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Is new style of NASCAR racecar causing more concussions?

Joey Logano next gen racecar
Zach Catanzareti Photo, CC BY 2.0
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Wikimedia Commons
Joey Logano is next gen racecar

We often think about concussions as a risk in sports like football, but auto racing could be a contact sport as well. The NASCAR playoffs visit Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend, and two drivers, Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman, won't be competing because of concussion symptoms. Some have pointed to NASCAR's new race car as the culprit. WFAE's Woody Cain has covered racing for more than 30 years and joins Claire Donnelly to talk about this new car.

Woody Cain: So the new next-gen racecar is supposed to be safer. It isn't unusual to see crashes. Remember, we're talking about racing where drivers routinely go over 180 miles an hour or more, and they have a lot of extra protection — like helmets and fire suits and extra padding around their seats and head. The new car was primarily, though, an effort to get the race cars closer to what manufacturers sell to everyday people out of their showrooms all across the country. The old car was based on technology essentially from back in the 1960s, but this next-gen car includes things like independent suspension, rack and pinion steering, all the stuff you see in commercials when they're talking about cars. It also uses common parts that teams can basically just bolt on instead of making their own like they used to. And that was a cost-cutting measure.

Donnelly: Why are some drivers blaming the new car for their concussions?

Cain: Well, some drivers say that some parts of the new car don't have as much give, or flex, as the previous versions. So when a driver like Alex Bowman spins and backs into the wall at Texas, it doesn't seem to crumple as much and absorb energy. He said later it was the hardest hit that he had ever felt. Here's Bowman's teammate, 2020 champion Chase Elliott, when he was asked about it last weekend.

Chase Elliott: It just blows me away that we can have something new in 2022 that, you know, offers all this technology, and all this time and experience of so many just super-talented people in the sport, and we allow it to go backwards, you know, especially with safety. I just think, is ... it's just super surprising to me, you know, that we allow that to happen. But we did. And, you know, now it's just about how do we go forward from here, making sure we're making the right choices to improve what we have and keep things like, you know, what happened to Alex, this week from happening. And what happened to, Kurt. You know, those things, just those types of incidents, didn't result in injuries. And the past handful of years from just me watching, obviously I'm not a doctor, but I watched a lot of cars back into the wall and those guys be fine. So I just hate, I just hate to see that, you know. And no one's immune to it. Could be me, you know, next week, or it could be any of my peers or fellow competitors. And nobody wants to see that, no matter how much you like or dislike a guy. My opinion. So, yeah, I just hate to see us go backwards. And I'm afraid that ... I'm afraid that we have.

Donnelly: So what does NASCAR say about all this?

Cain: Well, not much publicly, Claire. But they conducted additional crash testing this week to address some of those specific concerns we talked about and determine what can be done. The results haven't been made available, but NASCAR has indicated that any changes to the car won't likely be implemented until next season. There's a concern that changing it right now wouldn't be fair in the middle of a playoff battle.

Donnelly: And what's next? I mean, the next race is this weekend in Charlotte.

Cain: Well, several reports say that NASCAR is planning to meet with team owners and drivers over the next couple of days. And we'll see if that eases some of the concerns. But this has been building for quite a while. Here's Christopher Bell, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing in Huntersville. Back in August.

Christopher Bell: It needs to be addressed, for sure. I mean, out of a few small hits that I've taken, you feel it a lot more. And most of the time, it's in your head, not your body.

Cain: So if competitors aren't satisfied with what they hear from NASCAR, they'll likely speak up even more in the coming weeks.

Donnelly: All right. Thank you so much, Woody. That's WFAE's Woody Cain. Practice and qualifying is tomorrow at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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Woody is a Charlotte native who came to WFAE from the world of NASCAR where he was host of NASCAR Today for MRN Radio as well as a pit reporter, turn announcer and host of the NASCAR Live pre race show for Cup Series races. Before that, he was a news anchor at WBT radio in Charlotte, a traffic reporter, editor of The Charlotte Observer’s University City Magazine, News/Sports Director at WEGO-AM in Concord and a Swiss Army knife in local cable television. His first job after graduating from Appalachian State University was news reporter at The Daily Independent in Kannapolis. Along the way he’s covered everything from murder trials and a national political convention to high school sports and minor league baseball.
Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.