NASCAR issues rule changes to fight car fires

  • The moves come three days after Kevin Harvick and JJ Yeley suffered fire-related DNFs at last weekend’s Cookout Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
  • The new rules allow intumescent coatings for the underside of the car’s lower kick panels, inside the exhaust cover panels, and the top surface of the rocker box.
  • “Obviously nobody wants that (fire) to happen, so it’s a good thing NASCAR is being proactive,” driver Kyle Larson said.

    NASCAR has announced several rule changes designed to address the recent spate of car fires in its Xfinity and Cup Series cars. Authorities announced them Wednesday morning, three days after Kevin Harvick and JJ Yeley suffered fire-related DNFs at last weekend’s Cookout Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

    The changes are effective for Sunday afternoon’s 400-mile playoff race at Kansas Speedway. Teams are scheduled to practice and qualify on Saturday afternoon, with the 267-lap race scheduled for 3:00 pm on Sunday afternoon.

    Harvick roundly criticized NASCAR after his Ford caught fire and burned without contact at Darlington. At about the same time, Yeley’s Ford caught fire and he also drove into the garage. “I’m sure it’s horrible parts on the race car like we’ve seen so many times,” Harvick said after finishing 33rd, second-to-last among 16 championship contenders. “They haven’t fixed anything. It’s kind of like the security stuff. We let it go on and on.”

    In a radio show Tuesday morning, senior vice president Scott Miller said NASCAR was examining the causes of the fires and looking for solutions to the problem he called “unacceptable.” The new rules were announced almost exactly 24 hours later.

    The update says:

    • A side seal/dam must be installed between the back of the front clip weight box and the top of the divider panel. This seal should extend laterally the width of the engine panel. The purpose of this dam is to reduce the migration of tire debris from the splitter area;

    • The lower front section of the right side backstop panel must be trimmed (as shown in the attached diagram). The section being removed must be replaced with a 14 gauge stainless steel panel. The steel panel must be mounted inside the polymer panel;

    • Using any available gasket fits on the exhaust assembly, it is recommended to maximize the clearance between the exhaust and the rocker box floor.

    Rudy Fugle, William Byron’s crew chief, spoke about the change on Wednesday’s radio show: “This panel will do a good job of closing the bottom where the fire will enter the cabin,” he said. “It’s going to help protect the driver.

    “Most of this steel panel that goes in the right front foot box, rocker panel area will prevent fire from going directly into the car. It has something that does not burn. And that is positive. Then they recommended some coating that has some fire protection properties.”

    From the start, crew chiefs and mechanics suspected that lumps of rubber and insulation had collected and were igniting under the hoods or along the rocker panels. There was some indication that the extraordinarily hot exhaust was the culprit. The new rule is designed to keep flammable material and exhaust separate.

    “There’s an air intake in front of the car, and it’s got hoses going to those rocker boxes,” Fugle said on the radio show. “Rubber goes through those hoses and builds up on the headers, and we have to vent all of this. We were able to count 20 pounds of rubber on some of our cars after Darlington. So that’s a lot that can catch fire.”

    The new rule also allows intumescent coatings for the underside of the car’s lower kick panels, inside the exhaust cover panels, and the top surface of the rocker box. Siding is also allowed on the right-side bumper panel. Intumescent coatings help provide fire protection to steel components.

    Defending Cup champion Kyle Larson has heard some details about the new rule, but he and crew chief Cliff Daniels haven’t fully discussed it. “Even before this, our team has been doing everything we can to be prepared if that situation happens,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said Wednesday. “Obviously nobody wants that (fire) to happen, so it’s good that NASCAR is being proactive. Hopefully the issue will be resolved in the near future and teams won’t have to worry about freak fires taking them out of the race.

    “I think all drivers are on the same page (regarding safety of any kind). It is a topic every week in the chat of our drivers. They communicate a lot with NASCAR; they have conversations most months. It is probably difficult to make movements, decisions and changes as fast as we would like to drivers, who are in cars and are at risk of injury. It’s an ongoing topic and discussion, and I think NASCAR is always working to find ways to make the cars safer.

    “It’s an ongoing discussion (that) isn’t happening as quickly as we’d all like it to happen.”

    In this case, at least Wednesday was a start.

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