When NASCAR cars crash, a Michigan company inspects the damage

When Jackson’s Ronnie Johncox was an IndyCar racer, he did what he could avoid crashing.

Now, Johncox is invested in the science of racing collisions.

Johncox’s Technique Inc. is contracted by NASCAR to build the chassis for every single Cup Series team, starting this year with the sport’s new Next Gen car. The chassis is the frame or “skeleton” of the car that includes a steel roll cage with various bars to protect drivers in crashes.

Previously, each NASCAR team was responsible for building most of the components of their cars. But with 2022′s Next Gen car, there are companies contracted to build pieces for all teams, in hopes of bringing more parity to the sport.

Technique has built NASCAR parts before. But building the entire chassis for every team is a big step.

“From our perspective, I think it’s gone extremely well,” Johncox said, noting they avoided supply chain disruptions by buying materials well in advance.

Naturally, the biggest test of Technique’s work is when the cars crash. Johncox has been at more NASCAR races than ever this year to see how the cars are holding up.

“I’m the guy in the garage area that goes over to a car that’s just thoroughly destroyed and says, ‘Man, that thing looks great,’” Johncox said. “The perspective I bring, I have to be very careful how I phrase that in the garage area. Everybody’s upset and they just tore up their car. I’m happy that the car did its job and that the driver was safe.”

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While the cars are showing durability, some drivers have complained the cars feel “stiffer” than in past years during crashes.

Kurt Busch crashed during qualifying at Pocono Raceway three weeks ago, in what seemed like a less violent collision than many others this year. But Busch walked away with concussion-like symptoms. He’s missed the last three races, as doctors haven’t cleared him to return.

“It’s interesting because the crashes that you see on TV that look less impactful are some of the worst. There are so many variables that go into what occurs in an accident,” Johncox said. “Sometimes the ones that look the worst, they’ve absorbed all of that energy so it’s really not so bad on the driver.”

Busch’s crash at Pocono is a great example of that, Johncox said.

For the drivers, Busch’s injury confirms the red flags they’ve raised about safety.

“You look at the cars, and they’re like ‘Oh man, they look great!’ That’s the problem,” said Kevin Harvick, who won Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway. “All of that energy is absorbed through you. So it feels like you get hit by the hammer. The car survives – but is that really what you want?”

NASCAR started installing SAFER barriers at tracks in 2002. Those barriers were put next to the wall and have Styrofoam-like blocks that crash energy absorb to keep drivers safe.

Harvick says crashing the Next Gen car is comparable to hitting a solid concrete wall before SAFER barriers came around.

“Every time I hit something, it’s a lot harsher than any hit that I’ve took in any of the other cars,” Harvick said. “Hitting anything in these cars is brutal inside, for the driver.”

The chassis was designed by NASCAR and Dallara – Technique simply won the bid to produce the pieces.

It’s up to NASCAR’s engineers if they want to tweak the chassis design for 2023, Johncox said – although the stiffness of the car isn’t only determined by the chassis.

“When it comes down to that, it’s a complex system. You have the tire, you have the shock, you have the spring, you have all your suspension geometry, you have the chassis,” Johncox said. “That’s for the (NASCAR) engineers to figure out.”

Making the new car safer should be priority No. 1 for NASCAR right now, Harvick said.

But he’s skeptical.

“I don’t think anybody knows what that fix is,” Harvick said. “But it’s not going to be high on the priority list because it’s going to be expensive.”

Consistency over performance

In the past when Technique built pieces for race teams, the goal was always to improve performance.

But now that Technique builds pieces for all teams, consistency is key. Every piece must be exactly the same – within a fraction of an inch, to be fair to all race teams.

All pieces need to be the same regardless of if they’re brand new or are repaired. Technique repairs chassis’ that have been involved in crashes, although about one-third of them are totaled if the crash was bad enough, Johncox said.

“Everything we’re repairing must be equivalent of new,” Johncox said. “If it isn’t, we will not send it out.”

NASCAR teams pay about $28,000 per chassis, once all the pieces are included. Each team can have seven per driver.

So far, Technique has built more than 300 full chassis’ and repaired more than 300 components. The chassis breaks down into three pieces: the front, the center and the rear. If a driver crashes and only damages the front, for example, the center and rear can be spared.

The chassis’ are assembled at Technique’s Concord, North Carolina facility, since most NASCAR teams are based in that area. But all of the tubes and machined pieces are made in Jackson.

Technique had many of its employees at Sunday’s race at MIS, since the track is only 25 miles from the Jackson headquarters. There’s lots of pride, as the employees watch cars fly by at 200 mph that they contributed to.

The company also had a booth at MIS showing off what the chassis looks like by itself. Johncox hopes to use NASCAR to get kids excited about STEM fields.

Technique has 37 workers in North Carolina and 180 employees in Jackson, and its hiring for various positions.

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