their power to make me as safe in the race car as they can – from making sure your seat, your headrest, your belts, everything is on par with what it should be and that we’ve done our best job possible. That’s really where I leave it.
“I know they (the team) did a great job at getting me all situated where I need to be and then the confidence in the equipment side is that it’s gonna stick when I get in the corner – not the ‘if something doesn’t stick and I wreck.’ I don’t think about that side of that confidence. “
NASCAR has been studying ways to improve the safety of the new car. Many drivers have pointed out that the front and rear clips, containing mostly suspension parts, are too stiff and send much of the energy from a crash directly to the driver.
This past Wednesday of the week leading into the ROVAL race, NASCAR conducted crash testing in Ohio and said that there are some areas they found, particularly in the rear, that could be changed, and will be heading into 2023. NASCAR executives also held a closed-door meeting with drivers prior to qualifying Saturday. The meeting which lasted just over 75 minutes, revealed the findings of that crash test, and held open dialogue with the drivers, a dialogue that took up much of the meeting.
“It was definitely tense from the driver side. NASCAR did a good job of trying to answer the questions asked, but you can tell that there’s frustration,” driver Christopher Bell said. “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.”
Joey Logano, who won the pole for Sunday, seemed pleased with the meeting, for the most part.
“Yeah, I feel much better,” he said. “I feel like the meeting was very open and honest, which I feel like was necessary for all the drivers to get some things off their chest and their real concerns of what we’ve been going through and the experiences from inside the car.
“The frustrating part is it took way too long to have that meeting. That meeting should have happened Monday after Kurt’s crash, not waiting until Alex had his crash and at least hear us out. I’m not saying they weren’t working on it after Kurt’s crash, but the communication in person is so important.
Busch crashed during qualifying a Pocono Raceway in June. Logano pointed out that having a face-to-face meeting was better than remote.
“You guys know. You’re sitting here,” he told assembled press in the Charlotte media center. “We used to do Zoom media and can you tell me that when you did all those Zoom calls that it was a good as being in person? No, you can’t say those interviews are worth a crap compared to being in person. And it’s the same thing when you’re talking about your life in a race car.”
And he insists those meetings should have been done sooner, and he hopes NASCAR will go further.
“It’s a little bit more important than that and we should be in person having those meetings a lot, not when we need to but before we need to, and I think those messages were heard loud and clear,” he said. “There is a plan to try to help the rear impacts, as you guys know, but we need to stay focused on the rest of the car as well. There are a lot of other spots on the car we want to make better as well.”
NASCAR held open the possibility of second follow up meeting Sunday prior to the race. And like Blaney said when it’s time to race, racers have to race, not worry about safety.
“Yeah, is the possibility there for injury? It always is. It’s a race car,” Logano said. “There’s some kind of chance I’m gonna take driving home from here, so you try to assess the risk before you take it and try to do the right things that you can control before you jump in the race car. That’s your head surround, your helmet, your HANS. The things I can control I need to be ready for and do, and then at that point we need to keep communicating to NASCAR and their engineers in designing a car that accepts impacts better.”
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