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The History of Next-Gen Safety Concerns

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With the recent news of Noah Gragson missing out on this weekend’s race at Sonoma, questions continue to swirl around the safety of the Next-Gen car. This is far from a new conversation as the Next-Gen car has had numerous safety concerns surrounding it since even before the car was on track. Today’s news both shows that those safety concerns still exist, but also show NASCAR making a legitimate effort to improve the safety of the Next-Gen car.

Summer 2021: The Crash Test Dummy Rumors

When NASCAR was crash-testing the Next-Gen car during the 2021 season, rumors began flying around about dangers with the car. So much so, that some people rumored that crash-test dummies in the Next-Gen car “died” whenever they hit the wall at high-speed. The rumors were never fully corroborated, but they got enough traction to where NASCAR actually had to release a statement denying the rumors.

In the wake of this, drivers began to speak out about the lack of collaboration between them and NASCAR on the Next-Gen car amongst other things. Denny Hamlin was one of the most vocal.

Regardless of what did or did not happen, there was significant apprehension within the industry from some about the safety of this Next-Gen car. Those concerns continued into the 2022 season.

Early 2022 Season: Drivers Speak Out About the Next-Gen Impacts

Early in the 2022 season, the Next-Gen car was met with generally positive reviews amongst fans. The racing product on 1.5 mile tracks particularly and the incredible parity provided for an interesting season. However, drivers were beginning to slowly express that the car did not absorb impacts very well, as was evidenced by this Jeff Gluck tweet.

The Harvick incident in question was this crash at Gateway late in the race.

Despite this being reported by the drivers, there were no major injuries as of yet. However, that changed at Pocono in July.

July 2022: Kurt Busch Injured at Pocono

During qualifying for the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono Raceway, Kurt Busch backed his car into the outside wall. Busch was later diagnosed with a concussion.

Unfortunately for Busch, that crash seemed to end his career. He would not run another race for the rest of the season, and he later announced he was stepping away from full-time competition. Tyler Reddick replaced Busch in the 45 car.

This incident raised more eyebrows amongst fans. The drivers concerns were beginning to bear some ugly fruit.

September 2022: Alex Bowman and Injured at Texas

The 2022 AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was a scary affair. With 16 caution flags and questionable tires, teams were on edge, and the results were damaging.

On lap 98, Playoff driver Alex Bowman spun and backed his car into the wall, seemingly not too hard. Unfortunately, Bowman was diagnosed with a concussion, and a Playoff driver was forced to miss five races. This cost Bowman a chance at a Championship.

Later in the race, Cody Ware had a hard crash in turn four, injuring his ankle. While he was allowed to race the next week at Talladega, he elected to sit out the following race at the Charlotte ROVAL.

Late 2022-Early 2023: NASCAR Makes Safety Changes to the Rear Clip

Throughout late 2022 and early 2023, NASCAR spend a lot of time making safety changes to the Next-Gen car. According to Bozi Tatarevic of Road and Track, NASCAR announced to teams on October 8th that changes were being made to the rear of the car. Both the Bowman and Busch impacts were at the rear of the car.

Jim Utter of reported in February of 2023 that more changes were being made to the rear of the car. Utter reported, “The most visible changes to the rear-clip were fewer bars on the newer model, altered bar designs and some of the existing bars now feature built in holes in the area of potential bending points.”

April 2023: Ryan Preece/Kyle Larson Crash at Talladega

While NASCAR’s Next-Gen car performed pretty well in terms of safety early in the year, there was one particularly scary incident. Ryan Preece slammed the passenger side door of Kyle Larson at Talladega. This caved both the door and the roll cage on the right side of the car alarmingly far.

This definitely rose some eyebrows within the industry, and Elton Sawyer, NASCAR’s Executive VP of Competition, vowed after the race to investigate. Some significant changes were definitely on the horizon, and, as those were announced, another driver injury emerged.

June 2023: Noah Gragson Injured at Gateway

Despite the Preece, Larson crash in early 2023, NASCAR did not have any major injuries. That changed when NASCAR went to Gateway this past weekend, when Noah Gragson crashed.

The result for Gragson was the third driver to get a concussion over the span of just under a year. Gragson will be replaced by Grant Enfinger this weekend at Sonoma. Coincidentally, the exact same day Gragson’s injury was announced, NASCAR announced new safety changes to the Next-Gen car.

June 2023: NASCAR Announces Major Safety Improvements to the Next-Gen Car Passenger Side and Front Clip

NASCAR announced numerous changes being made to the Next-Gen car in response primarily to the Preece and Larson crash at Talladega in April. The result was the softening of the front-clip and the reinforcement of the passenger side door of the car.

NASCAR used this YouTube video to show the thought process and explanation of the changes. This definitely shows an effort to make the Next-Gen car safer than it currently is. With every Next-Gen safety issue, NASCAR has made changes to try to counteract those.

It is also important to note that auto racing is inherently dangerous. No matter how safe a race car seems to be, there is always some sort of danger with every crash, and there is no perfectly safe race car try as NASCAR may.

Regardless of all of that, the Next-Gen car has been under scrutiny for its’ safety for a long time. Hopefully we are nearing the end of that time frame.

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Joshua Lipowski

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