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A New Day

By on January 1, 2008
Jeff Gordon

There’s automotive irony in the fact that the most distinctive feature of NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow is its detached rear wing — reminiscent of a 1970s-vintage Dodge Charger or Plymouth Superbird. And there’s even more in the hope that the new car will bring back old-fashioned racing.

Whether the latter will succeed remains unknown, but one thing is certain: The Car of Tomorrow is here today. After a 16-race tune-up in 2006, the Car of Tomorrow (COT) will roll out at Daytona in February to begin a full 36-race Cup schedule.

“It’s the future and we’ve got to deal with it,” says team owner Ray Evernham, initially a critic of the COT.

“It will definitely result in a different type of racing,” predicts Fox Sports broadcaster Darrell Waltrip. “Just how different, I don’t think we know yet.”

NASCAR technicians and engineers devoted years to their science project, which was unveiled in January 2006. The COT ran its first race at Bristol Motor Speedway three months later. Even though Kyle Busch piloted his weird-winged Chevy to victory, his evaluation of its performance was hardly glowing. “It sucks,” Busch said.

The NASCAR development team had a prototype of the car in 2004.

The NASCAR development team had a prototype of the car in 2004.

The Bristol race was uncharacteristically tame, and some drivers blamed it on the COT, which they said was ill-handling. “It was hard to pass,” said Jeff Burton, who placed second, unable to muster a last-lap move on Busch.

Others, however, said it’s just a matter of getting used to the new-car smell. “I’ll be fine once we get it figured out,” said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. “It’s like anything new — it takes a while to get used to it.”

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president for competition, says some growing pains are to be expected — and will be worth it. He says the COT will prove beneficial in three areas: safety, performance and cost efficiency for teams. “Our first consideration is always safety, and the Car of Tomorrow will be a safer race car,” Pemberton says. “It has other advantages, but it all starts with safety.”

The driver’s seat in the COT is four inches further to the right, placing the driver further away from the point of impact in a driver’s-side crash. The car is two inches taller and four inches wider, making the cockpit bigger. That means the driver is less confined, with more room to unfasten safety belts and evacuate more quickly. There is more “crush-ability” built into the sides of the car for added protection. The car’s exhaust runs through the body and exits on the right side, diverting heat and fumes away from the driver.

As far as performance, the car’s contours are less aerodynamically friendly, which should make it “racier.” The front bumper is boxier, catching more air and slowing the car. The windshield is more upright, increasing drag. In theory, the COT will permit more passing and side-by-side racing.

Finally, cost: All COT models (Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge and Toyota) are required to fit the same basic set of templates. NASCAR’s old rules had a different set for each model and officials frequently adjusted the rules to keep the performances balanced. The universal body of the COT will, in theory, create a more level playing field that will reduce the constant tweaking by team technicians. Also, teams won’t be forced to build a different fleet of cars for different types of tracks — short, intermediate, superspeedway and road-course.

Going into the 2006 abbreviated COT schedule, some drivers like Kyle Petty believed the more standard cars would allow lower-budget teams to better compete with the mega-bucks operations. That didn’t happen. “The big teams will still have an edge,” Waltrip says.

There were some early glitches. Kevin Harvick crashed his COT in a Martinsville race, and the foam cushioning in the side of the car caught fire. Several drivers continued to complain about handling. One said racing the COT “is like driving a dump truck.” Grumped Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Fifteen years from now, they’ll have it figured out.”

Despite such skepticism, NASCAR remains convinced that the COT will inspire more of the old-fashioned, side-by-side battles that made stock car racing the nation’s second-most popular pro sport.

In recent years, NASCAR cars had become increasingly aero-fragile. When a trailing car encountered “dirty air” (the turbulence created by a leading car) the trailing car became unstable and hard to handle. That caused drivers to back off, discouraging close racing. The COT is less aero-affected, which theoretically should encourage closer racing. “The thing I like about the car is that you can bump,” Waltrip says. “You hit the guy and it just shoots him forward, instead of getting under him and jacking him up and spinning him out.”

Evernham says the uniform COT should result in more precise specifications and cut down on the gray-area “fudging” that some claim is just a euphemism for cheating. “We’ve got to have more black-and-white rules and the Car of Tomorrow does that,” Evernham says. “In the end, NASCAR had to change [for the benefit of its image], and the Car of Tomorrow is one of the things that will change it.”

Jeff Hammond, a former championship crew chief and current Fox Sports commentator, says the drivers ultimately will make the COT a success. “The competitors will help NASCAR sort it out just like they have in every other change NASCAR has made in its history,” he says. “What won’t work, NASCAR will fix. It won’t tolerate a situation where the racing is not there for the fans.”

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