- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

NASCAR’s “car of tomorrow” can’t come soon enough.

Not for the drivers on the tracks and not for the rest of us on the highways.

Three years after the death of Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona 500, NASCAR is closer to a futuristic car that promises a safer ride for stock car racers and millions of drivers buying vehicles off the showroom floor.

The fatal crashes in 2000 of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin in New Hampshire and Tony Roper in Texas led NASCAR to reach out to the best engineers it could find, and the Earnhardt accident threw the project into high gear.

There have been plenty of crashes since, some serious, but no deaths. And if NASCAR’s safety program keeps progressing as it has recently, the risks of deadly wrecks will keep going down.

With the major car makers working on the program with NASCAR, it’s a good bet some of those safety features will wind up on street cars.

Practically every part of the car is being examined for ways to make it safer.

New high-tech materials — a foam aluminum that resembles a sponge, a honeycomb metal that looks as if it came out of a mutant beehive and steel designed to bend and crinkle on impact — are under investigation.

Improved “crush zones” would absorb energy in a crash to protect occupants. Better collapsible steering wheels, changes in the location of the oil tanks; refined gas, brake and clutch pedals; a new generation of shock absorbers and tires that will make cars easier to control; systems to prevent fires or suppress them — they’re all part of NASCAR’s overhaul.

Stock cars already have on-board “black boxes,” similar to those in aircraft but without a voice recorder. About the size of a pair of TV remote controls, the boxes give feedback about the G-forces in a crash that help with safety studies. Those boxes are just starting to be installed on street cars and someday may become standard.

Daytona will add the SAFER “soft walls” — the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction systems — this year, though not in time for Sunday’s Daytona 500. The walls, which absorb impact and reduce G-forces to the drivers in a crash, will be in place at the 2.5-mile oval for the Pepsi 400 on July3.

Talladega installed soft walls on the inside retaining wall of its 2.66-mile oval, extending the exit of Turn 4, and will add the barriers to the outside walls in all four turns in time for the Aaron’s 499 on April25.

NASCAR plans to have soft walls up at most of its tracks by next year. Someday those walls, designed by a team of engineers led by Dean Sicking at the University of Nebraska, could be installed on dangerous turns along highways. The walls consist of four steel tubes welded in 20-foot sections and bolted to concrete. Between the steel and the concrete, pads of hard, pink foam are placed 10 feet apart, allowing the surface to bend and reduce force.

“That wall looks so simple in the finished product, but it took a lot of work to get to that point,” says Gary Nelson, head of NASCAR research and development in Concord, N.C., just outside Charlotte. “We’re going down almost the same path with the car and its crush zones. How could the car benefit the driver in any possible situation he could get into and not have any negatives? How can we make the car better without raising the risk in some other area?”

One way NASCAR is finding out what works and what doesn’t is by testing materials on its “bogey,” a big red cart that sits high on truck wheels and has crashed 81 times so far.

As soon as the ice in Concord melts, it will slam into a concrete wall another couple dozen times. All those crashes eventually may help save lives on tracks and highways.

In engineering terms, the red cart is called the EMD 6000, short for the Energy Management Development vehicle, which weighs 6,000 pounds. But everyone at NASCAR who works with it calls it the “bogey,” borrowing the term from aviation, where a bogey is the enemy dot on the radar screen.

Given a push with an all-terrain vehicle, the bogey rambles 200 yards down a rail system and hits the wall at 20-30 mph. With all the bogey’s weight, it doesn’t take much speed to inflict the kind of damage that shows how materials would stand up to impact in a race.

“We’ll attach, say, a front bumper or a side of a car to the bogey, put instrumentation on it, and have high-speed cameras that show us how it crunches up,” Nelson says. “We get it up to speed and run it into the wall and measure the G-spike that goes through the frame.”

Nelson has no doubts the research NASCAR is doing and sharing with automakers will find its way into showroom cars over the next decade. It happened that way years ago when door bars to protect race car drivers migrated to some street cars and then became standard.

“It’s hard to imagine a whole car just rolling out the door one day and it being revolutionary to the cars on the track,” Nelson says. “The way we’re approaching it, if we research something and it looks like it’ll fit the car of today, let’s use it.”

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