Jeff Burton said Wednesday that the weekly meetings now taking place between NASCAR officials and Cup Series drivers have significantly improved communication between the two sides about the changes needed to improve safety.
“We made a lot of progress in identifying issues and working hard to alleviate those, and the communication the last month has gotten much, much better,” Burton told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The communication from NASCAR all along was really good, but getting all the drivers (in a) weekly meeting at the track where by far the majority of drivers have been attending… now everybody much more understands what is being done to help with these problems.”
As the director of the drivers advisory council, Burton is a liaison between the drivers and NASCAR. Despite that, tensions started to rise among the drivers through the summer about safety with the Next Gen car and the harder hits being felt behind the wheel, even if they weren’t showing up in the data.
The comments became particularly heated after a rear-end impact at Pocono Raceway left Kurt Busch with a concussion that ended his season, which was recently followed by him announcing his retirement from full-time competition. Comments in the press and social media led to an all-drivers meeting with NASCAR officials at Charlotte Motor Speedway earlier this month, and similar discussions will continue to take place through the end of the season.
“These meetings have also allowed conversations between drivers and NASCAR at a level that we’ve never really had before,” continued Burton. “We’ve never — for, say, a month straight — got all the drivers, all the key principals from NASCAR, in one room together and discussed issues. Not, ‘OK, here’s the start/finish line. Here’s the restart procedure.’ Not that, but (on) issues with the car.
“That communication has been really good for everybody, because you have a lot of different opinions, a lot of different ideas, a lot of different thoughts of what we can do and everybody being able to get in a room and debate, discuss, and leave there with, ‘OK, let’s go do this.’ That’s been phenomenal.”
According to Burton, the next step needs to be meaningful changes to make the car safer before next February’s Daytona 500. It was the same thing Joey Logano said after the Charlotte meeting — that NASCAR’s feet need to be held to the fire because the drivers got what they wanted in being heard.
NASCAR has already crash-tested a new rear clip, center clip, and bumper structure that will be implemented in 2023. Alex Bowman has been sidelined with a concussion since a rear impact at Texas Motor Speedway last month, and Cup Series managing director Brad Moran said earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that additional testing is also underway on other safety items like the cockpit head-surround.
“But there are meaningful changes that are happening right now,” Burton stressed. “The great thing about this process is we’re now thinking about things that we wouldn’t have thought about if we weren’t all in it together. Now that the drivers recognize, ‘OK, NASCAR is addressing these issues, NASCAR is going to make this particular change that particular change, what can we do in addition to that? What can we do if we look at every component of this car with the knowledge that we have today?’
“We have a lot more knowledge about it than we did a year ago. So there is an evolution that’s happening with the car but also with seats, seat foam, uniform, fire extinguishers, energy-absorbing foam — all this stuff. Race tracks. We’re discussing all of it, and we’ve never done that before. Did we take some steps back to get where we are? Yeah, we did. But ultimately, down the road, we’re going to end up in a much better place.
“Everybody is lined up wanting to make it better — the fans, the drivers, everybody. We’ve never been in this position. I hate that it went bad to get here, but once it goes bad, what are you going to do? You have to work forward. It is definitely moving at a rapid pace with a lot of collaboration, and I’m really excited about that.”
As for the drivers’ emotions and whether those have calmed, Burton said the garage needing to vent before refocusing.
“Ultimately, what I think happened was there was a recognition of an issue [and] NASCAR went to work on trying to help that issue,” Burton said. “There was communication about it, there was a collaboration with it but not every driver was having his voice. Every driver had the opportunity, but it wasn’t in a formal setting. It was an email, a phone call, text. But it was one-on-one. So, the first of these meetings — my wife Kim probably said it best when I talked to her post-meeting. She said part of the process is just people getting things out.
“So that first meeting where everybody talked about (how) it seemed to be tense and whatever, it was because some people needed to get emotions out. People need to get some thoughts out and express themselves before they could move on, and that works for some people. Some people want to say, ‘Here’s what I believe and why I believe it,’ and once we got through that, once we got the emotion out of it and we could start talking about what is the process, what is it we can do, it moved forward at a rapid pace.
“We should have done that in June. We should have done that in July. That was the mistake that we all collectively made. We should have in June and July collected everybody; the drivers had a voice, we were in meetings, things were happening, but not every driver was in those meetings. So there’s part of it that’s an emotional thing where you get to express your feelings, and doing it through someone else doesn’t let you voice it. Doesn’t let you feel like you’ve got a say. That’s a natural response.”
Since then, Burton said the meetings have been “so positive and so meaningful.” Unfortunately, it just took tough times to get everyone there.
“That’s the lesson for all of us to learn,” Burton said. “Let’s don’t let it get to that point. So, next year you’re going to see more meetings. You’re going to see NASCAR and drivers meet more. You’re going to see more interaction, more collaboration on a weekly basis, and I think that in and of itself will go a mile.
“I want every fan to understand something: There were some misunderstandings about what would happen with this car with the rear impact or side impact. NASCAR never built a car wanting to get a driver hurt. Nobody wanted to see a driver be injured. Think about the millions and millions and millions of dollars NASCAR has spent on a safety (R&D) center. So once those problems started getting identified, work was being done to alleviate them. It wasn’t that it was being ignored. Work was being done.
“But when you are a fraternity of (race car drivers) and you’re seeing your guys be injured, it’s an emotional thing. It’s like, damn it, we can’t have that. So that was a lot of the emotion and comments you were seeing.
“To be honest with you, that’s a good thing that drivers are looking at that and thinking about that.… It’s a good thing that we’ve evolved to the point where drivers are saying it’s not acceptable, we have to fix it. There is nothing wrong with that. That helps move the sport where it needs to be.”