New cars have safety at center

Published June 25, 2005

Gary Nelson expects the long-awaited NASCAR "Car of Tomorrow" to address the sport's next most worrisome safety problem: side impacts.

Taller, boxier, and much more representative of their consumer car counterparts, the new evolution of the NASCAR machine is slated to begin on-track testing this fall with a projected 2007 introduction.

"We're releasing specifications to the teams and we will begin testing this fall and continue testing into '06," said Nelson, NASCAR's vice president of research and development. "The testing we've done individually has gone well and if the teams continue to have that progress it's just then a matter of transitioning for the car owners, figuring out how best to transition it into their fleet."

The new car is designed to make the cabin safer by moving the driver slightly toward the center and using a steel roll cage similar to current ones. The object is to create "crushable space" to dissipate crash energy around the driver.

"Just outside of that structure you try to absorb some energy," Nelson said. "That's the difficult part because you never know what direction an impact may come from. With a strong roll cage and frame and the driver moved maybe a little more toward the center of the car, it provides a little more space for absorbing some energy, I think we've accomplished that with the car we've got now."

The elusive nature of safety technology dictates that eliminating one problem will highlight another. With SAFER barriers greatly reducing injury from wall collisions, drivers and scientists alike expect car-to-car crashes to become the focus.

"I think (deaths from barrier impacts) are going to drop off the radar screen, if you count after 2001," said Dr. Dean Sicking, a University of Nebraska professor who developed the SAFER barrier.

The next step, Sicking said, is to look above the track's walls. DeLand's Tony Renna was killed in October 2003 when the IndyCar he was testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway went airborne in a turn and broke apart on a catchfence post.

"Improving those could be a great benefit to the driver and the fan," Sicking said. "There is the potential - I don't think it's really happened yet - for some pieces of a car to go through the fence, which would be a horrible problem for the fan."