Gary Nelson, NASCAR's managing director of research and development, stands with a car bui
When NASCAR lost Dale Earnhardt in a tragic racing accident in 2001, the sanctioning body faced a firestorm of criticism. The previous year, NASCAR lost three top-level drivers-Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., and Tony Roper-on the racetrack, and little changed in the off-season. Then one of the greatest heroes the sport has ever known was gone, and people-fans, media, and racers alike-weren't searching for a villain, but they wanted to know if everything had been done to prevent another tragedy.
Frustrations mounted afterwards when no great changes came down the pipe from NASCAR. Instead, officials said they believed their cars were among the safest in motorsports, and they intended to make any future changes based on solid research and not knee-jerk reactionism. More cynical observers said they believed other racing sanctions would have to lead the way when it came to safety innovations.
The predictions that NASCAR would never be more than a reactionary sanctioning body in safety improvements have proven to be untrue. The Research and Development Center has begun its operations in earnest. Originally housed in a former race shop in Conover, North Carolina, the center appeared at first to be little more than a storage facility for Earnhardt's wrecked car. Little news worthy of public notice ever came from the facility. Now that the R&D Center is housed in its permanent home in Concord, North Carolina, and Director Gary Nelson has his staff in place, the center has taken on a greater role in protecting drivers' lives.
Nelson demonstrates how the new escape hatch functions. The strength of the hatch is its s
The center is a 61,000-square-foot facility that opened for business in January 2003. It contains NASCAR's accident investigation group as well as departments devoted to computer modeling, engineering, fabrication, CNC fabrication, fluid dynamics, and dyno testing. All departments are available for testing and refining safety initiatives. NASCAR spent $10 million to build the R&D Center and has budgeted another $40 million over the next 10 years to fund the facility's operations.
One of the most talked about changes to take place at NASCAR's highest racing levels is the proliferation of a roof escape hatch. Conceived as a way to make it easier for drivers to exit when the car is on its side or the driver-side window is otherwise blocked, the hatch fits in perfectly with NASCAR's philosophy that the best solutions are the simple ones. NASCAR R&D engineers went through several variations of the roof escape hatch before they hit upon a design that met Nelson's approval. Nelson, who gained fame as both a winning crewchief and NASCAR's Winston Cup series director, is one of the most respected technicians in racing and knows enough not to be fooled by gimmickry.
The result is a design that tries to answer every contingency. It can be swung open from either the front or rear, or the driver can activate both releases and remove the hatch from the roof entirely. The hatch is held to the roof with two hinges. Each hinge is made up of two spring-loaded pins connected by a piece of wire. If the driver pulls the wire, it pulls in both pins, releasing the latch. If the same is done to the other side of the hatch, it comes completely free from the car.
After settling on the design, NASCAR released it to its teams around the middle of the '03 season. Michael Waltrip was the only driver to race with the escape hatch last season, but Nelson sees the safety measure catching on in the near future. "Even though it's simple and pretty easy to install," Nelson explains, "the hatch design came out right at the point last season where most race teams were winding down their inventory for 2003 and beginning to build new cars for 2004. So, as they build their new cars, I expect many more teams to include the hatch. Some of the teams with smaller drivers that can get in and out quickly may not decide to, but we leave that up to them. But even guys like Jeff Gordon have told me they are going to start using it.
The hatch is secured with two sets of hinges. When the driver wants to escape using the ha
"Part of the reason I think it will catch on is because it just makes using other safety components easier. Putting the Hans or the Hutchens device on while in the driver's seat is pretty standard, and it takes a few minutes to get it all worked out. Some of the guys put on the Hans before they get into the car, and that makes it even more difficult to wiggle in and out of the window. I think you will soon start seeing guys putting on their Hans or Hutchens device, stepping on the top of the doorsill, and then jumping through the top of the car pretty regularly."
The best news is that NASCAR has no intention of profiting from its design or limiting its use to a specific brand of racing. Any racer who wishes to use the hatch design in his car is welcome to do so. In fact, once the hatch has proven itself in Cup and Busch competition, Nelson expects to see it start popping up all over the place.
"I think the hatch will catch on with Saturday night racers somewhere on down the road," he says. "The window of a Late Model Stock car can be hard to get into and out of just like a NASCAR Winston Cup car. I've got a feeling five years from now it will be pretty common."
Breathe Fresh Air Another initiative the R&D Center has taken on and turned over to the racing community is its Fresh Air Study/Catalyst. When Rick Mast had to step away from racing because of the cumulative effects of carbon monoxide poisoning, it only highlighted the need for further study into the problem.
"We started a study on carbon monoxide at the very end of last year," Nelson says. "We tested different drivers' level of exposure to carbon monoxide before and after races to get a better idea of what was going on. And we started finding that the levels normally weren't that high, but occasionally a driver would show signs of higher exposure. It wasn't happening at particular tracks, and it wasn't happening to everybody. It appeared random until we realized the most common thing is it happens at the tracks where you are most likely to have damage to your car. And that damage to the car can allow fumes to leak in.
The pins slide inward, releasing the hatch.
"So the first thing we did was instruct our care center people on how to diagnose carbon monoxide exposure and what might be something else. We helped them to better diagnose whether it's a guy feeling sick, or heat exhaustion, or whether it's exposure. All those symptoms are very close to the same, but they originate from very different conditions.
"Next we went to our crewchiefs and said, 'Hey, make sure you seal these cars up really tight for the short tracks and road courses. And if there is damage during a race, come in and fix it and your driver will be better off. If everything is sealed up tight, the drivers aren't having a problem.'
"Finally we started looking for ways to help a driver if he isn't feeling up to 100 percent, or if you are at a track where you are likely to damage something and develop a leak. We wanted to help the teams find a system that removes carbon monoxide from the air the driver is breathing."
Nelson said his group began by testing fresh air systems currently on the market. Unfortunately, while many were effective at filtering particles from the air, none did much for removing carbon monoxide. Because it is a gas, carbon monoxide cannot be blocked by fiber or charcoal filters. As a result, Nelson and his crew developed their own system, called the Catalyst.
"It is a special bead system," he explains. "The unit forces the air across those beads, and they convert the carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide. We started out with a system that was about 60 percent effective, and we turned the design over to the drivers, and currently the industry has improved on the design to where some are around 90 percent effective."
While these carbon monoxide scrubbers are still rare on the racing market, they should become more plentiful and affordable to the average racer.
NASCAR's R&D Center includes 61,000 square feet under roof and the capability to fabricate
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."
Kris VanGilder explains the benefits of his Pour in Place Seat, using a cutaway of the foa
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.
Another safety project we found at the center was an initiative to determine how a driver
Sanctioning bodies in all types of racing are tightening up the rulebooks in order to better protect their drivers. Here's a sampling of some of the changes for 2004.
* All cars must be equipped with a Race Safe light system.
* Requires a second dash bar in the car's centersection.
*Added a required metal plate to be installed behind the driver seat to protect the driver's back and head.
* Hood tethers are now required.
* Refined the wording of its rules regarding seat mounting.
* A "sprint" head net is now required on the right side of the driver's head.
* Requires a collapsible steering shaft.
* Requires all cars to be equipped with Audible Alert system to warn drivers of wrecks or cautions on the track.
NASCAR's Regional Touring Series
* Appointed a field investigator for each series, whose only concern is safety. Will act as an information source for drivers as well as a safety inspector.
* An approved head-and-neck restraint system is now required for all drivers.
* Minimum age for driving is now 18 years.
* Anyone over pit wall during a race must wear a full firesuit and helmet.
* Will concentrate this season on in-car fire systems. Will strongly suggest each car have, as a minimum system, a 5-pound Halon bottle (or other equivalent system) plumbed to nozzles aimed at the driver, fuel cell, and engine compartment.
* Anyone over pit wall during a race must wear a full firesuit and helmet.