One Hot Night: 25 years later, memories of All-Star Race ruled by ‘Forces of Darkness’

Charlotte Motor Speedway
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CONCORD, N.C. –  Roughly 40 minutes after the 1992 Winston ended in smoke, sparks and battered sheet metal, at least 1,000 fans still occupied the stands.

They were still trying to wrap their minds around it all.

TNN pit reporter Glenn Jarrett was tasked with talking to Richard Petty after his final start in the All-Star Race.

When Jarrett found him, Petty was looking out at the fans, still drenched in the brand-new lights surrounding Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Petty turned to Jarrett and pointed.

“These people think we’re going to go back out there and do this again?” The King asked in disbelief.

In those stands was Kyle Petty. The SABCO Racing driver, along with unofficial bodyguard Eddie Gossage, was walking through enemy territory.

Without an elevator available, they had to walk all the way to the press box. They ascended the steps through verbal and physical projectiles, all so Petty could tell his side of the story that was the last lap.

Petty appeared to touch Dale Earnhardt in Turn 3 (he didn’t), turning him sideways. Then his contact with Davey Allison at the finish line caused the first night race on a 1.5-mile speedway to end in a “shower of sparks” and with Allison in the hospital.

“Every freaking fan in the grandstands is teed off,” Kyle Petty says. “According to every fan, I wrecked Earnhardt going into Turn 3 and I wrecked Davey (at the start-finish line). That’s a fact. … I’m telling you, they were going to kill my butt. It was ugly. ”

In the garage, Larry McReynolds sat on a cooler next to the hauler for Allison’s No. 28 Ford.

The 33-year-old crew chief had just left the infield care center. Allison, after being taken there by ambulance, had left the track via helicopter to a hospital.

McReynolds just sat there, “trying to figure out what the hell just all happened.”

Kyle Petty, Larry McReynolds and Mike Joy at a recent event honoring “One Hot Night.” Photo: Daniel McFadin

THE FORCES OF DARKNESS

When McReynolds watched the leaders of The Winston enter Turn 1 for the final time on May 16, 1992, he thought his car was going to finish third behind Earnhardt and Kyle Petty.

Had he been right, those gathered around a long table in Charlotte’s Speedway Club on a Tuesday night 25 years later might have had other plans.

Among the attendees are Petty, McReynolds, Michael Waltrip, announcer Mike Joy and former crew chief Robin Pemberton.

On a plasma TV at the far end of the table, the broadcast of the 1992 Winston, also known as “One Hot Night,” silently runs in all its standard definition glory.

The sounds of a Camping World Truck Series test session dominate the air outside the club’s windows.

Over the course of the evening, the familiar images shown every May play out in their natural context. At one point or another, everyone’s past peers out from the TV.

Joy, the lead announcer for TNN’s broadcast, doesn’t speak too much this night. But when he does, he makes it count.

“Being a full moon Saturday night, this race was completely unkind to white cars,” Joy says. “This is going to come down to three black cars in the end. The forces of darkness, whatever you want to call it.”

After an hour of conversation and jokes, everyone’s attention turns to the TV for the last segment and then the final lap. The final lap by which all final laps have been judged since.

For half of it, McReynolds lived vicariously through a crew member named Roman. The crew member had flipped a 55-gallon barrel over and stood atop it to watch the race’s conclusion.

“All of a sudden the crowd is going crazy,” says McReynolds, wearing a vintage Texaco/Havoline blazer. “Then I saw Roman, his eyes were as big as saucers. I was like, ‘What the f— are they doing back there?’”

When the leaders reappeared exiting Turn 4, Allison and Petty were door-to-door with Earnhardt nowhere in sight.

“When they came off (Turn) 4 like that, I said ‘I know who’s going to win that drag race, Robert Yates,’ ” McReynolds says proudly of his former car owner and engine builder.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

What happened next was depicted on a painting sitting near the other end of the table. Allison’s car pointing backwards, about to impact the outside wall after taking the checkered flag and making contact with Petty. A spinning Earnhardt is shown in the background.

“It’s like two runners running for the (finish) line and you didn’t think about what was beyond that line,” McReynolds says.

“You just saw the line,” Petty says. “It’s like when you break that tape, you fall.”

The crash put Allison in the hospital until Monday, sent fans into frenzy and resulted in a rival’s car sitting in Allison’s hauler.

Davey Allison races during the 1992 Winston. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

FRENEMIES

As McReynolds sat on his cooler processing the night’s events, he thought about the near future.

“Our team had been through so much,” McReynolds says. “We had an unbelievable start. We won the Daytona 500 … we won North Wilkesboro (and Talladega). But were kind of going through a pattern. Winning one week and wrecking one week. … Here we figured out how to do both in the same night. But we were out of cars.”

From the garage appeared Tim Brewer, crew chief for Bill Elliott’s Junior Johnson-owned car.

“I don’t even know what to say to you, I guess I want to say I’m sorry, but then I also need to say congratulations,” Brewer said.

“This is not good, Tim,” McReynolds responded. “We’re out of frickin’ race cars.”

McReynolds told Brewer he had a brand new intermediate car for the Coke 600, a road course car and two speedway cars. He needed a backup car.

“I’ll give you guys a car,” Brewer said. “You keep it as long as you want, use it if you want to.”

The whole month of June, Robert Yates Racing hauled a Budweiser car with Texaco/Havoline decals stuck in the window, just in case.

Davey Allison celebrates winning the 1991 Winston, one year before “One Hot Night.”(Photo by Dozier Mobley/Getty Images)

NO HARSH WORDS

Even as Petty walked through the angry grandstands, he was concerned for his friend, Allison. Petty would call Allison two days later.

“I talked to Davey on Monday, I think he was still at the hospital when I talked to him,” Petty says. “He had a Busch (Xfinity) car and I was going to drive it over here the next week just to shut everybody up. But we couldn’t work it out with Ford and Pontiac.”

While fans may have wanted or expected there to be bad feelings between Allison and Petty, they were disappointed.

“I can say by the time I got to the hospital, there was never a negative word toward Kyle, between the 42 and the 28, it never even crossed our minds,” McReynolds says. “Two months later at Pocono with (Darrell Waltrip), that’s a whole ‘nother story.”

Anyone wanting bad blood between the drivers wasn’t aware of the nature of the relationship between the men who came of age in NASCAR’s garages.

“Davey and I were competitors, but there was never a rivalry,” Petty says. “We grew up together. We grew up in the garage area when we were 10 years old and (NASCAR official) Bill Gazaway trying to throw us out and running him through the garage area.

“We grew up at the swimming pool at the Sea Dip in Daytona Beach, Florida, swimming together and playing together. … Then he started racing and I was working with my dad, we didn’t see each other in those years. Then all of a sudden you’re back at the race track racing against each other. We never had harsh words. I never in my whole life, in my whole career racing against Davey in any way shape or form ever remember having anything but respect and a good relationship. There was no base for that, even after that wreck, there was nothing there.”

What about Earnhardt?

“Earnhardt’s OK, he’s not mad,” Petty says. “He’s mad, but not mad at anybody.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. poses in Victory Lane with his two sons, Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Kerry Earnhardt, right, after winning the Coca-Cola 600 race on May 24, 1992, one week after “One Hot Night. (Photo by Dozier Mobley/Getty Images)

‘TIME HAS REALLY GOTTEN MESSED UP’

The passage of time has a weird way of reminding you it’s relative.

Just ask NASCAR drivers.

“You know what’s crazy to me? ’92 seems like a thousand years ago,” Michael Waltrip says. “And nine years later was ‘01 when Dale died and that seems like yesterday.”

“I know, it does,” Petty agrees.

“Time had really gotten messed up for me,” says Waltrip, who won the Winston Open that preceded “One Hot Night” and later won the 1996 All-Star Race.

“I know … the same thing with Adam,” says Petty of his son who was killed in an accident during Busch Series practice in 2000 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Everything before Adam’s accident sounds like it was history. A million years ago.”

“It’s a blur?” someone asks.

“No, it’s just a long time ago,” Petty answers. ‘You know what I mean? … It feels like it was yesterday. It really does. Everything’s happened, like we were talking about how this years’ gone so fast, it’s like everything’s just sped up.”

Whether they’ve sped along or crept by, the 25 years since “One Hot Night” are punctuated by those who are not cutting it up with everyone in the Speedway Club.

Fourteen months after winning the race the helped define the sport for a generation, Allison died at 32 from injuries sustained in a helicopter accident at Talladega Superspeedway. He would have turned 56 in February.

A week after “One Hot Night,” Earnhardt won the Coke 600 for the third time. Earnhardt raced eight more seasons and won two more championships before being killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 at 49.

“By Davey not being here and Dale not being here now, that adds to it,” Petty says, now 56 and a NBC Sports analyst nine years after leaving the cockpit. “That’s a moment for (them). That changes how you perceive this race as you look back at it. If we were all three sitting here laughing about it and complaining about it, you may view it different. You wouldn’t view it in that nostalgic tone as much as you do now.”

The weight of the race and its impact on the trajectory of NASCAR didn’t hit McReynolds until the race’s 20th anniversary. In 2012, he, Pemberton and Joy sat on an infield stage at Charlotte to discuss the race with fans. Instead of his blazer, McReynolds wore his old team uniform.

“Honestly, that’s when it really sunk in me that was something pretty big and special,” McReynolds says.

“One Hot Night” was an exhibition. The eighth of 31 times the All-Star Race has been run.

Petty admits in its immediate wake, he considered it “just another race.”

“It lived up to every bit of the hype, like few things in sports do,” Petty says. “Rarely do things ever live up to the hype that you throw at them. The funny part in this sport … We’ve witnessed … some really great races. Some incredible races. Everywhere. But they don’t stick with you the way this race sticks with you. For some reason this race sticks with fans different than other races stick with you.”

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Friday 5: NASCAR President says ‘We care’ about driver safety

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NASCAR President Steve Phelps says that he will tell drivers this weekend that “we care” about them and safety.

Phelps and other series officials are scheduled to meet with drivers Saturday morning to discuss safety measures with the Next Gen car.

Three drivers will miss Sunday’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval because of crash-related injuries. 

It is believed to be the first time in more than 20 years that three full-time Cup drivers will sit out the same race because of injuries suffered in on-track accidents.

Kurt Busch will miss his 12th consecutive race Sunday. Concussion-like symptoms have sidelined him since a July 23 crash in qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He said recently that he is “hopeful” of returning but didn’t have a timeline. Five races remain in the season.

Alex Bowman will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms after his Sept. 25 crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Cody Ware is sitting out Sunday’s race while he recovers from an impaction fracture to his right ankle suffered in a Sept. 25 crash at Texas. Ware stated this week on social media that given the “extensive footwork required for a road course event, I don’t feel I’m able to give 100% effort to my team, my sponsors or to Ford.” He plans to be back in the the car the following week at Las Vegas.

Drivers says that the impacts they are feeling this year are harder with the Next Gen car. Busch and Bowman were injured in rear-end impacts.

The car was strengthened to help protect drivers in severe crashes, such as Ryan Newman’s 2020 Daytona 500 crash and Joey Logano’s 2021 Talladega accident. In making the car safer for those types of crashes, it’s made the impacts feel harder in more common crashes. 

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have been the most outspoken among drivers about NASCAR’s safety efforts. 

Hamlin questioned NASCAR’s leadership and called for the car to be redesigned last weekend at Talladega. Phelps met with Hamlin a day later.

“Denny and I have a good relationship,” Phelps told NBC Sports and The Associated Press on Wednesday. “We do. He says things that sometimes I disagree with. I’m sure there’s things I say that he disagrees with. 

“I probably would have gone with a different approach, understanding kind of what he knows what’s going on in the process. I’m certainly glad we had a discussion. I gave him my opinion. He gave me his. I thought there was a healthy discussion.”

More drivers began raising concerns last week about safety concerns with the car, including Chase Elliott.

“We need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make our drivers feel safe in the vehicles and have them understand that we certainly care about their safety because we do,” Phelps said. 

“We’re working on things with our own people internally, our race teams, (manufacturers) and drivers to make sure that we have a plan in place moving forward so that — I don’t know that it’s gaining the trust — but doing better. 

“Our goal is to be the safest motorsports on the planet … that’s what we’re aspiring to do.”

NASCAR conducted a crash test of a rear clip and rear bumper structure at an Ohio facility this week. Series officials are also examining elements with the headrest foam and working with Wake Forest University to test mouthpiece sensors that track a driver’s head movements in a crash. 

Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council and an analyst for NBC Sports, says he’s had regular communication with NASCAR on behalf of the drivers.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” Burton said last week at Talladega in regards to safety issues. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car.”

As for his message to drivers in Saturday’s meeting, Phelps said he would tell them: “We’re going to do our best to make sure that when you strap in that car, you feel safe.”

2. “Ridiculous statement”

NASCAR suspended crew chief Rodney Childers four races and penalized Kevin Harvick 100 points for modifications to a deck lid this week.

The penalties were discovered at NASCAR’s R&D Center. Series officials typically take a couple of cars back from most events to the R&D Center. More complete inspections can be done there than at the track.

NASCAR took the cars of Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. after last weekend’s race at Talladega. Truex’s car had no issues.

There are some who would suggest that NASCAR was getting back at Harvick for recent critical comments of NASCAR’s safety efforts. 

NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ response to that notion?

“I would say it’s ridiculous,” he said. “No one has a vendetta against Kevin Harvick or Rodney Childers at all. Or Stewart-Haas Racing. That’s a ridiculous statement.”

As for the inspection process, Phelps said: “Our (officials) are going to look at it, look at it again, look at it a third time to make sure that if there is a penalty given, that penalty is right. If the No. 4 team thinks that is not right, they will file an appeal and we’ll go through the appeal process.”

Stewart-Haas Racing announced Friday morning that it is appealing the penalty to Harvick and his team. However, Childers will sit out this weekend’s race at the Charlotte Roval. That way, regardless of the outcome, he will be able to return for the season finale at Phoenix. 

3. Report card

During a panel discussion at the Women in Motorsports seminar this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR President Steve Phelps said that The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport provided a racial and gender report card for NASCAR, its teams and the industry for the first time. 

The NBA, NFL, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer also have had reports done on their leagues and had the results made public. 

The report looks at the race and gender of athletes and front office personnel in those sports. Some reports examine the race and gender of officials and even broadcasters.

Phelps said that he would not disclose the results for NASCAR.

“We are doing some terrific work,” Phelps said during the panel discussion.

Phelps noted that the grades “are not going to be what they should be, but you need to face it. … We’re going to do better. One thing I will say is that the programs that we have put in place over the last few years have gotten an A.”

Asked by NBC Sports about the report, Phelps said: “It validated where I thought we were, which is why I want to keep it quiet. We’re actually doing really good work. … Hiring people of color, hiring women, promoting people of color, promoting women.

“I don’t want to lose that momentum to where our Diversity Industry Council is like, ‘Wait, wait, you said you’re doing all these things but it’s not working.’ 

“It’s going to take time. It’s not a snap your fingers (and it’s all done). Proud of the programs we’re doing.”

Thursday, NASCAR announced that 13 drivers have been invited to the Drive for Diversity combine. The program was created in 2004 to develop and train ethnically diverse and female drivers both on and off the track.

4. Change of strategy  

An appeal panel rescinding the 25-point penalty to William Byron moves him back into a transfer spot heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe drops out of the final transfer spot and is tied with Austin Cindric, 12 points behind the cutline. Daniel Suarez holds the final transfer spot.

Cindric said Thursday — before Byron’s penalty was amended — that what happened to Byron would impact how he races.

“It completely changes how our race looks this weekend, how our race strategy looks, what our priorities are,” Cindric said on if Byron got his points back.

“Even if (the points) get returned, we’re still in a reasonably good spot to think we could still point our way in. It’s not a must-win for us either way, but I think it definitely changes the race strategy for us.”

Cindric explained how the strategy could change with Byron moving back into a transfer spot.

“You probably have to take higher risk to get points … or take a higher risk to just go after the race win,” he said. 

5. Appeal Panel’s changes 

William Byron’s penalty marked the fourth time this year the National Motorsports Appeals Panel or Final Appeals Officer has amended or rescinded a penalty by NASCAR.

In January, the Final Appeals Officer rescinded a $50,000 fine and six-week suspension to Ryan Bell, crew chief for Mike Harmon Racing. The team and Bell had been penalized when Harmon used one of his team’s Xfinity cars for a charity event at Rockingham Speedway. 

Roger Werner, the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer, wrote in his decision that “the decision of the National Motorsports Appeals Panel, upholding the original penalty that was issued by NASCAR, was incorrect in light of the NASCAR rulebook modification made on January 24, 2022.”

In May, the National Motorsports Appeals Panel overturned a disqualification to Matt Crafton following his fifth-place finish in the Camping World Truck Series race at Darlington.

Crafton’s truck was disqualified after NASCAR deemed the vehicle was too low in the front. The panel determined “the Appellants did not violate the Rule(s) set forth in the Penalty Notice.”

Crafton’s fifth-place finish was reinstated. No other reason from the panel was given. The panel consisted of Dixon Johnston, Tom DeLoach and Hunter Nickell. 

In September, NASCAR penalized Jeremy Clements for an intake manifold violation after his win at Daytona. NASCAR’s penalty did not allow the win to count toward playoff eligibility. 

Clements and his team took the engine to the NASCAR R&D Center to be inspected but left the intake manifold on, which was not required to be a part of the inspection. 

Clements and his team noted to the panel that they shouldn’t have been penalized for a part that was not inspected on other engines. The panel agreed and rescinded the penalty, allowing the win to count toward playoff eligibility. The panel consisted of Richard Gore, DeLoach and Johnston. 

Then came Thursday’s decision by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel to rescind the 25-point penalty to Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin at Texas. 

The panel did not state why it eliminated the point penalty but increased Byron’s fine from $50,000 to $100,000. The panel consisted of Dale Pinilis, Kevin Whitaker and Nickell.

Appeal panel gives William Byron his 25 points back

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William Byron is back in a transfer spot after the National Motorsports Appeals Panel rescinded his 25-point penalty Thursday for spinning Denny Hamlin at Texas.

By getting those 25 points back, Byron enters Sunday’s elimination playoff race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) 14 points above the cutline.

Daniel Suarez is now in the final transfer spot to the Round of 8. He is 12 points ahead of Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Christopher Bell is 45 points behind Suarez. Alex Bowman will not race this week as he continues to recover from concussion symptoms and has been eliminated from Cup title contention.

NASCAR did not penalize Byron after his incident with Hamlin because series officials did not see the contact. Two days later, NASCAR penalized Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for intentionally wrecking Hamlin.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel stated that Byron violated the rule but amended the penalty to no loss of driver and owner points while increasing the fine to $100,000.

The panel did not give a reason for its decision. NASCAR cannot appeal the panel’s decision.

The panel consisted of Hunter Nickell, a former TV executive, Dale Pinilis, track operator of Bowman Gray Stadium and Kevin Whitaker, owner of Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

Here is the updated standings heading into Sunday’s race at the Roval:

Byron’s actions took place after the caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race that the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Drivers for Drive for Diversity combine revealed

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The 13 drivers who will participate in the Advance Auto Part Drive for Diversity Combine were revealed Thursday and range in age from 13-19.

The NASCAR Drive for Diversity Development Program was created in 2004 to develop and train ethnically diverse and female drivers both on and off the track. Cup drivers Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson came through the program.

The 2020 and 2021 combines were canceled due to the impact of COVID-19.

“We are thrilled that we are in a position to return to an in-person evaluation for this year’s Advance Auto Parts Drive for Diversity Combine,” Rev Racing CEO Max Seigel said in a statement. “We are energized by the high-level of participating athletes and look forward to building the best driver class for 2023. As an organization, we have never been more positioned for success and future growth.”

The youngest drivers are Quinn Davis and Nathan Lyons, who are both 13 years old.

The group includes 17-year-old Andrés Pérez de Lara, who finished seventh in his ARCA Menards Series debut in the Sept. 15 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Also among those invited to the combine is 15-year old Katie Hettinger, who will make her ARCA Menards Series West debut Oct.. 14 at the Las Vegas Bullring. She’s also scheduled to compete in the ARCA West season finale Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

 

Name

Age Hometown
Justin Campbell 17 Griffin, Georgia
Quinn Davis 13 Sparta, Tennessee
Eloy Sebastián

López Falcón

17 Mexico City, Mexico
Katie Hettinger 15 Dryden, MI
Caleb Johnson 15 Denver, CO
Nathan Lyons 13 Concord, NC
Andrés Pérez de Lara 17 Mexico City, Mexico
Jaiden Reyna 16 Cornelius, NC
Jordon Riddick 17 Sellersburg, IN
Paige Rogers 19 New Haven, IN
Lavar Scott 19 Carney’s Point, NJ
Regina Sirvent 19 Mexico City, Mexico
Lucas Vera 15 Charlotte, NC

 

Dr. Diandra: Crashes: Causes and complications

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Two drivers have missed races this year after hard rear-end crashes. Kurt Busch has been out since an incident in qualifying at Pocono in July. Alex Bowman backed hard into a wall at Texas and will miss Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Other drivers have noted that the hits they’ve taken in the Next Gen car are among the hardest they’ve felt in a Cup car.

“When I crashed it (at Auto Club Speedway in practice), I thought the car was destroyed, and it barely backed the bumper off. It just felt like somebody hit you with a hammer,” Kevin Harvick told NBC Sports.

The three most crucial parameters in determining the severity of a crash are:

  • How much kinetic energy the car carries
  • How long the collision takes
  • The angle at which the car hits

Angle

The last of these factors requires trigonometry to explain properly. You can probably intuit, however, that a shallower hit is preferable to a head-on — or rear-on — hit.

A graphic show shallower (low-angle) hits and deeper (high-angle) hits
Click for a larger view

When the angle between the car and the wall is small, most of the driver’s momentum starts and remains in the direction parallel to the wall. The car experiences a small change in velocity.

The larger the angle, the larger the change in perpendicular speed and the more force experienced. NASCAR has noted that more crashes this season have had greater angles than in the past.

Busch and Bowman both had pretty large-angle hits, so we’ll skip the trig.

Energy — in pounds of TNT

A car’s kinetic energy depends on how much it weighs and how fast it’s going. But the relationship between kinetic energy and speed is not linear: It’s quadratic. That means going twice as fast gives you four times more kinetic energy.

The graph shows the kinetic energies of different kinds of race cars at different speeds. To give you an idea of how much energy we’re talking about, I expressed the kinetic energy in terms of equivalent pounds of TNT.

A vertical bar graph showing kinetic energies for different types of racecars and their energies

  • A Next Gen car going 180 mph has the same kinetic energy as is stored in almost three pounds of TNT.
  • Because IndyCars are about half the weight of NASCAR’s Next Gen car, an IndyCar has about half the kinetic energy of a Next Gen car when both travel at the same speed.
  • At 330 mph, Top Fuel drag racers carry the equivalent of six pounds of TNT in kinetic energy.

All of a car’s kinetic energy must be transformed to other types of energy when the car slows or stops. NASCAR states that more crashes are occurring at higher closing speeds, which means more kinetic energy.

Longer collisions > shorter collisions

That seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Who wants to be in a crash any longer than necessary?

But the longer a collision takes, the more time there is to transform kinetic energy.

A pitting car starts slowing down well below it reaches its pit box. The car’s kinetic energy is transformed into heat energy (brakes and rotors warming), light energy (glowing rotors), and even sound energy (tires squealing).

The same amount of kinetic energy must be transformed in a collision — but much faster. In addition to heat, light and sound, energy is transformed via the car spinning and parts deforming or breaking. (This video about Michael McDowell’s 2008 Texas qualifying crash goes into more detail.)

The force a collision produces depends on how long the car takes to stop. Compare the force from your seat belt when you slow down at a stop sign to what you feel if you have to suddenly slam on the brakes.

To give you an idea of how fast collisions can be, the initial wall impact in the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr. lasted only eight-hundredths (0.08) of a second.

SAFER barriers use a car’s kinetic energy to move a heavy steel wall and crush pieces of energy-absorbing foam. That extracts energy from the car, plus the barrier extends the collision time.

The disadvantage is that a car with lower kinetic energy won’t move the barrier. Then it’s just like running into a solid wall.

That’s the same problem the Next Gen car seems to have.

Chassis stiffness: A Goldilocks problem

The Next Gen chassis is a five-piece, bolt-together car skeleton, as shown below.

A graphic showing the five parts of the Next Gen chassis.
Graphic courtesy of NASCAR. Click to enlarge.
The foam surrounding the outside of the rear bumper
The purple is energy-absorbing foam. Graphic courtesy of NASCAR. Click for a larger view.

That graphic doesn’t show another important safety feature: the energy absorbing foam that covers the outside of the bumpers. It’s purple in the next diagram.

All cars are designed so that the strongest part of the car surrounds the occupants. Race cars are no different.

The center section of the Next Gen chassis is made from stout steel tubing and sheet metal. Components become progressively weaker as you move away from the cockpit. The bumper, for example, is made of aluminum alloy rather than steel. The goal is transforming all the kinetic energy before it reaches the driver.

Because the Next Gen car issues are with rear impacts, I’ve expanded and highlighted the last two pieces of the chassis.

The rear clip and bumper, with the fuel cell and struts shaded

The bumper and the rear clip don’t break easily enough. The rear ends of Gen-6 cars were much more damaged than the Next Gen car after similar impacts.

If your initial thought is “Just weaken the struts,” you’ve got good instincts. However, there are two challenges.

I highlighted the first one in red: the fuel cell. About the only thing worse than a hard collision is a hard collision and a fire.

The other challenge is that a chassis is a holistic structure: It’s not like each piece does one thing independent of all the other pieces. Changing one element to help soften rear collisions might make other types of collisions harder.

Chassis are so complex that engineers must use finite-element-analysis computer programs to predict their behavior. These programs are analogous to (and just as complicated as) the computational fluid dynamics programs aerodynamicists use.

Progress takes time

An under-discussed complication was noted by John Patalak, managing director of safety engineering for NASCAR. He told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long in July that he was surprised by the rear-end crash stiffness.

The Next Gen car’s crash data looked similar to that from the Gen-6 car, but the data didn’t match the drivers’ experiences. Before addressing the car, his team had to understand the disparity in the two sets of data.

They performed a real-world crash test on a new configuration Wednesday. These tests are complex and expensive: You don’t do them until you’re pretty confident what you’ve changed will make a significant difference.

But even if the test goes exactly as predicted, they aren’t done.

Safety is a moving target.

And always will be.