O’Donnell insists NASCAR has been proactive in addressing Next Gen safety

NASCAR COO Steve O’Donnell admits there has been a learning process with the new car with regard to safety, but says it’s a myth that the sanctioning body wasn’t proactive in addressing it.

“If you take a step back, there was more testing done for this car than at any time in our history – on track, simulation, you name it,” O’Donnell said as he joined NASCAR president Steve Phelps for the state of the sport address at Phoenix Raceway. “One of the things that got (said) was NASCAR didn’t do anything after William Byron’s incident and that’s not true.”

Byron crashed the car at Fontana in the spring of 2020 when he got loose during a run. It was the first time the car crashed during an on-track test, which raised early concerns about rear-end impacts.

“We changed the rear clip of the car based on that information that we had (and) looked at a lot of tweaks to the car,” said O’Donnell. “Then, as you fast-forward for this year, as with anything that is new, you’re going to learn, you’re going to collect data, which we’ve done. Adjustments have been made to the rear clip that’s already gone out to the race teams for next year.

“I think that dialogue with the race teams, with the drivers, about how we continue to protect for the catastrophic, is the No. 1 priority and then as you go, what are you learning about this new car? What we’re learning is that it is those smaller hits, which we’ve never seen before in terms of a car that we’ve raced, are the ones that we’ve really got to concentrate on, and that’s why you’re seeing the tweaks being made to the clip, for those smaller impacts. Even a bump on the restart. Those types of things. And it’s not just the car.

“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 the dialogue, which is really, really good and we’re seeing some improvements on a daily basis as we look toward 2023.”

NASCAR has been holding all driver meetings at the racetrack since Charlotte Roval weekend. It was the result of increasingly public driver complaints about NASCAR’s lack of action and communication in response to the hits they were experiencing.

However, Jeff Burton, the liaison between NASCAR and the Driver Advisory Council, shot that down. Burton said this week there was no hesitancy from NASCAR to share information and communicate about what work was being done with the car.

“All the information was there,” Burton said. “Some drivers consumed it and some drivers didn’t, but all the information was there.”

Phelps echoed that statement Friday.

“The Driver Advisory Council met on a number of occasions this year, and I think they made some great gains on safety and some other things, and other concerns that the drivers had, and could hear from NASCAR and work in concert with NASCAR to try to solve some of the issues that they were having,” said Phelps.

“But clearly, the communication between the Driver Advisory Council and the rest of the driver group was not happening. We’ll take that on ourselves. So, we decided to have weekly meetings, starting essentially five weeks ago, with all drivers. It’s not mandatory. The majority of the drivers have participated on a weekly basis.

“I think the communication between the sanctioning body and the drivers over this past five or six weeks has completely shifted the narrative on how the drivers are feeling about the area of safety or raceability, whatever it is that the drivers’ concerns are. And the private conversations we’re having with the drivers, you can tell there’s a difference in even how the drivers are speaking even to all of you.

“We’re excited about the prospects. We’ll meet with the drivers again tomorrow, and we are going to continue that moving forward into next year. Until such time as the drivers feel we’re over-communicating, if there is such a thing, we’re going to continue to have those meetings.”

There are also other changes coming with the car. O’Donnell confirmed Friday that the series is working on tweaks to improve the racing on short track and road courses. The car’s performance has been less than stellar on those racetracks compared to the action seen on intermediates.

“(We are) for sure looking at some aero changes for both short tracks and road courses,” said O’Donnell. “We’ve got a lot of dialogue going on with the drivers. In terms of potentially looking at some power things, I think that’s a little more complicated, but there are some things we’ve looked at even through Garage 56 that we found from an aero standpoint that could be put in place as early as next year for both short tracks and road courses.

“The good news is, continuing to dial in on the intermediates, which we believe we’re in a really good spot. But then really focus on those short tracks and road courses. So, a lot of work being done collectively in the industry to focus on those areas.”