Crew chiefs like Michael McSwain...
Crew chiefs like Michael McSwain (left), face an everyday struggle with the balance between driver safety and speed.
As a NASCAR Winston Cup crew chief, you have many things to concentrate on. Its a battle between whats best for the performance of the race car, or more importantly, what is best for the safety of the driver in the race car.
Weve always thought about safety, theres no question. Ive been in racing for 22 years, been a crew chief for 16 years, and you always look at the drivers compartment very critically. You make sure the seat is mounted properly, the seat belts are in the right place and all the bars around the driver are padded well. Those are things weve always looked at. But obviously, the awareness of safety over the last 15 or 16 monthswith the deaths of Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, Tony Roper, Dale Earnhardt and Blaise Alexanderhas become a big issue, predominantly on the crew chief side of things.
Ive been making the statement over the past few months, especially since Dale Earnhardt was killed at Daytona, that even though we have been working hard with the HANS device, the one thing everyone seems to overlook is how stiff were making these cars. I applaud the fact that NASCAR has made the HANS mandatory for the drivers and not optional. It is a big gain as far as safety, but is it bulletproof? Absolutely not. Theres nothing in racing thats bulletproof, but its certainly a big insurance policy for these drivers.
On the stiffness issue, we have found over the course of the years the more bars we add and the less the cars flex around, the more the cars will respond to smaller changes. At places like Rockingham or Darlington, where the cars give up so much in terms of grip, the cars will stay more consistent longer. We have probably doubled the torsional stiffness of these cars over the past 15 years because we know its an advantage. But as we have stiffened these cars to where theres no crush built in, the weakest link has become the human body strapped in them. I think thats one reason we have had more severe injuries and more fatalities with drivers than we did years ago because then, the cars gave a little when they hit the wall.
Its hard for a crew chief to sit down and say, Im going to take bars out of my race car, weaken the race car up a little bit to make it safer for the driver. It sounds barbaric that you wouldnt do something you feel would make the car safer for the driver. But at the end of the day, if your car doesnt perform well, youre not competitive and you dont win races, then theyre going to find somebody who can be competitive and can win races. So you sit and agonize so much over what to do.
Crew chiefs are weight-conscious. We fight not for pounds in race cars, but for ounces. I know the fans might say, Wait a minute, you have to weigh 3,400 pounds, 1,600 pounds on the right. What does it matter? We want to add as much lead ballast as we can low in the framerails, because its going to make the car perform better. When you look at all the things weve added in the past few years for the safety of the driverthe seats are bigger, they have more supports on them, we have much, much bigger headrests. We just keep adding little things, like a kill switch on the steering wheel and secondary window nets on both sides of the car. All of these add weight to the cars.
As a crew chief, sort of like with the stiffness issue, you sit back and say, How much more stuff can I add to this car? I look at the headrests today and all the drivers are running full-face helmets. I know the headrests are in there because theyre good for side impacts, but I think its taken so much peripheral vision from the drivers. Maybe thats why a driver gets in trouble sometimes, because he cant see anywhere but straight out in front of him. Could we put different sides in there and still accomplish what we need to accomplish?
I do have some personal experience in this regard. In 1994, Ernie Irvan was my driver. When he hit that wall at Michigan, he was severely injured and we didnt even know if he was going to live, much less come back and race. I guess, all of a sudden, hauling extra weight doesnt mean anything, how weak or stiff the car is doesnt mean anything, because without your driver, all the rest is immaterial.
Even with that, up to last year when I was still a crew chief, it was a constant struggle in my mind. This might be better for the driver, but its going to be heavier. This might be better for the driver, but its probably not going to perform very well. It is an ongoing struggle for a crew chief, trust me, to find that balance between being competitive and winning races and doing the things that are safe for your driver.
Larry McReynolds is a former-NASCAR crew chief who now works as a broadcaster for FOX Sports.