Are the speeds on the 1.5-mile tracks that comprise the bulk of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series too fast?
Drivers hit speeds of 205 mph going into Turn 1 at the Kansas Speedway on Saturday night, the location of the three-car incident that collected Aric Almirola and also involved Joey Logano and Danica Patrick, who had heavy contact with the outside wall.
Logano and Patrick walked away without injury, but Almirola was not so lucky.
During a red flag, a safety crew cut apart Almirola's Ford to safely remove him on a stretcher. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver suffered a compression fracture in his mid-back as a result of hitting the previously spinning car of Logano.
The good news for Almirola: A head-on impact that generated enough energy to break a T5 thoracic vertebra likely would have broken his neck absent the HANS Device. The mandated carbon fiber seat was also an important safety factor. The other news is not so good. Almirola will be sidelined for an extended recovery.
The accident was influenced by at least one other aspect of speed. Logano's Ford broke a right front brake disc under heavy braking for the turn, which then caused his car to veer into Patrick. Another possible speed factor: Almirola was unable to avoid the crippled cars before a massive front-end impact that lifted his rear wheels several feet off the ground.
The new rules package with lower downforce creates the higher speeds on the 1.5-mile ovals due to less drag on the straightaways. The lap times may not be at a record pace, because the lower downforce impairs the cornering speeds and puts more emphasis on the driving. Are the cars going too fast on the straights of the 1.5-mile ovals and, if so, what can be done about it?
This question leads back to an outstanding race that saw various drivers compete for the lead and a late-race surge by race winner Martin Truex Jr. to overtake Ryan Blaney. The latter driver could be seen sawing at the wheel in the corners to hold Truex at bay before eventually giving way.
It was not that long ago that all a driver had to do was keep his eyes on the mirror and just take the line from the overtaking driver. Aerodynamics did the rest to prevent passing.
More importantly, the lower downforce package enabled more overtaking in the pack. Jimmie Johnson started in the rear due to not making it through inspection before qualifying. Twice more he fell to the rear during the race and twice again drove his way back into the top 10. Erik Jones spun three times before becoming the leader on a late-race restart after working his way back up, albeit with help from pit strategy.
This would be the dilemma for NASCAR should the sanctioning body look at reducing speed. After addressing the aerodynamic problems that inhibit overtaking, returning to bigger spoilers or introducing restrictor plates on engines would be a major setback to the current quality of racing.
One alternative might be a change in mandatory rear gear ratios to slow the cars on the straights without fiddling with engines or aerodynamics.
The demands on brakes brought about by higher-corner entry speeds likely led to the failure of Logano's disc. But that's a problem teams can address by using heftier equipment. They might be hesitant to add more weight to the suspensions, but if the alternative is the risk of a high-speed crash, they are likely to make that choice.
It also remains unclear why Almirola didn't reduce his speed more given the length of track between his Ford and the incident. Better communication with his spotter might have brought about a better result. Perhaps Almirola's car also had braking issues.
The scenario underscores the difficulty NASCAR faces with making technical regulations that produce good racing as well as safe racing.
NASCAR has become the world leader in racing safety with its Research & Development facility headquartered in North Carolina. That's because, unlike Formula 1 and its sanctioning body the FIA, NASCAR has all its safety efforts under one roof, where engineers focus on issues daily, including post-accident analysis of every incident in the major touring series. Formula 1, on the other hand, often outsources its research to various facilities.
In an incident such as the one at Kansas, a better understanding of how NASCAR safety works would help keep it in perspective. It's widely misunderstood what role the SAFER barriers play in the contribution to driver safety, in part because TV announcers simply haven't done their homework.
It's the cockpits that continue to account for the most significant progress on safety and where NASCAR has made its biggest gains. Patrick, for example, hit a wall at Daytona covered by a SAFER barrier in the first Cup race of her career, a Twin 150-mile qualifying event, and the impact produced 80 Gs -- more than enough to be deadly.
The safety upgrades may not totally avoid injuries. But what major league sport operates without injuries to its athletes? The key element for NASCAR is preventing death or crippling injuries, which have been avoided in the major touring series since the introduction of mandatory head restraints in 2001 after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Head restraints were followed by carbon fiber seats, SAFER Barriers and the Car of Tomorrow. The safety improvements of the COT may no longer be visible, but they are present in the current generation of cars, including cockpit safety measures that reduce the chances of injuries during car-to-car contact.
Given the quality of racing and the rarity of accidents like those of Almirola, NASCAR would be wise to continue with its low downforce package and to let teams wrestle with braking issues -- with perhaps an eye on reducing speeds using rear gear ratios. It's only now becoming clear how much the lower downforce contributes to better racing. The high speeds do have a visceral impact for those at the track, and attendance, needless to say, has been an issue for promoters.
Racing will always be a dangerous and potentially injurious sport. When Denny Hamlin hit an exposed wall at the Auto Club Speedway in 2013, he broke his back but was able to return to racing. When Kyle Busch hit an exposed wall at Daytona in 2015, he broke a leg and foot, but was able to claim a championship in the same season.
In the long run, Almirola can be expected to recover from his compression fracture and return to racing.