Nascar is taking sweeping measures to combat the unprecedented rise in concussions among Cup Series drivers this year in the Next Gen car.
After multiple drivers publicly criticized Nascar for the concussion issues following incidents involving Kurt Busch (Pocono) and Alex Bowman (Texas), the sanctioning body held a crash test and will have new parts to its Next Gen car in 2023. While some racers said this is a change that should have been addressed before the car was unveiled in February, others are embracing the change.
“This stuff takes time,” Corey LaJoie said this week on the Stacking Pennies podcast. “Nobody is at more of a risk or a detriment than Nascar is. When we were designing this car, safety was above and beyond every checkpoint of this car.”
The rear clip is the part of the car in question after the two incidents. Busch’s career may be cut short due to the severity of his concussion, with a press conference scheduled for Saturday at his home track of Las Vegas. Meanwhile, Bowman has missed the last two races and will miss the next three, eliminating him from championship contention in the No. 48 car.
“The general aim of these changes appears to be to create a better crumple zone behind the driver and allow those components in the rear to dissipate more energy in a crash so there is less impact to the driver,” Bozi Tatarevic said of the changes coming to the Next Gen car in Road & Track. “The changes will happen in three main areas of the rear of the car, which include the rear bumper struts, rear clip, and the back of the center section.”
The two concussions are the most visible driver brain injuries since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2016 concussion, as well as Ryan Newman’s 2020 hospitalization after a last-lap wreck that nearly cost him his life in the Daytona 500. But the two were four years apart, and multiple drivers haven’t had to sit out of races due to brain injuries this close to one another in roughly two decades.
Dr. Jonathan Gelber, a sports medicine specialist and author of Tiger Woods’s Back and Tommy John’s Elbow: Injuries and Tragedies That Transformed Careers, Sports, and Society, has studied Nascar’s safety initiatives since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001.
“Any time driver safety is being addressed, we should applaud those who seek to do so and especially those that use science rather than reaction to solve a problem,” Dr. Gelber said. “We saw this reaction following the death of Dale Earnhardt.”
In Dr. Gelber’s 2019 book, he breaks down Formula 1’s reaction to safety changes after the death of superstar Ayrton Senna, which preceded Earnhardt’s death by less than seven years.
Both Nascar and Formula 1 acted immediately to improve the safety of its racecars. Mortality was a well-known danger in motor sports, but the two incidents created a whole new awareness for racers. How could they test the limits of the cars without risking their lives?
Drivers in all forms of motor sports quickly started wearing the HANS device to protect their heads and necks in the early 2000s. To this day, racers are still trying to find ways to protect their heads. Nascar champion Joey Logano revealed he is attempting to swallow up any gap he can between his helmet and the HANS device.
“I feel like the meeting was very open and honest, which was necessary for drivers to get off their chests with their real concerns,” Logano said of an Oct. 8 meeting Nascar had with drivers in Charlotte. “The frustrating part is it took way too long to have that meeting. That meeting should’ve happened the Monday after Kurt’s crash, not waiting until Alex had his crash.”
The Next Gen car was Nascar’s first major changes to its car since the 2007 Car of Tomorrow. The complete redesign of the racecar was meant to boost safety for drivers, cut costs for teams and make the cars appear more similar to street vehicles, modeled after sports cars.
Dr. Gelber, analyzing the crashes of Busch and Bowman, said, “Concussions are also especially tricky because they can’t be seen, so fans, drivers, and teammates can’t always appreciate the injury. Not all concussions require a loss of consciousness, either.
“There are also things called sub-concussive episodes which add up over time – think about a boxer or MMA fighter’s training or long career with endless sessions in the gym being hit in the head. Or football players during practice. It’s not just the single big game or big race where one specific brain injury occurs.”
As Nascar moves forward with safety changes to the Next Gen car for 2023, it will be one of the most watched sports stories going into the new year.