NASCAR, drivers look at cockpit safety to prevent head injuries
When Alex Bowman returned to racing after missing five weeks because of a concussion, he returned to a car that was the same for the most part except for the area he can control.
Tyler Reddick didn't miss any races, but he raced at Phoenix a week after he retired early from the race at Martinsville after his head had been jolted by a combination of impacts. He did not immediately make changes because he wanted more research.
Drivers have been looking at what they can do with the headrest area to prevent concussions and injuries. While NASCAR will change some of the geometry of the rear chassis next year in hopes of making the car crush better to lessen the impact on the driver, it also is looking at any improvements in the cockpit area.
"It's not just the car," NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O'Donnell said during NASCAR's state of the sport news conference on Saturday. "I think the dialogue we've had with the teams now involves how are you fitting in your seat, helmets, foam, head surround.
"All those things are part of this dialogue, which is really, really good. We're seeing some improvements on a daily basis as we look towards 2023."
The new Next Gen car introduced in 2022 was designed to protect drivers from catastrophic injury, and O'Donnell said they have learned things about this car that they had not seen in previous cars.
"What we're learning is those smaller hits, which we've never seen before in terms of a car that we've raced, are the ones we really need to concentrate on," O'Donnell said.
"That's why you're seeing the tweaks being made to the clip, for those smaller impacts, even a bump on a restart, those types of things."
Hendrick Motorsports engineers worked on trying to find ways to lessen the risk of Bowman suffering a concussion if he has an incident similar to Texas, where his head appeared to hit the back of the headrest. Drivers are being told by spotters keep their heads back against the back of the headrest if they are crashing.
Bowman's team changed headrest brackets and went back to an older type of foam they had used in the headrest.
"We moved the headrest angles a little bit, added more foam, different types of foam," Bowman said. "I changed my helmet a little bit. We changed quite a bit.
"It's a process to kind of get it all right and get me comfortable with all of it."
Bowman said what works for one driver might not work for another driver when it comes to matching safety to the head movement they are accustomed to having as well as how their head might move in an accident (likely depending on how they sit in the seat).
Reddick said he was hesitant to change the foam in his car without having an analysis of the impact of any changes. All the materials would be required to be approved by the motorsports safety standard organization SFI.
"As much as you would think softer is better, it can be bad in other ways," Reddick said. "If it's too soft, it can kind of grab your head and expose you to rotational forces, which are just as dangerous.
"It's just a fine line. Everyone is working on exploring bigger and better things."
Bowman said the foam change in his headrest is a mix of foam used in the past.
"Some kind of different layers of different types of foam," Bowman said. "So it's not quite as solid in some areas but still dissipates the load adequately."
One thing that Reddick has that few other drivers have: data from a mouthpiece he was wearing that gives him and NASCAR a better idea of the forces on Reddick's head.
Reddick said he has worn it for several races as an extra data-gathering piece. The Cup cars have data incident recorders to determine g-forces in an accident and also have a high-speed camera focused on a driver that is triggered during an accident so NASCAR and the teams can see where and how violently the driver moves during a wreck.
Reddick said he went over the mouthpiece data with NASCAR safety engineers the day after the wreck.
"It was restart stack-up and I ran into the back of Noah [Gragson] and my head went forward," Reddick said. "And then while I was in the forward position, I got rear-ended and kind of popped my head back pretty hard on the headrest.
"Based off what you would see from the mouthpiece sensor data, it's a bit surprising. It looked like what you would see in a pretty significant crash normally. It didn't feel good, and I knew I wasn't 100 percent."
The common theme when it comes to drivers and concussions is whether drivers admit to having one versus trying to just tough it out.
Just look at the Reddick situation. He passed all his neurological tests at the infield medical center; NASCAR uses the King-Devick test that is used in other pro sports as a quick sideline neurological analysis. He said by the next day, he felt back to normal and also passed all the tests he had later in the week.
So was it a mistake to get out of the car? Reddick said even if he were in contention for a championship, if he felt as bad as he did at Martinsville, he would have gotten out of the car.
"I was showing symptoms [of a concussion]," Reddick said. "It was the right move to get out of the car. So if that happened again, I don't care if I'm leading, running last, whatever. I'm done. ... If I'm ever in that situation again, I don't continue."
Bowman, too, said he knew he could not race once his concussion symptoms surfaced three days after his Texas accident. He actually was good for a few days before suffering headaches and other concussion symptoms.
It took him four weeks before being approved to race by noted concussion expert Dr. Micky Collins. Bowman said he had two weeks where he felt good without a bad day before he was getting back into the race car.
"There were days that I felt fine," Bowman said. "And that was probably two weeks in, I started to have days where the entire day I'd feel totally fine. And I get some confidence and the next day I'd feel OK, and I'd get some confidence.
"And then I'd have a day that wiped me out. And it was super frustrating."
Thinking Out Loud
The start times came out for the NASCAR national series and there were three that will make fans and competitors smile.
The Clash starts under the lights at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, adding to the spectacle of that event. It will make a cool event even cooler.
That wasn't a reference about temperature but this next comment is: Summer races at Nashville and Atlanta will now be night races instead of ones in the heat of the day. Now that is cool as far as a break from the heat.
Nashville had a little later start time this year, but a full race in the evening for both tracks will be a good thing for fan and driver comfort. Atlanta goes from mid-afternoon to evening.
How the time change impacts the racing remains to be seen — sometimes more grip at night doesn't help the finished product. But if people are miserable in the grandstands and at the track from a full day in the sun, that doesn't help the fan experience. Hopefully, these moves will help.
They Said It
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.