Ryan: Denny Hamlin has earned the right to talk about money in NASCAR

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When you’re the star who owns a 31,000-square-foot mansion with a full-length basketball court, helicopter landing pad and 24 60-inch flat screens, income equality is inherently difficult to broach.

Even trickier is making a staunch argument that your brethren are underpaid, and the NASCAR industry needs revenue redistribution.

Denny Hamlin might not be the ideal guy to make the case, but he is the right guy to put forth a complex and divisive topic that at least is worthy of attention and conversation.

A little more than three years ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver gathered his peers in the parking lot of the NASCAR R&D center, handed out notecards with talking points to ensure consistent messaging and went inside to meet with Mike Helton and other NASCAR executives.

That was the genesis of the Drivers Council, which is in its third year of tackling major issues in Cup through regular audiences with the sanctioning body.

“It’s because I’m passionate about it,” Hamlin explained during a February episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast. “Gibbs says the same thing every time we come around to contract negotiations: You’re very passionate about something and stick to your guns.

“I just feel like when I’m passionate about something, first I want to make sure it’s right. I don’t want to just say, ‘This is my idea, and it’s right because it’s my idea.’ I want to get feedback from other drivers on that to make sure it’s the right idea. I’m passionate about it, and I feel I have a way to communicate that to NASCAR without pissing them off at times.”

Not always, of course.

Hamlin’s comments Wednesday morning weren’t received well in some powerful corners of the Cup Series (on Thursday, NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell said Hamlin “might need to speak to some of the other stakeholders and maybe get a little bit better education”) and assuredly led to some form of him being read the riot act by someone with a board-level title. And it isn’t the first time he has been willing to enter the crosshairs for what he believes in, either.

This is the same driver who once steadfastly refused to pay a fine in March 2013 for a rather innocuous review of the Gen 6 car that was deemed “detrimental to stock-car racing.” A deal eventually was brokered in which he paid, but NASCAR took the major PR hit because Hamlin stood his ground.

A few years before that, it was an unannounced $50,000 fine for an offhand remark about debris cautions on Twitter. NASCAR discontinued its secret fine system a year later.

The son of a trailer-hitch business owner from the Richmond, Va., area, has his detractors for living lavishly (he hasn’t been shy about showcasing his Lake Norman abode), but there can be no questioning Hamlin’s willingness to go to the mat for that which he believes.

And the even-keeled manner Wednesday in which he addressed the economics for drivers and teams was indicative of the fact that he clearly has deliberated on this for a long time before landing on a position that was controversial for many — notably fans who are tired of hearing about athletes commanding nine- to 10-figure annual salaries and demanding more.

The question of whether pro sports stars are worthy of such disproportionate compensation is a separate argument for another day, but it’s indisputable that NBA and NFL players have among the best labor deals in pro sports – receiving roughly 50% of their leagues’ primary revenue streams.

It also is beyond debate that if there is a driver qualified to weigh in on that, it’s Hamlin – regardless of his opulent lifestyle (whether it’s fair to judge how he or anyone chooses to spend their money is yet another question).

In the absence of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and now the impending retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., there are fewer drivers than any point in recent memory willing to embrace the scrutiny that accompanies speaking out on a major issue, particularly in a league that is beholden in many ways to image-conscious corporate sponsors.

Hamlin and Brad Keselowski are those who most consistently voice objections when they feel strongly about a topic, and in Wednesday’s case, it’s an issue that should concern everyone – the long-term viability of race teams that make the weekly show possible.

After being asked about whether the 2018 rules would help reduce costs for teams, Hamlin confirmed it would to a degree (via “stacking pennies,” as it’s known in NASCAR vernacular). But he also leaped to a larger solution: Finding a way teams no longer would be so reliant on corporate sponsorship, which is becoming scarcer each season (for some reasons beyond NASCAR’s control).

“The pie has to be shifted,” he said, implying that race teams, which currently receive a quarter of the largest guaranteed revenue stream, should be given more.

This is where things get complicated in an unavoidable mess of optics.

If you’re having an honest discussion about making team financials work, it’s natural to ask whether it should start with jettisoning driver salaries that can be a massive seven- or eight-figure line item. Hamlin was asked just that Wednesday, and he candidly responded that drivers are underpaid, particularly those on the back half of the grid.

This understandably is a hard sell to a fan base that is middle class and traditionally blue collar. No one wants to hear that drivers who make millions aren’t getting their due. From a philosophical standpoint, no professional athlete is underpaid.

But in the real world, it’s fact that NASCAR drivers don’t stack up with their counterparts – even though they are face greater occupational hazards (yes, the riskiest jobs often don’t draw the largest salaries – this is comparative analysis, not an exacting thesis on the shortcomings of capitalism).

NFL and NBA players earn a greater percentage of league income through their labor contracts (again, it’s a separate discussion why stock-car racing doesn’t have them, and drivers are in a weaker position partly of their own making). NASCAR driver salaries are closely guarded secrets, but it’s reasonable to presume it’s nowhere near 50% of guaranteed revenue.

When Hamlin lobbies for driver earnings to be commensurate with other leagues, he isn’t suggesting he deserves the $40 million annual deals that many NBA stars are getting (though he and other NASCAR stars probably should get a similarly proportionate shake, the NBA’s current popularity makes it more flush with cash).

Hamlin isn’t so tone-deaf to demand his lakeside estate could use a few technological add-ons and a new parquet court.

But he is arguing the disparity from the top to bottom of the grid needs to be fixed. There are benchwarmers in the NBA who are earning more annually than all but a handful of NASCAR stars. The last quarter of a NASCAR field isn’t anywhere close to that stratosphere.

How does that get addressed?

Well, making the teams more self-sufficient – the starting point Wednesday for Hamlin – would help. Should that help come from racetracks owned by publicly traded companies that are receiving a lion’s share of revenue (again, another way in which NASCAR understandably is different from other pro sports leagues)?

These aren’t easy topics for the NASCAR industry to ponder, but they get addressed only after starting a dialogue.

And as usual, Hamlin was the one willing to go there.

While you’re screaming about his lofty standards of living, it’s worth remembering he partly enjoys them because of his willingness to fight.

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As the oldest driver at Hendrick Motorsports by more than 17 years, the comforting interaction of Jimmie Johnson, 42, with Chase Elliott, 21, after Sunday’s race at Dover could be a preview of an expanding role for the seven-time series champion as mentor in 2018. Alex Bowman, 24, and William Byron, 19, will race Cup for Hendrick next year.

“I’m here for those guys,” Johnson said Thursday night during Hendrick’s splashy car and driver unveiling for next season. “I honestly walked over to Chase, and I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t really know what to say, either. But it was ‘Hey buddy, I’m here, if you want to scream, yell, punch something, kick something, anything you need, I’m here.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t even know what to say.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, just know when or if or whatever it might be, I’m here.’ I’ve had guys here for me, I just want to be that person for my teammates as well.”

When Johnson joined Hendrick in 2002, he spent his early years just watching Jeff Gordon and said he can sense Byron (who grew up in the same neighborhood where Johnson lives) doing the same.

“It can be as simple as just being around and seeing how people carry themselves to actually sitting down and working through a given topic,” he said. “I am aware that (Byron) is paying attention and Alex is, and I need to lead by example on a lot of fronts. But at same time, we might have to sit down and talk through some things, too.”

It’s a little new for Johnson, who only last year shifted into more of a leadership role in becoming Hendrick’s driving dean with the retirement of Gordon.

“The majority of my career has been the up and coming, the young gun, all these titles in front of my name,” Johnson said. “Then veteran appeared, and now it’s like senior citizen. It definitely is different, but I’m young at heart, so I’ll fit in well, and I know all three of these guys so well, and excited to have that youth in our program.”

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Alex Bowman also is the guest on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, discussing his road to the No.88 Chevrolet, the advice he’s gotten from Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and the social media tips he has offered him) and the harrowing Midget crash that once left him in intensive care for several days.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

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There have been industry meetings galore in Charlotte this week with Sunday’s quasi-home game at Charlotte Motor Speedway bringing virtually all of the industry power brokers to NASCAR’s hub.

With the 2018 rules distributed to teams Tuesday, NASCAR met Thursday afternoon with Goodyear about next season to lock down the competitive landscape for 2018. After that’s done, O’Donnell said meetings will begin in earnest on mapping out the Gen 7 car that is expected to be phased in within the next few years.

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A documentary about Danica Patrick directed by longtime ESPN anchor Hannah Storm is expected to make its debut next month, and a trailer that briefly appeared online last week hinted that it will be quite revelatory.

In a preview that ran a couple of minutes, the Epix production alluded to Patrick’s fiery outbursts, her desire to start a family and her diminishing tolerance for questions about her career and motives. There also were snippets of an interview with Bobby Rahal, her former car owner in IndyCar, who predicted Patrick would have won the Indianapolis 500 by now if she hadn’t transitioned to NASCAR but added that she increased her earnings power by racing stock cars.

Patrick has tweeted the movie’s release is scheduled for Nov. 8.

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Ryan Blaney did two things after his Xfinity win at Dover International Speedway that were trend-worthy, but only one drew much attention. While admirably giving the checkered flag to a young fan deserved the raft of attention it received, the Team Penske driver’s decision to skip a postrace victory burnout also should be hailed as an example for others to consider.

“It’s not really my thing,” said Blaney, who also skipped burnouts after an Xfinity win at Charlotte in May and his first Cup win at Pocono Raceway in June. “I used to do them and just not a fan of them anymore, especially when people destroy their race cars. That raises a lot of questions.

“I just don’t think that it’s really that nice to do. That’s just something personal that I don’t think a big smoky burnout (does). You can just go down there and give a big wave to the fans, and they get pretty pumped up about that as a big, smoky burnout and all that. Just personal preference.”

It’s a preference we wouldn’t mind seeing the rest of his generation adopt, particularly with the recent questions about a celebration that really does nothing more than amplify exuberance with mind-numbing destruction. There are classier ways to carry the checkered flag, as Blaney showed.

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.