Some people wonder where the danger of NASCAR really is when the courses are so seemingly simple and all the drivers really have to do is “keep turning left.” This is an ignorant viewpoint, however, when you consider that in its history, the NASCAR Cup Series alone has experienced 28 driver deaths. The fortunate thing is that the last fatality was on February 18, 2001 when Dale Earnhardt tragically lost his life during the last lap of the Daytona 500.
NASCAR Stock Cars are fitted with many safety features to protect the driver in the event of a crash. Roll bars protect from the car flipping, fire protection suits and gloves protects from fire, the HANS system protects the head and neck from serious injury, and the car is designed to absorb impacts at high speed.
The 1950s and 1960s were the deadliest decades, with 7 fatalities in each decade. The 1980s contained 5 deaths. Don’t forget that these are just the numbers for the NASCAR Cup Series, not all the other series that happen in NASCAR, not to mention IndyCar, Formula 1, international rally and more.
In this article we are taking a closer look at what safety features have been installed into NASCAR vehicles and the wider racing environment to make the sport safer (and hopefully therefore more enjoyable) for drivers, team members, and spectators alike.
One of the major concerted efforts to improve safety standards in NASCAR vehicles came in the wake of the last fatality in 2001. After 7 years of research, the so-called ‘Car of Tomorrow’ was created for the 2008 year which was meant to exhibit all of the safety hallmarks that would hopefully leave behind the days where drivers, team members and others in the speedway were put in life-threatening danger during any race.
The Car of Tomorrow still had some of its own problems, but was the first generation to feature some of the things that are now standard and welcomed in all newer NASCAR vehicles. The Car of Tomorrow was replaced in 2013 with a sixth-generation stock car model, and in 2022 the Next Gen car is arriving, all of which still carry elements of that critical step taken in 2008 to make the sport safer.
So what are these lasting safety features that started in the Car of Tomorrow? Let’s look more closely.
NASCAR Safety: Roll Cage
The first line of defense in a NASCAR vehicle is the roll cage. Its primary function is to absorb shocks and protect the driver from impacts or, as the name suggests, from being crushed or otherwise injured in the event of the car rolling.
The space within the cage is meant to be unaffected, and the cage will especially help to keep the roof intact. It is made up of a front and rear clip made of thinner tubes designed to collapse when impacting a wall or car, restricting the driver’s own body movements.
These are sandwiching together a stronger middle section made from larger metal tubes, designed to protect the cabin’s integrity.
NASCAR Safety: NASCAR Racing Seat
NASCAR seats now contain carbon fiber instead of aluminum to absorb impact shocks more effectively. The seats are also designed to wrap around the rib cage and shoulders for a snugger fit and better protection (and support) when driving.
NASCAR Safety: Fire Suit and Helmet
This one is fairly self-explanatory. The suits, shoes, and helmets worn by NASCAR drivers have to be made of fire-retardant materials. The helmets have to be NASCAR-certified as well as government-certified. These are not just to protect against sudden breakouts of fires during accidents, but also because the cars themselves generate extreme heat during normal operation.
They certainly help, though of course are not completely fireproof ( very little is) they are designed to give time for the driver to get out, or to be dragged out of a car before any fire penetrates the suit. They do this really well, however their design makes toilet trips somewhat problematic.
NASCAR Safety: Lexan Windshields
Did you think that NASCAR windshields were ordinary plane glass? Think again! They are made from a tough polycarbonate compound called Lexan. Its flexibility allows it to absorb and withstand high-speed impacts. These windshields are expensive, and so teams often cover them in an additional laminate layer that protects the Lexan from scratches. The laminate is affordable and can be removed and replaced after every race.
NASCAR Safety: The HANS Device
It has an unusual name, but it’s really just a head restraint HANS is an acronym for Head and Neck Support. Its function is to protect a driver’s head and neck whenever there are sudden and/or jerky movements in the car, things that could normally cause whiplash and other neck and back pain in ordinary vehicles and when travelling at NASCAR Speeds could and have caused far worse injuries like Basilar skull fractures.
The Hans device seems to wrap around the shoulders and chest of the driver, but it’s only attached to the helmet, in fact. The most important thing it does is stop the head snapping forwards independent of the body in the event of a crash. We have a larger article here on the HANS device.
NASCAR Safety: NASCAR Window Nets
These nets are designed to catch flying debris and contain drivers’ arms within their cars. The nets are also used as a signal for drivers involved in crashes. By lowering the net down, the driver indicates that they are not injured (as far as they can see, of course).
NASCAR Safety: Seat Belts and 7-Point Harness
You’ll find seat belts in NASCAR vehicles that look much the same as regular street-legal belts, but the difference is that they are made much stronger and more durable. The seat belts were augmented to a 5-point harness in 1993, and then a 6-point harness in 2007. In 2015, the 7-point harness was introduced on all NASCARs, and includes 2 shoulder belts, 3 submarine belts, and 2 lap belts, all of which lock into a single cam buckle.
NASCAR Safety: NASCAR Spotter
If you’ve ever looked at a NASCAR vehicle close up, you might notice that there are no side mirrors. Drivers have a rear-view mirror inside the car, but no side mirrors because it’s against the rules to have anything projecting out at the side of a NASCAR.
To help drivers avoid problems on the track, NASCAR came up with the idea of a “spotter” who sits at an elevated position, observing what’s going on and informing the driver to give them a picture of the race going on around them.
NASCAR Safety: Roof Flaps
The function of roof flaps is to counteract the effect of negative lift that can occur if and when NASCAR vehicles experience high speed crashes or spins. Rotating a huge amount at speed generates high pressure under the car and low pressure above it.
The flaps are aligned at specific angles, the first at 240 degrees which opens in response to low pressure above. The second flap opens after the first at 180 degrees, further reducing the negative lift.
NASCAR Safety: Fuel Cells
Back in the day, NASCAR just used whatever stock fuel cells the car came with, but since then they have created sturdier ones that are less prone to bursting into deadly fires. NASCAR-grade fuel cells have an outer layer of steel, and an inner layer of hard plastic.
It’s placed at the rear of the car, far from the driver’s seat, with its input flange separated at the front of the car in case of a rear-end collision. It’s fixed solidly to the roll cage to prevent it loosening during any crash.
NASCAR Safety: Restrictor Plates
These are designed to limit power and speed of NASCAR vehicles, but drivers often complain that they don’t help because they see more cars bunching up trying to draft off one another for a few additional mph, which brings cars closer together and thus makes any crash potentially more serious. These have been phased out at all but two tracks – The Superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega.
NASCAR Safety: Removable Steering Wheels
NASCAR, like some other motorsports, IndyCar and F1 for example have the ability to remove the steering wheel. This makes it easier and faster to enter, and more importantly exit the car. It also allows people to pull drivers out easier if needed as well.
Although only one person is in a NASCAR stock car there is plenty else in there to fill the space. The drivers seat, the head supports and bolsters all take up plenty of room, and the ability to fix the wheel on once the driver is in the car, or take it off before exiting gives much more room. Especially as they sit so close to the wheel.
The Next Gen NASCAR Safety Features.
Although there are some safety features that will be carried on through the generations, with each new car generation there is the chance to not only improve performance, but also safety. The following are some of the new features in the Next Gen Car that have the aim to improve safety.
- Rear diffuser to provide more downforce to the car.
- Bigger wheels
- Seat has been moved closer to the centre of the car
- Roll cage lighter but stronger
- Refueling is now a clamp on rather than a pour system to reduce spills.
After the 1990 Atlanta Journal 500 where a rear tire changer on the Melling Racing team was killed in a pit road crash, new rules started to come in. NASCAR was the first to introduce pit road speed limits in 1991, with most other motorsports only following suit in 1994. Since 2002, pit crews all wear helmets, fire suits, gloves, and anyone operating a fuel pump also has to wear a fire apron.
The acronym SAFER barrier stands for “Steel and Foam Energy Reduction” barrier. Some people give it the simpler moniker, “soft wall.” These were first installed at the Iowa Speedway back in 2006 and have since become a standard being retrofitted all over.
The soft wall lines the walls of an oval track and are designed to absorb the brunt of the force of any crash. With the aim of reducing the seriousness of the consequences.
Safety has always been at the forefront of NASCAR racing. The job of a racing driver is inherently dangerous and anything that can mitigate those risks is to be welcomed. From the serious considerations started decades ago we now have a new car and a new era, where the racing improvements don’t come at the expense of the drivers.
The improvements in materials, systems and aerodynamics should help keep the sport risks at a manageable level for years to come. Although as Ernest Hemmingway is quoted as saying, “there are only three sports, mountain climbing, boxing and motor racing, all the rest are just games!”
The risk can be reduced, but its always going to be there when driving at these speeds with 40 other drivers.