Changes In The Name of Safety Needed for Qualifying

Changes In The Name of Safety Needed for Qualifying

by March 10, 2014 0 comments

Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Three weeks into the NASCAR season, NASCAR’s new group qualifying has proven to be dramatic, exciting, and a bit hectic for competitors and fans alike. In its current incarnation, it’s also a potential recipe for disaster.

With teams taping up the grilles of their race cars to reduce aerodynamic drag throughout a qualifying run, the temperature in the engine compartment rises at a high rate. To cool the engines off, drivers coast around at the bottom of the race track at speeds underneath 30 miles per hour – all the while having cars whizzing by at speeds of up to 200 mph.

There is no barrier between the cars running cool-down laps and drivers making their qualifying runs other than a painted white line; with that the risk of catastrophe is great. Brian Vickers commented on the dangers the current format poses towards drivers after the first round of knockout qualifying on Friday.

“That has got to be the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in racing,” Vickers said. “When the 36 [Reed Sorenson] went by me at 170 mph faster than I was – had he slipped and hit me, I’d be done.”

Eventual race winner, Brad Keselowski, spoke after the completion of the final round of qualifying on whether or not he believed that NASCAR would step in to tweak the format in the near future.

“Like anything else in this sport I’m sure we’ll evolve over time,” Keselowski said. “Drivers and teams will push the limits of everything that happens until NASCAR has to step in and police it – more so than they are right now and I think that’s just a matter of time. … So far there hasn’t been any one particular incident that would stand out and force that to happen and I would probably guess you wouldn’t see anything change until there is.”

NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition and Racing Development, Robin Pemberton, took questions on qualifying procedures during a press conference at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We’re going to sit for a while, field all the questions, and see what happens,” Pemberton said regarding the urgency to make any changes. “It’s a very small snapshot of qualifying so far. We’re listening [to the drivers], we told them it’s too early to tell if tweaks are necessary. Other than the cars running around on the bottom and you had one or two complain that it was a close call? Again, we’re listening to them, but we want to take a better snapshot of it.”

NASCAR and freak accidents have always seemed to go hand-in-hand quite well together. If any sport in the world had an intimate relationship with Murphy’s Law of ‘if anything can go wrong – it will’, it’d have to be this one.

We have had incidents of Kyle Larson’s engine avulsing itself into the grandstands through an access door at Daytona in 2013 to Jeff Gordon pancaking his car into a short section of open wall without a SAFER barrier at Las Vegas in 2008. If there’s something physically that appears so minuscule to the point where you think it’s an impossibility for a driver to hit…it’s going to get hit.

The two above incidents involved fixed locations of a tiny scale on a race track; NASCAR’s current qualifying format involves over 43 moving objects that could get drilled by a speeding vehicle at any given second.

With drivers pushing their race cars as hard as they can to complete the quickest lap possible, spinouts are inevitable if a driver pushes their car over the edge. When NASCAR did single-car qualifying runs, drivers had to worry about saving a car from hitting a wall and returning it to pit road in one piece; now drivers have to worry about avoiding the track boundaries and other cars.

The reasoning for drivers to slowly crawl around the inside of the track is to provide relief to overheating engines. With NASCAR prohibiting teams from opening the hood on pit road and allowing a cooling unit to cool the car’s power-plant, teams have resorted to coasting around at a snail’s pace with the vents open to allow cool air in. A race car in motion with open vents at a low rev rate provides the engine with more cool air than if a car were to idle at pit road.

There is no harm in allowing teams to use cooling units on pit road if it will lead to a less congested racing surface.  NASCAR needs to think safety first here with the qualifying procedures before a driver is injured. There is absolutely no reason in the world to dawdle and wait for an incident to happen before taking action.

The potential is there for something catastrophic to happen to a driver, and with those who strap themselves into these 800-plus horsepower beasts admitting that they themselves are scared, it might be wise to be more proactive regarding their concerns.

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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