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 that 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; 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 might become standard.
Daytona will add the SAFER "soft walls" - the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction systems - this year, though not in time for the Daytona 500 next Sunday. The walls, which absorb impact and reduce G-forces to the drivers in a crash, will be in place for the Pepsi 400 on July 3.
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 April 25.
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 Dr. 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?"
Nelson has no doubts that the research NASCAR is doing and sharing with automakers will find its way into showroom cars in the next decade.
"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."