Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Harrison Rhodes

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The origins of Harrison Rhodes‘ NASCAR career can be traced to two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, one of them ridden by former Cup champion Bobby Labonte.

“I actually started racing kind of because my dad (Gene Rhodes) was friends with Bobby Labonte and they used to drive Harley-Davidsons with each other back in the day and I went to school with his son, Tyler,” Rhodes told NBC Sports. “Tyler was racing quarter midgets at the time. It was kind of one of those deals where I went and watched Tyler down in Florida one time and man, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. So long story short, Bobby let me drive Tyler’s quarter midget there at their little shop they had and we ended up getting in a car at our first race in Columbus, Ohio, at an indoor track.”

Harrison Rhodes competes in the Xfinity race at Charlotte last May. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

After getting his start at 10, Rhodes is now 24 and one of three drivers for JD Motorsports, driving the No. 01 Chevrolet in his fifth year of Xfinity competition.

During the last few years Rhodes has also been busy working away at a back-up plan, just in case racing doesn’t work out. He graduated in December from North Carolina State University with a major in business entrepreneurship and a minor in graphic communications.

“I graduated, and now I’m trying to make the race car thing work as long as I can,” Rhodes said. “Trying to get out here and keep trying to find sponsors and keep running well. You can’t do one or the other, you’ve got to do both pretty well in this sport to keep progressing forward.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: You have 73 Xfinity starts, do you feel like you’ve made it in NASCAR?

Rhodes: I don’t know. I don’t guess you never feel like you’ve made it. I definitely don’t take what I have for granted, but on the other hand my goal is not to be trying to get a top 20 every week, you know? Eventually I want to go out there and be competitive, trying to win races. I think I’ve made it to the point to where I’m racing in NASCAR, that’s a huge milestone. How many people can say they’re racing in NASCAR? To kind of put it in perspective, my first race ever when I ran at Phoenix (in 2013), Mike Wallace came up to me and I hadn’t qualified very well and I was a little bit down with it being my first start, was wanting to impress some people. He came up to me and he told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, go out here and run a clean race and just remember you’re one of 40 people that are getting to do this today.’

He kind of put it into perspective just how fortunate I am to be where I’m at. I’m getting to do what I love for a living at the current moment. But obviously my goal is to keep working forward and to eventually be in a car that can win races. I think it would be cool to get a victory for (owner) Johnny (Davis) in one of his cars. I think we might have a chance at a superspeedway or something like that. We’re just going to keep working hard.

NBC Sports: Which was a bigger deal for you, getting a top 10 at Daytona (twice) or graduating college from N.C. State?

Rhodes: I don’t know. There wasn’t no luck in graduating college, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of time and effort put into that, a lot of studying, long hours and a lot of trips to Raleigh. Whereas, at Daytona I had a decent car I guess. As far as raw speed I think we were 36th quick, so it’s not like I had a blazing fast car for that race, got the right breaks. I think I’ve become a decent speedway racer. Being able to read different situations, learn to draft a little bit better and be smart. Obviously, I don’t have it all figured out, but I definitely think I’m getting the hang of it a little bit. That was a cool race, we were able to get some breaks, missed a bunch of wrecks. Man, I missed a bunch of wrecks. I got lucky as far as that goes. It’s always good to have a good showing at Daytona.

Harrison Rhodes pits during the Firecracker 250 in July at Daytona (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

NBC Sports: Why did you choose business entrepreneurship as a major and graphic communications as a minor?

Rhodes: I was actually going to do engineering at N.C. State. I got kind of into the deeper classes with the math and the physics and all that stuff and just realized there was no way I was going to be able to do that and race. I had to miss a lot of class to race on the weekends. So I was like, ‘this is not going to work. This is going to be a one or the other thing.’ So racing took the priority on that. But I’ve always had ideas of maybe starting my own business someday or doing some small stuff. Obviously, my dad owns his own business (two Chik-fil-A stores in High Point, North Carolina) and a lot of my family does as well. It’s always been something that’s been instilled in me, and I have a lot of experience from watching my family run businesses.

It was kind of the next best thing. I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s helped me a lot as far as being in these sponsorship meetings and going to these big corporate companies and knowing what I’m talking about and pitching new ideas and new ways of doing things. Then on the graphics side I do all of my own social media art work and I design my hero cards and do all that stuff. I’ve always liked doing the graphics stuff on my computer and tinkering around. It was cool to get that minor. It’s really transferred to what I do every day.

NBC Sports: You’ll be in Bristol this weekend. If you were in the Cup race, what would be your intro song?

Rhodes: It’s kind of funny, I probably listen to every single style of music except for screamo and stuff like that. I’m not a big fan of that. Probably some cool rock song. Maybe like Metallica or something. Something to get me pumped up, get the fans pumped up. “Enter Sandman” or something. There was always a pitcher for the (New York) Yankees that always had that song coming out (Mariano Rivera). I remember seeing him one time come out to that song and I thought it was the coolest thing.

 

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Rhodes: Technically my first car that I owned is the car I drive now, a 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS. But the first car I drove when I was 16, that was my dad’s car at the time, a Mini Cooper. A Clubman Mini Cooper. So like a supercharged Mini Cooper. That’s probably the first thing I drove around. … It was a pretty cool car. It was pretty fast for what it was and it drove really good. It was pretty sporty looking. I got tired of people telling me my car was ‘cute.’ So I was like, ‘you know what? I’m over it.’ We traded it in for a truck and I drove it for a while and then we got the Camaro.

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a street car or race car?

Rhodes: My Camaro I have, it’s blacked out. So I named it the ‘Black Knight.’

NBC Sports: If you have an obligation-free day, how do you spend it?

Rhodes: If I had nothing to do and just a day to kill, I’m probably going to the lake to hang out there riding my jet ski some or something. Just go surfing.

NBC Sports: When it comes to the surfing and wake boarding stuff what’s the worst wipeout you’ve had?

Rhodes: Oh man, I’ve had some. I don’t do it anymore really as much. I used to wake board quite a bit. I got to the point where I was trying some 360s and some back flips and some cool stuff like that. I got to the point, dude, I face planted so hard a couple of times. I was like, ‘you know what? This. Is. Stupid.’ I’ve taken harder hits on a wake board hitting the water than I have in a race car. I’ve had concussions from it about five, six years go. I was like, ‘This hurts. I’m done with this. I’m going to stick to the surfing where you go 10 mph and it doesn’t hurt when you fall.’ When you’re going 23 mph straight and then you’re also cutting across the waves, so it’s a combined 40-something mph and you literally go face-first in the water and don’t stop and go 45 to zero, it hurts.

NBC Sports: What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make in your career?

Rhodes: Sometimes choosing a team is a difficult situation. Probably the most difficult decision I ever made was after the 2015 season, leaving JD Motorsports to go race for (Obaika Racing). That was a really hard decision. If I could redo it again I would not have made that same decision. I would have stayed with JD Motorsports, but hindsight is 20-20, so you live and you learn. I’m very fortunate Johnny has allowed me to come back and race for him. That was probably the most difficult/stupid decision I’ve ever made in racing.

NBC Sports: Why did you make that decision?

Rhodes: At the time, the team I was going to race for in 2016 made a lot of promises and made it sound like they were really going all out for that season and have really great equipment and it was going to be this big thing and then none of it ended up happening. It was kind of one of those deals where we decided part ways and I started racing for Rick Ware and Carl Long throughout the season afterwards.

NBC Sports: What’s the best criticism/advice you’ve received about your career to this point?

Rhodes: That’s a difficult one, because as far as driving goes you don’t necessarily get a ton of driving advice at this level. You’ll sometimes get things from here or there from drivers that if you need something you can ask. I can’t really think of the best advice I’ve gotten. I think the best advice I could give somebody is to get really good at marketing and to really get out there early and meet a lot of people and try to get a good sponsor behind you. Because really, you can see on social media it’s no secret that to be in a car that’s capable of winning you’re going to have to bring $6 million in this series. It doesn’t necessarily matter how great you are of a race car driver, that you got to have the money behind you. I think that’s the thing. It’s a little difficult to swallow at times because you feel you’re better than other people that may be in a ride. But it’s so demanded by money. I’d say that would be my biggest piece of advice to get somebody really good at marketing. The advice I give to myself all the time is to not give up on it. You get a lot ‘no’s’ and you can get discouraged at times, but to just get back on the horse, go out there and don’t let it get you down. If you want to be in a car, you have to work hard and find the money to do it.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

Blake Koch

Brennan Poole

Matt Tifft

Tyler Reddick

Kyle Benjamin

Ty Majeski

Ryan Sieg

Dakoda Armstrong

Brendan Gaughan

Garrett Smithley

J.J. Yeley

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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 had not filed an appeal as of Friday morning. 

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.