By: DJ DeSpain
Ryan Newman, driver of the number 39 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, is a pretty smart fellow. That’s not to disparage his peers in saying that they’re dumb, but Newman probably has somewhat of an edge over most of his competitors when it comes to understanding cars and racing them. You see, Ryan is a graduate from Purdue University with a degree in Vehicle Structure Engineering. A degree like that should be very helpful in working with his crew chief, Tony Gibson, and the rest of the U.S. Army/Tornados race team!
“I think crew chiefs appreciate my perspective when it comes to engineering,” says Newman. “My language, being able to talk to the race engineers, I think that definitely helps.”
Having that engineering background makes Newman more aware of how to phrase his own questions. Ryan states, “I’ve always said that an engineer, every time he gets one answer, he gets two additional questions, which is easily ‘How’ and ‘Why.’ I think that for me, it has made my career more successful being an engineer.”
So having that mindset helps Ryan to analyze the pros and cons of changes in the sport, especially not only in terms of performance, but also in making sure that such changes are safe for both the driver and the sport of racing.
One such change to come would be the introduction of fuel injectors to replace the use of carburetors in NASCAR engines. Personally, Newman would hate to see that particular change. “Carburetors I still love. I enjoy history. I enjoy old things. I enjoy old cars, and old cars have carburetors.” However, Ryan is realistic about the change because “most of the things we hear about ‘going green,’ fuel injection is the way to go.”
Ryan knows the fuel injection change will happen, but he wants to put on the brakes to slow the process of its inception in order to make sure all the safety aspects are thought out first. Ryan points out, “It’s one of those things we have to consider when we get in a crash and knock the fuel line off. Fuel injection is going to have a lot more pressure than a carburetor would, and you got 70 pounds of gasoline shooting out at you, or shooting out in somebody’s direction.”
That is a scary scenario of an engine fire situation, certainly more so than can happen today with carburetors. It’s not something that most fans have probably considered themselves with all the talk about fuel injection being green is the reason it has to be done.
But maybe that is why NASCAR is slow to come out with the fuel injector in their cars because they don’t want to jump into fads without considering all the consequences first. NASCAR is all about safety these days. Maybe NASCAR hasn’t been proactive in some cases, but certainly reactive when dangerous situations have happened in the past that result in safer cars, safer tracks, or safer race procedures.
Take for example the current car used today in both the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series. The design came about because of car crashes that occurred in the early part of this decade that resulted in tragic losses or career-ending injuries. Since the new design, there have been several serious crashes such as Carl Edwards’ flip last year at Talladega, or the most recent crash at Pocono that Elliott Sadler experienced, that could have resulted in more serious or tragic consequences for both drivers.
It’s good that the cars are safer, but what about the tracks themselves? The tracks now have the SAFER barrier system in place, which is a system of steel tubes and pads of hard foam affixed to the concrete walls of entry and exit ways of corner turns. Catchfences have been strengthened to lessen the chances of car parts, or cars themselves, smashing through fences and into the grandstands. Sand and gravel traps have been installed at road courses to slow the cars down when spun out of a turn.
But even with all that, there are still instances where improvements can be made. At Pocono earlier this month, Elliott Sadler spun his car off the back straight away, and crashed into the earthen berm so hard that his engine flew out of the car on impact! Yet, the car protected Elliott from serious injury, even potential death, by being such the safety cocoon that it is today.
Ryan says that “cars can go 250 mph in the right conditions and at the right time but they can also do that in the wrong conditions and at the wrong time. Different race tracks can bring up different conditions.”
The track safety conditions at Pocono are noticeable, and not in a positive way. For starters, the track is one of the few that still uses old, steel guardrails. Hit one of those just the wrong way and a guardrail can become a potentially dangerous spear. Next, there aren’t as many SAFER barriers there when compared with other tracks. Finally, the existence of earthen berms, with about the same resistance as a concrete wall, along with slick, grass runoff areas leading to those berms, is exactly the wrong thing to have at a track as Elliott Sadler found out.
Regarding Sadler’s wreck, Newman says “that same wreck could have happened at several racetracks. It happened at Pocono, which is probably one of the most underdeveloped from a safety standpoint. There are a lot of things that are out there that need to be revised, but with a different perspective put on them. Elliott Sadler has got a good perspective about the back straight away at Pocono.”
Sadler is sure to be consulted about that perspective and it says much about NASCAR that they value the input of the drivers. Not just because drivers are thinking about themselves, but because they are helping to preserve the sport for generations to come.
Newman sums up it up best by saying, “There are some things we have to look at in the future in the safety of our sport, in respect to the things that we change, or things we’re going to change, that are going to be impactful from a safety perspective.”
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