INDIANAPOLIS — Kevin Harvick questions how NASCAR prioritizes safety in light of driver complaints about feeling harder impacts this year and Kurt Busch missed his second straight race due to concussion-like symptoms .
But NASCAR’s chief safety officer said “we’re always looking for ways to make things better.”
Some drivers told NBC Sports last month that they felt harder impacts this year with the Next Gen car than with the previous car. More drivers spoke about the issue Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“The pilots’ concerns just didn’t seem to resonate into a really, really quick response to try to make it’s better,” Harvick said. “It is worrying. I know everyone will tell you that they are working on it.
“I don’t think they understand the extent of the situation and actually how bad it is when you hit stuff. … I don’t think anyone really understands, other than drivers who have hit something, the violence that comes in the car. That doesn’t seem like a high enough priority to me.
John Patalak, general manager of safety engineering for NASCAR, told NBC Sports earlier this month that this year’s crash data is similar to previous years. Drivers recognize this, but say they feel the impacts more.
A particular concern is when a car backs into the wall. Changes to the rear reinforced certain areas compared to the previous car.
“From the start, everyone could see that this car was way too stiff,” Harvick said. “When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice) I thought the car was wrecked and it barely moved the bumper back. It was like someone hit you with a hammer.
Christopher Bell said he had a headache after backing into the wall during the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway in May. Busch also backed into the wall at Pocono before his car shattered and made a second impact on the right side.
“The car is not banned,” Patalak told NBC Sports of possible safety upgrades. “We’re actively looking for ways, we’re always looking for ways to make things better. We just shared with the drivers some simulation work we’ve done for rear impacts, looking at the structure of the car. … We’re still investigating on (the car), let’s see how it behaves on the circuit and see what we can do better.
Drivers became more vocal this weekend on safety after Busch’s crash at Pocono. There’s a belief in the garage that a series of impacts this year for Busch contributed to his injury. Busch’s car co-owner Denny Hamlin said Busch “took a lot of beatings over 25 Gs. The body can only take so much.
“Just unhappy for Kurt,” said 23XI Racing teammate Bubba Wallace. “You never know what blow might trigger it, do you?” It turns out that was the one. I think back to my success in Atlanta, and in terms of numbers, it was the hardest blow of my career and I was ready to come back the next day. It’s crazy how it works.
Daniel Suarez remains convinced that NASCAR will find solutions for the drivers.
“It’s a bit concerning that the impact our friend Kurt Busch had in Pocono had these kinds of results,” Suarez said. “The impact didn’t seem that difficult, but NASCAR has a very large group of smart people working on it, and I’m sure they’ll find answers to the questions we have.”
Corey LaJoie is on the Drivers Advisory Council led by NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton. LaJoie and Joey Logano, another member of the council’s board of directors, are spearheading the council’s security efforts.
LaJoie told NBC Sports that additional areas under review include the SAFER barrier, helmets and mouth guard accelerometers.
LaJoie said NASCAR may remove some pieces of foam behind the SAFER barrier at certain tracks to allow the barrier to give more and potentially absorb more impact. NASCAR is also considering different padding in helmets, similar to some changes to football helmets. LaJoie was among four drivers who raced last week with a mouthguard accelerometer, which is used to collect data on the impact of a crash on a driver.
“It’s easy to point the finger at car, car, car, but the car is designed for outlier crashes, the T-wreck where it’s considerably safer,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “In almost every area, it’s safer.
“But the thing is when you back one like Kurt did in Pocono, the back end, the transaxle, the way it is, and the beefed up fuel cell like it is now in this car and how the rear clip is built, the previous car you back into the fence and the whole rear clip would loop under the rear case…. You had a foot and a half of crush, and now you get eight inches of crush and that’s a big difference in dispersing the energy.