Drivers, start your engines. As those famous words echoed across Daytona International Speedway in February, 40 cars roared to life. The drivers put them in gear, rolled slowly onto the track for the parade laps, and mashed the gas as the green flag waved. Thus began the 2022 Daytona 500, NASCAR’s traditional season-opening race, and always its most watched, most important, and most hyped—this year, arguably more than ever. The 2022 race marked the first contested in NASCAR’s new car, which represents the most dramatic change from one vehicle to the next in the sanctioning body’s 75-year history. Dubbed “Next Gen,” the seventh-generation stock car started as an idea on a blank whiteboard, and after more than three years in development, it finally thundered across the 2.5-mile track at 200 mph to the delight of 101,500 fans in the stands and millions more watching on TV.

Within the NASCAR world, it was one of the most anticipated races, well, ever. That had almost nothing to do with who won, and everything to do with whether the Next Gen cars were fast, “racy,” and safe.

Penn Staters held the two most important roles in making sure the new car met those goals. As NASCAR’s senior vice president for innovation and racing development, John Probst ’94 Eng oversaw the entire Next Gen project; and as managing director of safety engineering, John Patalak ’01 Eng was responsible for making sure those cars kept their drivers alive.

John Probst

AN EYE TOWARD INNOVATION: As senior VP for innovation and racing development, John Probst led the yearslong effort to bring NASCAR’s Next Gen vehicle to the track. (NASCAR Racing Communications/Getty Images)

Ford Mustang racecar

 

This wasn’t the first time Probst was involved in designing a car from the ground up. That came in college, when he helped start the Penn State Formula Racing team, a student organization affiliated with the Society of Automotive Engineers that still exists today.

Each year, Formula Racing Team members conceive, build, and race a formula-style race car. That first year, 1994, the competition was held in the parking lot of the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, then-home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Probst and the rest of the crew essentially pulled an all-nighter to finish. “We weren’t literally painting the vehicle in the back of the U-Haul on the way up there,” Probst says. “But it was close.”

They realized while driving west that a single part hadn’t been machined properly. They had to decide: Go home, or show up anyway? They kept going, and they did well in the competition—until judges discovered the flawed part and disqualified them. That was Probst’s first lesson in teamwork: One mistake by one team member can doom a project.

After graduating, Probst landed a job with Ford Motor Company’s racing division. He stayed with Ford for 11 years, then spent about a decade working with teams in Formula 1 and NASCAR before arriving at NASCAR headquarters in 2016. His task: spearhead Next Gen, which represented not just a new car, but an entirely new approach to how the sport operates.

Over the past 20 years, NASCAR’s major teams had become miniature
car companies, each with its own research-and-development department. That evolution created the sport’s version of an arms race: an unending cycle of development, rollout, obsolescence, development, rollout, obsolescence. Whichever team did that best won the most races, the most championships, and the most sponsorship deals. The others simply tried to keep up. The business model was increasingly unsustainable.

“You have to change the whole paradigm,” Probst says. “That’s what the Next Gen car was meant to do.”

There were two major issues. The first was the lack of parity among NASCAR teams. The second was about where the race-winning moves were made. They were not made by white- knuckled drivers barreling into a corner, the excitement that fans crave; they were made by engineers working in simulators and wind tunnels, which fans—who can’t watch this—loathe.

Because Next Gen is essentially a spec car, with all the parts and pieces designed and manufactured for the teams instead of by them, the most important decisions are no longer made away from the track.

Here was Probst’s charge: Create an entirely new car. Make it look wicked cool and simultaneously put the “stock” back in “stock car” by making it look like the real-world car it represents (a Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, or Toyota Camry). Make it affordable for new teams and/or manufacturers who might want to enter the sport. Make it sexy and durable and versatile. And make it race in such a way as to impress NASCAR’s notoriously fickle fans.

No pressure, right?

Probst has flipped back and forth between thinking this was the greatest opportunity of his career—I’m working with the best designers in the world to build a brand-new race car for the premier racing league in the country!—and thinking, oh s---, what did I get myself into? What indeed. Failure would disrupt a massive multibillion-dollar industry, and—not to put too fine a point on it—those millions of fans would hate him for ruining their sport.

The project required a master engineer and master politician. Outside of making the car great, the biggest challenge Probst faced was to persuade team owners, drivers, crew chiefs, team and fans to buy in—or at least throw their fits in private. Imagine trying to get every Big Ten football coach to agree on massive rules changes, only instead of 14 teams there are 40 teams, some of whom fear losing their hard-earned stature and competitive advantage. Throw in a pandemic and global supply-chain issues, and you have an idea of the complexity Probst dealt with.

Probst had to listen, say yes when he could and no when he couldn’t, and manage critiques from competitors with outsized egos and conflicting interests … all the while remembering that the sport’s ultimate stakeholder is the fan watching from the stands or on TV at home. 

On the desk of his office at the NASCAR Research and Development facility in Charlotte, N.C., Probst keeps a framed letter from a fan upset that the Next Gen car has one lug nut per wheel instead of five, as the old car had. There are technical reasons for the change that aren’t worth boring you with; Probst keeps the letter to remind himself that just because a change is 100% correct from an engineering standpoint, that doesn’t mean it’ll be accepted unconditionally. “The fans are important,” he says.

John Patalak

FROM THE R&D LAB TO THE RACETRACK: It took years of development and testing before the Next Gen car was ready to be driven in an actual race. For John Patalak (above, with laptop), the project’s safety lead, those years were spent making sure every component—from the car’s chassis and restraint system to the drivers’ helmets and even their sensor-equipped mouthguards—were designed with safety in mind. (NASCAR Racing Communications/Getty Images)

Crew working on racecar

 

The most significant day in NASCAR history is also the darkest: Feb. 18, 2001. That’s when Dale Earnhardt, the sport’s most controversial, legendary, and feared driver, died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.

Until then, NASCAR as an entity showed an ambivalent attitude toward safety. Racing was viewed as inherently dangerous; that was, and still is, part of the appeal. Back then, to talk too much about safety was to be seen as soft. That mentality has completely changed. Earnhardt’s death prompted a revolution in engineering, culture, and accountability that continues today. In the 21 years since Earnhardt’s death, no one has died in one of NASCAR’s top three levels (the Cup Series, Xfinity Series, and Camping World Truck Series).

Back in 2001, Patalak (rhymes with “Cadillac”) was a Penn State senior hunting for a job. He assembled his résumé and, outside of his engineering coursework, found it wanting: His job experience at that point included waiting tables, working at a car wash, and selling Christmas trees. “Not stellar things,” he laughs.

To make his résumé stand out, under “interests,” Patalak listed car projects he’d worked on while a high schooler in Bucks County, Pa. At one job interview, the recruiter skipped the top of his résumé, jumped down to the bottom, and asked Patalak about the very item he had hoped would differentiate him from others: “Tell me about this 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass.”

It was by far the best car he ever owned, green and beautiful and fast, with way too much horsepower for a teenager; 20 years later he still considers trading it in to be a major mistake. Needless to say, Patalak crushed the answer. For 30 minutes, he and the interviewer talked about their shared love for cars.

The job he landed with engineering firm ARCCA Inc. involved “off-the-wall” and “wild” research into “occupant protection” and “accident reconstruction.” He crash-tested ambulances with four dummies in the back—one on a gurney as the patient and the rest as paramedics. “I was hooked right away,” he says. “It was different all the time, and I loved it.”

Four years into that job, he was putting together his fantasy race team on NASCAR.com when he saw a job listing for an opening at NASCAR’s Research and Development office near Charlotte. The description mirrored what he was doing, only in auto racing. If crashing ambulances was cool, how cool would it be to crash race cars?

Patalak came to NASCAR in 2005 amid the sport’s safety revolution, and he has been a key player in it ever since.  As the leader of the safety department, Patalak had a clean slate in designing the Next Gen car’s safety features, and he didn’t mess with what worked. The restraint system and seat were carried over to the new car, and he made minor tweaks elsewhere that could not have been done on the old one.

NASCAR reviewed data from every crash from 2011 to 2018 and compared that to driver injury reports to identify what types of crashes caused injuries.

racecar on track

(NASCAR Racing Communications/Getty Images)

 

They graded the injuries on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being “currently untreatable with medical science” and 1 being a minor abrasion. Most were 1s; the worst were 3s. Changes in the Next Gen car reflect the findings: more absorbent foam in the bumpers and driver’s side door, a new roof flap designed to keep cars on the ground, and a stronger roof.

The challenge was to make sure the improvements worked before the cars hit the track. For that, Patalak ran thousands of computer simulations and followed those up with real-world tests. One illustrative example can be found in how the roof became stronger. With the old car, each team built its own chassis (the steel tubes that form the car’s skeleton). With the new car, a single supplier builds every chassis, so Patalak seized on the opportunity to bake in improvements, particularly to the steel bar that runs to the driver’s left, across the top of the door. The old car’s bar had a localized bend; the new car’s bar forms an arch.

Engineering principles dictate that the arch should be significantly stronger. But “should be” wasn’t good enough for Patalak. The arch lives in a massively complicated system: an internal combustion engine housed inside a metal skeleton wrapped in a metal box that travels at more than 200 mph. Patalak wondered: Could some aspect of that system mitigate the gains of the arch that computer simulations missed?  “It’s still a computer model, right?” he says. “You’ve got to go validate it and make sure that the real part is performing to your expectations.”

Then came the fun part. NASCAR built the back of a car and crashed it into a wall repeatedly, which was vital to validate the arch’s strength, and even more so to make sure the new gas tank was safe. As a final test, NASCAR put two old cars and two new cars in a machine that attempted to crush them by applying pressure from the top with a steel plate. The machine couldn’t crush any of them. The roof of the old car bent 5 inches. The roof of the new car bent only half that.

If that doesn’t sound like much, imagine you’re the one driving the car. You wreck, and your car flies into the air, flips over, and lands on its roof. The restraint system would hold you in place, but gravity would be pulling you toward the roof, and the roof would be traveling toward you. The taller you are, the more grateful you would be for that extra 2 1/2 inches of headroom.

When he isn’t coming up with amazing ways to try to break race cars, Patalak is devising innovative methods to gather precise information—a high-tech version of crash-test dummies in an ambulance. Among his cooler projects, Patalak has experimented with embedding sensors inside the restraint system’s belts to measure the load they bear. He calls that information “the holy grail” of crash data but has yet to drink from it, in part because race teams are reluctant to add even a small amount of weight to their cars.

If putting sensors inside the safety system isn’t innovative enough, how about inside the driver? Through a project with Wake Forest University, where he earned his master’s and Ph.D., Patalak installed sensors in drivers’ mouthguards as a way to study head injuries. He also got cameras mounted inside the car that automatically turn on when a crash starts. That footage allows Patalak to see what happens to the driver in the case of an injury.

Back at Daytona. As this year’s race approached, Probst and Patalak wrestled with anxiety. There was no mad dash to finish the cars like in Probst’s college days; the cars had been tested repeatedly and even raced in preliminary events. But those were rehearsals. This was opening night on the big stage. “If you let it, your mind can really play games with you,” Probst says. “Did you think of everything? What have you missed?”

Patalak has shaky nerves before every Daytona 500. Cars run nose-to-tail and door-to-door at speeds north of 200 mph. Massive crashes occur often enough that they have a nickname—The Big One—so of course the man responsible for safety worries. This year, The Big One came with 50 laps left. Two cars ran headfirst into the wall as others banged off each other. Patalak watched like a doctor. What is the driver’s body being subjected to? he asked himself. Is the restraint system optimized for this direction? Is it primarily an inertial or restraint issue—or do we have intrusion to worry about?

Nobody was hurt. The race resumed, the laps clicked off, and on the whole, the Next Gen’s debut was a success. That begat another good race, and another. Three months into the season and there were no flops, no injuries, no major problems. Attaboys came in from across the industry.

Which is not to say the work is over. There will always be more cars to crash-test, teams and fans to placate, and, eventually, another new car to make.

 

Matt Crossman is a writer based in St. Louis.

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