NASCAR Lab Tech on Pushing Limits of Speed, Safety

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 18, 2004
NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina, is a ten-million-dollar (U.S.) facility dedicated to making race cars safer—without sacrificing speed.

Gary Nelson, NASCAR managing director of research and development, supervises the center. His team uses a variety of means, including computer simulations and crash test dummies, in an endless quest to make a dangerous sport safer.

One of your projects is a five-year plan to design "the car of the future." What does that involve?

We've focused on the driver's space and what protects the driver: restraint systems, the seat, and the space around him. The [the size of a regulation NASCAR] car got a bit bigger. It looks the same, but just a few inches, from the driver's perspective, is a big deal. We fill that space with crushable material that absorbs some energy.

If you think about passenger cars today, they have an air bag that acts as a pillow. There is no way to have an air bag that does what we need at racing speeds. But the theory of absorbing energy of the impact … would be a very good goal. Instead of a pillow between the driver and the wheel, we put protection [outside the cockpit] on the side, front, and back of the car. So when [the car] hits something, we're able to lengthen the time between [impact] and the car coming to a complete stop. It happens in an instant. We're talking about milliseconds. But if we can double the length of that instant, those extra milliseconds make a tremendous difference to what the driver feels.

You've said that your best innovations often end up being pretty simple in application.

All of the technology, the rocket-science stuff, sets you up for something to go wrong. You have to use all those tools and resources to get a solution. But you want the final solution itself to be simple.

It's easy to say, Let's hook up actuators, sensors, and all kinds of things. Before long you've piled on 300 possible links that can go bad. Think about 43 cars, running 300 to 500 miles [480 to 800 kilometers] a weekend, 36 weekends a year. … If something has too many possible fail points, you will fail it.

Does your work have an impact on the cars we drive every day?

Well, you can't point at something and say, "This came from NASCAR." But we work closely with the manufacturers. They take ideas from production cars and bring them to us and say, "Let's try this." At the same time [manufacturers] learn from what we try and take it back to Dodge, Ford, or GM.

Working on restraints, for example, we used their crash-test dummies. With our speeds, we exposed some limitations that they hadn't seen. So the dummies are now evolving to be more representative of what actually happens to a person in an accident.

How does safety fit into the larger culture of NASCAR?

In our industry, there's a big interest in safety. Drivers are constantly asking what we're learning. But safety is one of those things that is a tough deal.

If you look at a driver or a businessman or student, they have various types of report cards that let them know how they are doing. If you work in safety, you don't have that. You can't say at the end of the week, Wow! We helped 14 people this week. Every accident is unique. So we can never just say that this guy walked away because of something that we did. But you feel good about the work you do. You try to advance a bit every day. A year goes by and you look back and say Wow, we've done a lot.

We can say that we think racing is better now. We think it's safer because people work at it every day. I've got a passion for what I do. It's like a dream job for me.

Because of the nature of the sport, safety is always balanced with competition—is it the same at your facility?

One of my parameters, always, is that anything we develop cannot be a restriction to speed, or else it becomes a lot tougher for the inspectors. If something we design makes the car go slower, the teams will be tempted [to circumvent it]—because they're always trying to get faster.

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