“Some of those worked, some of those haven’t,” NASCAR Chief Racing Development Officer and executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said in a recent interview with NBC Sports. “But it’s led us to some initiatives with the race teams, through the floorboards, through different protection areas, through some anti-intrusion in the car. We’re working with the teams now to implement as early as 2017, if not earlier, depending on as they develop new cars.”
Two of the most significant wrecks in NASCAR since last year occurred at Daytona: Dillon’s wreck on the last lap in the rain-delayed Coke Zero 400 resulted in five fans being treated for injuries caused by debris from his No. 3 Chevrolet, but the Richard Childress Racing driver walked away.
In the Xfinity Series opener on Feb. 21, 2015, Kyle Busch slammed into an unprotected interior wall in Turn 1 after skidding through fronstretch grass that since has been paved over. Busch missed nearly three months with a broken right leg and fractured left foot.
Last weekend at Sonoma Raceway, Busch was critical of NASCAR for keeping the rules static for Daytona after three cars got airborne May 1 at Talladega Superspeedway. Danica Patrick also was involved in a heavy wreck similar to Busch’s at Daytona.
“As far as rule changes in Daytona, I was certainly hoping that we would see something coming off the race that we saw at Talladega,” Busch said. “No rule changes is not a welcoming sight for me, but it is what it is. We’ll go and crash some more.”
O’Donnell defended NASCAR’s deliberate approach to safety advances, noting that a 2015 initiative in which safety harnesses/belts were mounted to seats instead of the chassis “certainly allowed (Dillon) to walk away” from the Daytona crash.
“If we can see something, we’re going to implement it as quickly as we can, but you’ve got to make sure it works,” O’Donnell said. “To do that, you’ve got to study it, test it and validate it. You’ve got to make sure you get the correct results, and it’ll hold up at high speeds at the track. That’s not just something we can say we think it works. It has to work when we put it in place.
“That’s one of the things that you look at with Austin prior to the crash. The belts adjustment worked. And we’re proud of the fact that worked, and he was able to get up and walk away.”
O’Donnell said NASCAR always was evaluating liftoff speeds but also was focused on the incident involving Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota, which got airborne during a spin at Talladega.
In the case of the other airborne wrecks at Talladega, and Dillon’s crash at Daytona, the cars took flight after contact with another vehicle.
“Where we’re most concerned is where a car gets airborne on its own,” O’Donnell said. “That’s very rare. If you look at Talladega and the 20 car, that happened. The others are really a result of what we call “ramping up” in terms of Austin Dillon getting into another car and getting airborne, which happened twice at Talladega as well.
“It’s inherent in racing, and it can happen really at any racetrack we’re at, it’s not something we like to see, but where we’re really focused is a car on its own getting sideways, getting up in the air. Still a rare occurrence, but any occurrence is more than we’d like to see, so we’re constantly focused on that.”
Another focus is catchfence technology. O’Donnell hinted in the wake of Dillon’s crash last year that a future iteration “may not be a fence.”
O’Donnell said last week there “still is a lot of ongoing studying with the fencing” but indicated there weren’t any imminent changes. As part of the Daytona Rising overhaul that made its debut in February, Daytona removed the first few rows of grandstands and prevented fans from the “rim road” encircling the track (changes that were planned before Dillon’s crash after airborne wrecks that injured fans in 2012 and ’13).
“First and foremost, the fence did its job” in Dillon’s crash, O’Donnell said. “Its job is to keep that vehicle back on the racetrack side, which it did. Certainly the seating area was adjusted in Daytona, we learned to keep some of the fans off the rim road. As we go forward, we’ll be studying some more aspects with our track safety experts to look at what if anything we can do in addition to the fencing and cabling.”
NASCAR conducts exhaustive internal studies after major crashes similar to Busch’s and Dillon’s. An incident data recorder provides information on rates of acceleration and deceleration, as well as the G forces sustained by a driver at impact. NASCAR also consults with the driver, team members who built the car and sometimes outside experts to consider potential improvements.
After Dillon’s crash, his No. 3 Chevrolet was brought to the R&D Center for a complete teardown (before being returned to the team), and photos and videos gathered at the track also were studied.
“You combine that with the incident data recorder and then you’re able to, when you test and try new things, you can reenact that incident almost in its entirety, and it’s as exact as possible,” O’Donnell said. “You can reconstruct the speeds and angles to see if the new things you’ve put in place did work and are something you want to take the next step with.”
Advancements showing the most promise from the dozen projects launched by Dillon’s crash are in anti-intrusion areas, and O’Donnell said some of the developments involve plates within the cockpit that help protect drivers’ feet. NASCAR also has studied floorboard designs after Busch’s crash and has shared data with teams to develop directions on safety features.
“There are a lot of different things that we’re looking at and also studying what is unique in Austin’s crash,” O’Donnell said. “We’re looking at the floorboards and protecting the foot box area. Those are some of the things if you look specifically at Kyle’s incident that we’ve worked with the teams to try to implement going forward.”
In a buzzword that’s been sounded throughout the industry this year, the research also has become more collaborative this season with the formation of a safety council (one of several new committees introduced with the team charter system).
“I’ve said many times we have some of the smartest people in the industry working on our race teams,” O’Donnell said. “So we’ve worked hand in hand with them as well to look at different safety initiatives. It’s tough to pinpoint a number, but I’d say it’s in the hundreds of folks who are daily focused on safety. Again, it’s safer than it’s ever been, but we’re in a dangerous sport, and we’ve got to learn each and every day and apply those (lessons) as quickly as we can.”