One of the most interesting projects still in development at the R&D Center is what Nelson calls NASCAR's car of tomorrow. Ignore the Disney-esque overtones-it's actually quite an interesting concept.

"Right now, a race car is a frame, and a rollcage, a suspension, an engine, and a bunch of other parts," he explains. "Each part has been optimized to work as well as possible individually, but not too much has been done to try to make everything work as a whole."

In terms of building the safest car possible, Nelson says they are designing their car of tomorrow both from the outside in and from the inside out. That may sound confusing, but it is actually an accurate way of keeping two separate safety concepts in mind. First, the car is designed from the outside in. Nelson is adamant about designing a race car that, from the first moment of impact-whether it be the front bumper, driver-side door or rear quarter-panel-displaces as much energy as possible. A car that is perfectly rigid transmits all of the force of impact to the driver's body, while a car that crushes dissipates much of that energy. NASCAR's car of tomorrow will utilize many components beyond the bumper that will crush on impact and protect the driver from the destructive energy of an accident.

Of course, given the size of the average stock car, there is no way to get it to crush enough to protect a driver from every type of impact. The driver's body must also be restrained in a way that protects it from the impact. This is achieved by designing a car from the inside out. Typically, restraint devices are thought of as the seat, seatbelts, helmet, safety net, and other such items. Nelson's car of tomorrow will attempt to merge all of these devices-plus others such as a collapsible steering shaft-into a single system that works together to protect the driver.

"Right now we know we have to have an engine, four tires, and a seat," Nelson says. "Those are the knowns. Everything else is up in the air. As we develop ideas, we put them into the car. We start our testing with a small part, maybe a 6-inch section from a bumper. When we're happy with the way that works, we move on to the next piece in line, perhaps a bumper support brace, and work on that. So, as we continue to work our way through the car, eventually we will have a race car where every piece has been integrated to complement each other. The goal is to make every part on the car work together to make it safer for the driver."

The next steps in the evolution of driver safety won't all be taken by the big guys such as the sanctioning bodies. Right now, inventive people with a desire to improve driver safety are pushing the envelope all across the country.

Two such people are Kris VanGilder and Trevor Ashline, who have teamed to form Innovative Safety Products. You may have already heard of Ashline, who had a considerable role in the development of the Hutchens Device head restraint. VanGilder is a master at building racing seats. Now the two are putting their heads together in an effort to integrate the racing seat and head restraint into one complementary system. Using the same philosophy as Nelson, the two believe an integrated system of components that work in concert will provide much more protection than several devices working independently. ISP's integrated system is still in development, but it has already been tested on the racetrack. Look for further announcements soon.

Another innovation that ISP is providing drivers in all types of racing is what VanGilder calls the Pour in Place racing seat. The idea is a layer of open-cell foam that lines the inside of a racing seat, which is custom molded to perfectly fit a driver's body. The foam cushions the driver, provides additional comfort, and helps hold his body in place. The foam VanGilder uses meets SFI 45.2 standards for both impact and fire resistance.