CONCORD, N.C. — Drivers certainly don’t like to see a back injury, but with the violent nature of the Aric Almirola crash two weeks ago that broke Almirola’s back, there is no groundswell for changes to the cars, nor to the safety systems.
Almirola suffered a partially crushed vertebra in his middle back May 13 when his car slid into the car of the already-crashed Joey Logano at Kansas Speedway. The impact lifted the rear of Almirola’s car high into the air.
Video replays of the accident show a shower of sparks from the left front while the car bounces on the left rear wheels. Almirola said the initial hit was so violent, it felt like someone had stabbed him in the back. When it landed, it felt as if someone had twisted the knife. The rear springs possibly came out of the car during the crash.
“There’s nothing showing the springs are physically out of the car upon impact with Joey’s car, but when the car came back down, it violently hit on the left side frame rail and the left side jack post … so I think that violent drop from 6, 7 feet in the air, coming down and hitting the left side jack post and the left side frame rail put all of that energy right up to my back,” Almirola said.
NASCAR took the car, and its initial look showed the safety systems worked, according to a NASCAR spokesman, but it is not close to finishing its analysis of the crash, which includes consulting with three doctors. Richard Petty Motorsports picked up the car Thursday from NASCAR, which will now do some sled testing and computer simulation to create aspects of the crash.
With NASCAR not requiring a postrace height inspection in Cup, teams work to get the cars as low as possible. That results in the frames of the car extremely low to the ground at the time of a crash such as Almriola’s.
“I can tell you that at Martinsville when we run really low frame heights and really low air pressure, when they drop the jack on the left side it’s violent on a pit stop, so I’m fairly confident that dropping a car from 6 feet into the air down onto the left side jack post is a very big hit,” Almirola said.
NASCAR has reacted to two of the most significant crashes in the past couple of years. It quickly zeroed in on the footbox area after Kyle Busch‘s 2015 crash at Daytona, where he suffered a broken right leg and broken left foot, and designed changes to the cars that have been instituted for restrictor-plate cars for 2017 and all cars for 2018.
It required changes to steering column mounts for 2017 after Danica Patrick‘s violent May 2016 Talladega wreck where the steering column moved considerably into her lap.
“Watching the [Almirola] vehicle come back down and land and knowing where his injury is, I don’t know how you can really prevent that from falling from so high and being strapped to the car and the frame hitting the ground or solid contact like that,” said seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “That is just a very violent impact that we might be able to help, but I don’t know what to do right now off the top of my head.
“I can say from my off-road days, I drove some pretty extreme vehicles launching off of things and jumping great distances, even in those vehicles everything was fine until that frame rail touched the ground. When that frame touches the ground, there is no absorption it just comes right up through your spine.”
Drivers will strap into their cars Sunday for the Coca-Cola 600 knowing they could face a similar injury with a crash of that magnitude. Denny Hamlin suffered an injury in his lower back in 2013 but part of that possibly was caused because of a slight incline in the track before he hit the inside wall.
Busch said he saw the truck arm mounts dig a chunk out of the Kansas Speedway track, the slam was so violent in Almirola’s crash.
“We’ve seen some back injuries — they’ve been in various ways and in various seats, I’m sure, but how to fix that? I’m no doctor or a practitioner or anything else so it’s going to be hard for me to distinguish how we fix that,” Busch said. “Hopefully we can figure something out.”
Both Patrick and Logano walked away after their violent hits at Kansas after Logano’s car suddenly turned left and Patrick smashed into a SAFER barrier-covered wall with the front of her car.
Johnson called the fact that Patrick wasn’t injured “just mind-boggling to me,” and Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Patrick “was extremely lucky.”
“They can look at why that happens and how to fix that so when the car lands, it doesn’t land directly on the frame because there’s no breakaway or cushion at that point,” Earnhardt said. “He’s bolted to the frame. …I was thrilled that it wasn’t any more than that for any of those guys. That was an incredibly terrible accident.”
ESPN racing analyst Dr. Jerry Punch said the Almirola injury is a typical car accident injury in the pivot point of the spine, resulting from sudden deceleration.
“The HANS Device took care of the neck, some of the new seat technology takes care of the lower back,” Punch said. “The IndyCar people are actually putting a soft section in the middle of their seats — they’re just changing that [this year] — to allow more energy absorption in the thoracic spine [middle back] area.
“I’m not sure when you have this kind of deceleration, this kind of impact where the whole back of the car goes up and the driver lurches forward, even with those belts tight, that you can prevent this type of compression fracture.”
Drivers were not surprised Almirola suffered a back injury. He screamed into his radio that his back was hurt as soon as the accident happened.
“I don’t know that the setups of the car or the springs really are what is playing into that,” said Martin Truex Jr. “I’m sure there’s things in the seats, the way the seat belts are in, all those things, everything is so stiff, it’s so rigid now, not only the setups of the cars, but the seats, the way they’re mounted, the foam, the shell of carbon fiber itself. …I think in certain situations you look at the Gs [G-forces], the vertical Gs, that Aric’s car has seen, and it’s no wonder that his back was hurt.”
From the start, it appeared a brake rotor failed on the right front of the Logano car, forcing him to turn into Patrick at more than 200 mph. Penske vice president Travis Geisler said the car was so damaged afterward, it couldn’t be determined 100 percent if that was the cause.
“That’s what we would have to assume,” Geisler said. “When we got back, as you would expect, it was total carnage in the right front. To the best of our ability, that is probably what occurred first.
“There were other components up there that were definitely broken but what we could see from the in-car video and the way the car reacted, that’s probably what happened.”
Patrick was questioning why a brake rotor would blow at a track such as Kansas, but Geisler said it can happen and he didn’t feel it was anything Penske was doing that caused it.
“I don’t think that it’s totally unheard of,” Geisler said. “It’s the same package our other cars had. Something with the way his car was handling, whatever, put us on edge.
“I think that maybe made his situation worse where our other cars were OK and he wasn’t. That’s the best we can point to.”