How NASCAR acted on Next Gen car safety promises — and tweaked a few rules, too
In October 2022, Cup Series drivers met with NASCAR officials on the Saturday before the Charlotte Roval race for a “tense” and “candid” discussion about the safety issues of the Next Gen car — and NASCAR emerged from that meeting with the promise that changes to the car will be implemented ahead of the 2023 season.
On Tuesday, NASCAR showed its work.
Officials of the sanctioning body offered reporters a look at the new rear clip, the new rear bumper structure and the new center section of the car that will be on-track at the Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles this weekend.
The changes, at least in crash testing, showed that the 2023 parts were substantially less rigid than the 2022 ones — both in severe crashes and so-called “moderate” crashes, which are the kinds of crashes drivers said had an outsized impact on the driver of the car.
“We started in late May, early June, looking at the car from a computer modeling standpoint,” John Patalak, NASCAR’s vice president of safety engineering, explained on Tuesday at NASCAR’s annual competition media briefing at the Research and Development Center.
“There are always challenges because the car has to be able to perform on the racetrack without bending things while it’s not crashing,” Patalak continued. “And so you have to look at wheel loads at Bristol and Dover, what happens to suspensions when you go over curbs at road courses, things like that. And the loads that are required to work there, we have to work through and around and become creative in how we introduce deformations into the chassis for crashes — to make sure we’re not bending things the way they’re not supposed to bend.”
The ultimate question for NASCAR, essentially: How can we introduce deformations to the car during collisions — keeping drivers safe — but also ensure that the car is competently durable?
“We went through lots and lots of iterations to make sure that we were not running afoul of sort of the operating loads of the car — what it needs to go around the track without bending — but then also making the deformations that we needed,” Patalak said.
Next Gen car safety was among the most urgent issues NASCAR set out to rectify this offseason after the 2022 summer, which featured drivers and teams expressing their displeasure with the car in unprecedented volume and vitriol. The criticism particularly came to a head after the September race at Texas Motor Speedway, where Alex Bowman sustained a concussion after spinning the right-rear part of the car into the wall — the same kind of hit Kurt Busch sustained in July that sent him out with a concussion, too.
“We got pretty aggressive to make the modifications from last season to this,” said John Probst, chief racing development officer. “It took a lot of energy and resources to make this happen.”
Among other changes in the Next Gen car: the car will have mufflers for noise reduction purposes and will have cooling vents on the hoods of the cars to regulate heat for drivers in the car.
Other NASCAR tweaks for 2023
Changes to the Next Gen car weren’t the only adjustments NASCAR made ahead of its 2023 season. Here are the handful of others:
• There will be no stage breaks for Cup road course events in 2023, but teams will still score stage points based on when the stage ends on designated lap. This means there will be no stage breaks at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).
• The Damaged Vehicle Policy will be seven minutes in 2023. It was increased from six to 10 for the 2022 playoff races. This allows for the a team to make car body and minor repairs on pit road, as well as to replace toe links, but no specialized tools are allowed in the pit stall.
• No more Hail Melons. Without adding a new rule, NASCAR has deemed a move like Ross Chastain’s last-lap haul up the wall illegal in 2023 for safety reasons.
• There’s now an orange vehicle interference line on pit road.It will be used as a reference for the driver, and it’s intended to prevent cars from being in other cars’ spaces on a hectic pit road. If vehicles cross the line and an interference occurs, “it may result in a penalty,” NASCAR officials said.
• Being in the Top 30 in points is no longer a requirement for playoff eligibility. This largely comes as a result of last season’s parity, where it was conceivable that a driver could win a race and still not be in the Top 30 in points — a prospect that, had it come to fruition, “didn’t seem right,” officials said.
• Losing a wheel this year has slightly different consequences than in years past: If you lose one on pit road under yellow, you start at the rear; if you lose one on pit road under green, that’s a pass-through penalty; if you lose one beyond pit road, that’s a two-lap penalty and a two-race suspension for two crew members.