Both NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway officials wasted no time on analyzing every aspect of the horrifying last lap crash at the end of the Coke Zero 400. The question of the moment is, what can we do to make this entire experience safer for fans and drivers alike?
In some ways, the fact that the injuries were all relatively minor after Austin Dillon’s car flew towards the stands was a triumph of modern safety technology. A catch fence prevented most of the car from flying into the seating area. Only five fans were injured, the worst of whom was released from the hospital on Monday morning, mere hours after the race itself ended.
The cars are now built to withstand these sort of impacts as well. Even Dillon walked away with only bruising on his tailbone and forearm, despite the fact that his car was thrown around like a ping-pong ball.
There’s always room for improvement, though, and NASCAR and Daytona are both wondering what could be done better.
First off, can improvements be made to the cars that make them safe not only for the drivers inside, but for the fans who watch them? NASCAR journalist Matt Weaver reports that Dillon’s number 3 has been taken to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, NC, for a post-crash analysis.
“We’re the only ones in auto racing that have a full‑time research and development center where their sole responsibility is to sort out these kind of issues to make them better,” explained NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France in a statement released by the series. France continued, “Thankfully everything was OK, but you learn from every single one of these things.”
According to France, NASCAR’s primary goal in examining Dillon’s car is to see what they can do to prevent the cars from going airborne. NASCAR spokesman Brett Jewkes told ESPN that the series was “pleased with the performance of the race cars protecting the drivers,” so clearly, protecting the fans is the next step.
Officials are seeing areas for improvement in track facilities as well. Per ESPN, Dillon’s car ripped a hole approximately 60 feet wide in the catch fence that protects the stands. While the main piece of the car bounced back onto the track, debris still made its way into the stands, injuring spectators. Dillon’s engine landed apart from the car in the infield grass.
Daytona International Speedway president Joie Chitwood had this to say to ESPN on their review of the incident:
We’ll work closely with NASCAR [with our review]. We did this after the last incident. We’re going to learn from it and see what else we can do to be better. I think you saw some of the improvements at work today, so what we can learn from that tomorrow and the next days, we’re going to incorporate moving forward.
The last incident that he refers to is the 2013 Nationwide Series wreck where Kyle Larson’s car went through the catch fence and into the stands. Unfortunately, Larson hit a gate that was used to allow fans onto the track after the track goes cold. Per ESPN’s account of the wreck, the gate buckled and failed, allowing flying debris from Larson’s car to injure over 30 people.
In response to this incident, the crash fence gates at Daytona were redesigned and reinforced with extra cables. Fans are also now kept away from the walkways between the catch fence and the front row of the seating area in response to these safety concerns. Daytona’s redesigned grandstands force spectators in the front rows to walk down to their seats from a middle level entrance.
All of this work to improve the safety of cars, facilities and other aspects of a race weekend is just standard operating procedure for the series, as Brian France explained in a NASCAR statement:
Our work in safety, whether it’s the race car itself — which held up beautifully, thankfully — or certainly making our fans safe, that work never ends in auto racing and at NASCAR. And we take that responsibility at the top of our list, and we’ll go right to work on that. We’re all working on it.
As for the Dillon accident, Chitwood told ESPN that the fence had worked as designed. However, given that debris still made its way through, more improvements to the design could be on the way.
Naturally, everyone has ideas on what the track could improve. Some, such as former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, have called for another barrier behind the catch fence in the most vulnerable areas in the stands. Wheeler suggested a Lexan barrier to The Charlotte Observer, as it is the same strong material used in NASCAR windshields. Perhaps that’s not a sure-fire solution, though, as Lexan would get dirty as the race goes on and cloud spectators’ view.
An even more radical idea that some suggest would be to reduce the banking, which would then limit the top speeds of the cars as they must slow down more for corners. However, as Jordan Bianchi on SB Nation points out, fans love seeing cars on steeply banked turns, and this would be an incredibly expensive proposition, both in construction costs as well as the potential for lost revenue during construction and afterwards, if the fans didn’t like it.
Others still argue that spectators should be moved even further back from the fence.
“The safest thing is to not have any people sitting right there where we typically crash,” said driver Denny Hamlin, as quoted by The Charlotte Observer.
The last superspeedway race of the season is at Talladega. Track president Grant Lynch told USA Today that there are currently no plans to upgrade Talladega’s fencing or seating areas before the October 24-25 race weekend. Regardless, Lynch is confident that the seats are the recommended distance away from the catch fence after removing several rows in response to the 2013 Larson wreck at Daytona. Like Daytona, fans at Talladega are not allowed to congregate in the area between the front row of seats and the fence during a race.
Some are concerned that Talladega’s inclusion in the elimination-based Chase for the Sprint Cup will force drivers to take even more risks in the already close pack-style races that happen there, causing it to be carnage-heavy. However, Lynch is still confident that the track’s fan areas will be safe for spectators.
“We’re on the fourth version of the catch fence and improvements continue to be made,” Lynch told USA Today.
Despite all of this careful consideration of the car and the facilities, some are skeptical that NASCAR can really prevent something like this from happening again without taking a hard look at the very nature of restrictor plate racing.
“We’re trying to keep them from getting in the air, and we’ll do what we can,” said Dillon in a teleconference Tuesday morning, as quoted by Fox Sports. “The way the racing is set up now, it breeds these kind of wrecks.”
Driver Ryan Newman was much harsher with his condemnation of the entire spectacle after the race. “NASCAR got what they wanted,” said Newman, as quoted in USA Today. “That’s the end of it. Cars getting airborne, unsafe drivers, same old stuff. They just don’t listen.”
When reporters asked Newman if he believed recent events would prompt needed changes, his response was just as “No. They had an event in 2001 [with Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal wreck],” said Newman, as quoted in the Indianapolis Star. “They’ve had several events since then. They just don’t pay attention to safety. Simple as that.”
While NASCAR contends that they have been making significant safety improvements in response to big accidents that happen in the series, it’s the issue of cars going into the catch fencing that stands out as going unsolved, as Tony DiZinno points out on MotorSportsTalk. Larson’s 2013 accident was the biggest one that gets referred to, but it was bookended by a 2012 Camping World Truck Series crash where Joey Coulter flipped into the fence and the 2014 incident where Parker Klingerman popped into the fence during practice for the Daytona 500.
It isn’t just Daytona, either, but an issue common to all of NASCAR’s restrictor plate races. Jordan Bianchi on SB Nation highlighted the fact that Dillon was the fourth driver to go airborne into the catch fence at the start/finish of a superspeedway race since 2009. (Note to self: resist the urge of sweet seats close to the fence at the start/finish line, I guess.)
“I don’t know how many cars we need to keep sending into the grandstands before we fix this.” tweeted driver A.J. Allmendinger after the race.
Part of the issue of airborne cars could be addressed by car design, as NASCAR is currently looking into, but Newman’s assertion that drivers were making unsafe moves on track points to another issue to address.
How can NASCAR keep racing close and interesting without allowing restrictor plate superspeedway races like Daytona to devolve into a crashathon?
Some are calling for slower speeds. Dillon told The Today Show this morning that he estimates that he was traveling in excess of 190 mph when the accident started.
“I don’t know how you keep a 3,500-pound car at 200 miles an hour staying in the racetrack like that,” explained driver Jimmie Johnson to ESPN. He continued, “Keep the cars on the ground, slow us down would be the only way to do it, I would say. And even then, there’s no guarantees.”
Accidental aircraft pilot Austin Dillon agrees with Johnson’s assessment: the cars are too fast.
“It’s not really acceptable, I don’t think,” Dillon told SB Nation. “We’ve got to figure out something. I think our speeds are too high, I really do. I think everybody can get good racing with lower speeds. We can work on that and then figure out a way to keep cars on the ground.”
Part of the reason the cars are restricted, as Bianchi explains on SB Nation, is because the unrestricted speeds of over 220 mph would be even more prone to lift-off. However, if cars are still restricted to a uniform lower speed, packs would still form, and the potential for big chain-reaction wipeouts would still be there. Furthermore, cars get airborne even at slower tracks, so slower speeds wouldn’t eliminate that risk on their own.
Restrictor plates aren’t the only tools that can be used to slow down the cars, though. Configuring all the cars for a lower top speed is one way to lessen the force at which big impacts occur. Perhaps NASCAR needs to look at the whole rules package to force the cars to be slower on its fastest superspeedways—not just adjust the restrictor plate.
Others say that speed isn’t the biggest issue per se, but rather, the biggest priority should be separating the cars out during the race. International Council for Motorsport Sciences board member and racing safety expert Dr. Steve Olvey told The Charlotte Observer that the current rules package that restricts horsepower actually allows mediocre drivers to catch up to the drivers who are usually at the front of the pack. This, he argues, is how the packs get so huge in NASCAR restrictor plate races.
“All it takes is one little mistake to set off a major crash,” Olvey told The Charlotte Observer.
His solution would be to change the rules package so that the best drivers can pull away from the others as they would at any other race. Give the drivers a car that must be driven well to run at faster speeds.
Others suggest banning overtime finishes at superspeedways like Daytona and Talladega. Perhaps the stress of an overtime green-white-checker finish, where everyone guns for the best finish possible in an extremely short amount of time, contributed to the wreck. Fortunately for fans who appreciate NASCAR’s desire to end races under a green flag wherever possible, this idea doesn’t seem to have the most traction. Denny Hamlin, for one, was not a fan.
“You want to make the sport as safe as possible, but we’re going to make mistakes like that on one lap sometime down the road at a superspeedway,” Hamlin told USA Today. “Trying to eliminate [overtime] at the end of the race where it’s deciding a winner — [the race] probably should get played out.”
Sure, the green-white checkered finishes bunch up race traffic into a tight group for restarts, but at the end of the day, isn’t the fact that the cars stay in a tightly-packed group during restrictor plate races the real issue to address?
Regardless of what’s decided, it’s not hard to see some similarities between NASCAR’s post-race debate with the discussions happening in other series, such as the issue of airborne cars on the Nürburgring and the discussion over pack racing in IndyCar. Perhaps solutions developed in response to Dillon’s airborne wreck would be applicable elsewhere.
Bill France described track safety as a “moving target” in NASCAR’s post-race statement on all the work that’s happening after the Coke Zero 400. What, exactly, is on that moving target after this incident? Only time will tell.
Photo credits: Getty Images
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