NASCAR enhances safety of Next Gen car, mandates data collection for 2023

NASCAR Cup Series cars line up for a restart at Phoenix
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In 2022, NASCAR introduced the Next Gen car — a radically new way to conceptualize how Cup Series vehicles are manufactured while remaining true to the sport’s stock car roots. On the brink of the 2023 season, lessons learned from the Next Gen’s inaugural season have sparked further innovation around the vehicle and its construction in order to enhance the safety for competitors behind the wheel.

Teams will utilize new center and rear clips on the vehicle’s chassis, with both sections modified to better absorb rear impacts following crashes in 2022 that resulted in concussions for two playoff-eligible drivers.

MORE: Cup Series schedule | 2023 rules announced

Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup series champion, was injured after backing his No. 45 Toyota into the wall in July at Pocono Raceway. Two months later, Alex Bowman incurred a concussion upon backing his No. 48 Chevrolet into the wall at Texas Motor Speedway.

NASCAR worked closely with Technique Chassis, which provides all Cup teams with their chassis components, since late May 2022 to improve the crush zones of the rear end and alleviate the energy that has deflected to the driver in rear impacts.

From left, the 2022 and 2023 rear clips of the Next Gen car sit side by side at the NASCAR R&D Center
From left, the 2022 and 2023 rear clips of the Next Gen car sit side by side at the NASCAR R&D Center (Zach Sturniolo | NASCAR Studios)

The improved 2023 design features the removal of some bars, a reduction in the thickness of some tubing and adding pivot points called “triggers” in the structure to encourage deformation while protecting both the oil tank and fuel cell.

“It’s not any one of those things by themselves that was the key,” explained Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR’s vice president of safety engineering. “It was the cumulative effect of the whole assembly working together. And so this was kind of the final validation of that. All of those changes were put together through computer modeling all sorts of different crash scenarios at the race track.”

A focal point of the new construction was creating zones that would crumple more easily to absorb energy.

“We took the rear bumper struts,” Patalak said. “They’re made out of aluminum, and so they’re made out of thinner gauge than they previously were. So they collapse at a lower load; their buckling loads are lower.

“And then the rear clip, we removed and/or replaced structures with different cross sections, meaning we weakened the structures so that they would deform under less load. And you have to be very specific and careful where you do that so that we don’t introduce problems in other circumstances where you don’t want it to bend or where you can’t have it bend.”

Additionally, NASCAR will mandate new incident data collection systems on all Cup Series cars in 2023.

“In 2002, we started with our black box or our incident data recorder that goes on the left frame rail [of the chassis],” Patalak said. “There’s been several iterations over the years. In 2018, we added a high-speed camera. So this year in Cup, it is a completely new system from the ground up. This will give us more data channels, will give us dedicated GPS data as far as the speed of the vehicle, and we’ll have a lot of those things all synchronized in time. So when we do our crash analyses, we will have a more powerful data set to work with.”

Some drivers will also wear mouthpiece sensors this season, continuing use from 2022. These sensors are used on a voluntary basis but Patalak noted an increase in the number of drivers who are electing to use them beginning in 2023.

“We talked about the data recorder, it’s on the chassis of the car. So that’s what the car is experiencing,” Patalak said. “But ultimately, what we want to do is make the driver as safe as possible. So this gives us a data point from the drivers from their body themselves. And that’s informative on our computer model in our testing, whether we’re using crash test dummies like physical dummies in the crash lab, or doing human body modeling, numerical simulation, it makes all of that research better. It gives us more confidence in what tools we use. It helps us when we go to make changes and evaluate better strategies.”

More work has gone into evaluating the proper configuration of SFI-approved foam that surrounds the driver’s head within the cockpit as well, specifically addressing the most effective heights, positioning and gaps that best protect the drivers’ heads in a crash.

“The drivers had come to us about this information as we started to exchange this information with them — how can they better digest and they better consume that information and implement into their cars?” Patalak said. “And so right after Thanksgiving, early December, David Green from our Cup safety inspectors and officials [team] went and scheduled shop visits with all the drivers who wanted to participate. And so we had the bulk of Cup drivers and their interior specialists, oftentimes their crew chief, have a car ready at their shop and just go and spend an hour to three or four hours with them and walk through all of these issues. And I think the results of that were very positive.”

By Monday, 27 visits had been completed with six more scheduled ahead of the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 19 (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The 2023 year gets underway this Sunday with the exhibition Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum (8 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).