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The Way It Is/ Discussing NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow with technical chief Robin Pemberton

by Gordon Kirby
At this stage, the Chase for this year's Nextel Cup is disappointingly weak with Jeff Burton extending his championship lead by finishing third at Charlotte last Saturday night behind Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson. Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick had poor races at Charlotte, finishing fourteenth and eighteenth respectively, so that Burton currently leads Kenseth by 45 points with Harvick ranked third, 89 points behind Burton. Mark Martin failed to finish at Charlotte and fell to fourth in points, trailing Burton by 102 points while Dale Earnhardt Jr was fourth at Charlotte and hangs on in fifth place in the standings, 106 points behind Burton.

Unfortunately, this year's NASCAR title battle is all about plodding consistency rather than winning and strikes a sharp contrast with the mano-a-mano duel between Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher in F1. No matter, because this has always been NASCAR's way, although this year may prove even more disappointing than usual in selecting the year's top performer. But with statistical leaders like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne out of the championship hunt the focus for many teams is already shifting to 2007 and the arrival of the Car of Tomorrow.

The new NASCAR Nextel Cup car debuts at the Bristol bullring next March and will be required wear for sixteen races next year on tracks less than 1.5 miles, plus the two road courses and the fall Talladega race. In 2008, the Car of Tomorrow also runs at the superspeedways and 2-mile tracks. In 2009, it will run everywhere. NASCAR's leaders--CEO Brian France, president Mike Helton and competition director Robin Pemberton--believe the taller, wider, chunkier Car of Tomorrow will substantially improve safety and also reduce costs at least for the smaller teams.

© Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR
The Car of Tomorrow is a spec car, but there's not an appointed manufacturer. Anybody can build their own cars as long as they conform strictly to NASCAR's specs, and a giant, universal template has been designed and built by NASCAR's R&D division to check each car at tech inspection. The new car was first tested at Atlanta last fall and there have been no fewer than six test sessions this year at Daytona, Bristol, Martinsville, Charlotte, Michigan, and most recently Talladega last week. NASCAR also tested some slightly larger restrictor plates at Talladega in the belief that the bulkier Car of Tomorrow won't draft as well as the current cars and will benefit from a little more horsepower and potentially different torque curve.

"We've built three cars at the R&D center and other teams already have built a half-dozen cars themselves," commented competition director Pemberton. "Both Roush and Gibbs have built a number of cars and they're in the process right now of building some more cars. I would say seventy percent of the teams have been represented at the tests so far and have tested a car. Some of the lower-tier teams are waiting for the larger teams to do their development work and sell-off some of the cars.

"It's going to be a big step," Pemberton freely admitted. "It'll be a big change and to get some people's mindset over to our side has been a challenge at times. But a lot of the teams and drivers are very open. A lot of very positive things have been said. Most of the time the things that get written are negative, but that's just the nature of the beast."

Pemberton reflected on the fact that the new car represents the first major technical change in NASCAR in twenty-five years, since the cars were shortened by five inches in 1981. "That was the last big change, and as I look through the garage area there's only a handful of us who were here then," he remarked. "It's a good thing for me that I was here in those days because I can explain it and tell people how it happened."

At the time, Pemberton was working for Petty Enterprises and he remembers the method the team employed in deciding which General Motors' brand they would race to the new short-wheelbase specs.

© Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR
"Richard and Dale Inman and Maurice Petty came wheeling in the parking lot, one driving a Buick, one driving a Pontiac and one driving an Oldsmobile," Pemberton recalls. "They'd taken them straight off the floor from dealerships in Greensboro and Asheboro and we took a good look at them. That's how we decided what car we were going to build for the following year. That was a big deal to step down to the 110-inch wheelbase. When we started the season in 81 I think we had two Buicks for Kyle and two Buicks for Richard.

"It was definitely a different way back then. There wasn't anybody getting together to talk to Bill France or discuss anything. Richard, Bud Moore, Leonard Wood and Junior Johnson may have been involved, but in those days a big meeting would have been no more than a dozen people. This year we've had regular meetings every week on an ongoing basis with forty and fifty people."

Pemberton explained the theory behind the Car of Tomorrow. "The main thing that's driven this has been the safety aspect," he began. "Everyone has to realize that without safe race cars we might not be racing at all. If you look back to how dangerous it was in the sixties and seventies, that kind of thing would not be tolerated in today's world. We've come a long way on safety, but we've got to move forward, and that's what we've done with this car.

"We've taken a clean sheet of paper, although it's not totally clean because we decided and have made an effort to use similar parts and pieces that are on the cars of today. We didn't want it to be a complete education process as far as the suspension and steering geometry and all the things it takes to make the car work. We wanted to use those parts and pieces that we're used to working on for the last number of decades. We wanted to keep those parts and move things around so we could get the room to integrate high energy impact foam into the sides of the cockpit and make sure we had enough room for the modern carbon fiber seats.

"We also wanted a bigger cockpit that is a safe environment for all sizes of drivers. A lot of effort has gone into that. Even though the suspension geometry is similar we've gained some space for the driver inside. The symmetric left suspension means the leftside is wider by an inch. We've gained an inch with the suspension and the driver is moved over two inches."

A more symmetrical car theoretically means there will less playing around with weight distribution. "It shouldn't be too different weight-wise across the new car," Pemberton noted. "Right now, you've got quite a bit of difference team-to-team, in weight distribution. Everybody's messed with weight for years, so now everybody will be in the same boat."

NASCAR has learned a lot about energy absorption and materials as they've done their due diligence in developing the Car of Tomorrow. "We've changed course in the last eighteen months," Pemberton commented, "as we went down the path of the energy absorption units in thirty degree, driverside impacts as materials have cropped up and we got out there and were taken seriously. Other manufacturers have come forward so that we have foam attenuaters replacing steel attenuaters, which were a tube made to absorb energy. The foam is much lighter and we can package it and put it in so many different places.

"Over time, it's come to light that it's probably one of the best things we've done. Right now, we are working with a couple of different companies on high-impact foam but we've worked the most with Dow Automotive."

Pemberton explained how the foam has been placed in the cockpit. "With the chassis spec'd out the way it is, all the door bars are identical and all the new chassis will be symmetrical on left-hand and right sides," he said. "The door bars being all the same enables us to put more foam in and be more consistent so it's all the way over the side of the car on the leftside and probably over two-thirds of the car on the rightside.

"There are modules that slide in, and on the outside, or the leftside of the doorbars, there's steel and that backstops the foam from impact. On the rightside there's a composite material on the door bars which backstops the foam on that side. The foam attaches to the composite backstop.

"The door bars are not farther from the driver, but the door bars are moved in a little bit to gain space for the foam on the outside. In today's cars, the door bars are right out against the skin but they're in from the skin on the new car, and that gives us room for the foam."

Part of theory of the Car of Tomorrow is that it will reduce the number of cars required because there will be much less room for building individual cars to suit specific tracks. NASCAR believes the new car will encourage some teams to run smaller fleets of cars, but you can be sure the big, multi-car teams will spend barrels full of money in testing, development, simulation, wind tunnel time and investigating every tiny detail.

"A lot of the inventory in cars for the teams is due to the sheer demands of the schedule," Pemberton observed. "Going from coast to coast a few times and testing, building and repairing cars and doing all the maintenance that's required mean that a dozen or more cars are needed.

"The opportunity to have fewer cars in your stable will be there more than ever. We suspect that it won't have an effect on the larger teams, but we do think it will have an effect on the ability for teams to make aero adjustments with the splitter and the wing and the curved end plates on the wing. If they can get the right aero balance for their particular driver without changing the body location and configuration as much.

"In today's world, the fabricators and crew chiefs and aero guys do such a good job of having a car that fits a driver's style. But one driver may not like the aero fingerprint of one car that another driver likes.

"There are things we can do with a car that has wings and things you can bolt on to help it for a few thousand dollars versus fifty thousand dollars, or whatever the relative number might be. It'll be less than it was with the current cars."

The new car will be tuned aerodynamically by a large front splitter made from nylon-fiber composite material rather than the traditional vertical air dam at the front and, of course, there's a small wing at the back. The presence of a wing, rather than a spoiler, on the tail of the Car of Tomorrow has rankled some people--fans and team bosses alike.

"One of the things people complain about the Car of Tomorrow is having a wing on a stock car," Pemberton acknowledged. "People say, stock cars don't have wings. We've got such a large and predominantly new fan base in the last six or seven years, and many of them don't know about the days of the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbirds--stock cars with wings. So it's quite interesting to put it into some historical perspective.

"The wing is something that should help with the competition," he added. "It should in theory produce a little less of a wake effect than today's spoiler. There should be a little more air on the nose of the car behind and that should help people being able to race closer and maybe have more of an opportunity to pass. More than half of the testing we've done has been with the wing."

Some experienced drivers, most notably Jeff Gordon, have expressed their misgivings about the new car, but Pemberton points out that there's a lot of enthusiasm for the car from some of NASCAR's growing flock of younger drivers.

"Some drivers--some of our past champions among them--have not been in the cars at all, and some just got in one of the cars for the first time at Michigan," Pemberton observed. "Those drivers who have been there the whole time from the beginning and have seen it unfold have seen the gains that have been made. Those guys have already got a leg up on how they work on the car.

"A lot of the younger drivers who have driven these cars have told us they really like the feel of the car. Some of the more experienced drivers have been a little less happy, it's true. But that happens. Four or five years ago when the coil-bound spring situation was coming around there were some drivers that got caught out for a season or two. It takes a while."

As we all know, it's often difficult for anyone to turn their back on something that's worked well for them in the past. "If you win a race the last thing you want to do is change your setup," Pemberton remarked. "It doesn't matter how good or bad you are, you have to get spanked pretty bad to get off that setup."

The Car of Tomorrow may be a big, ugly brick--the antithesis of the time-honored concept of sleeker, faster, better--which rakes the souls of some people, but the fact is everyone should prepare themselves for the CoT's arrival because it is both inevitable and imminent.

"The final spec is done," Pemberton confirmed. "We're waiting on the final submission of the detail parts from the manufacturers on the noses and so forth. We've already done all of our wind tunnel tests with submission parts and we're waiting for the final details to be submitted. So we're close to being there and we don't foresee and changes.

"What small changes we've made in the last thirty to forty-five days have been at the request of all of the teams, and they've been small things that we've made to help the cars in the building process. We've moved the tailpipes to a different location for example, because it was hard to maintain them running them through the frame rails. We've redesigned the bracketry and things of that nature that hold the exhaust system in place and we've changed a couple of the small sheet metal parts and pieces to make it a little bit easier to make the body panels.

"Basically, it's down to the details. We're working with teams. We're entertaining whatever ideas come in to make it easier for the group, but we're right down to virtually no changes left now."

An improved fuel cell also is part of the new car. "We've got a better fuel cell," Pemberton said. "There's some material changes on that. The checkplate on the top of the fuel receiver will be different. It will be a spring-loaded flapper valve and not the gravity-operated steel ball that's in use currently. It works at all angles where the steel ball may not work at ninety-degrees."

Meanwhile, the big teams--Hendrick, Childress, DEI, Roush, Gibbs, Evernham, Penske and Ganassi--will do everything in their power to challenge NASCAR's theses. Many former F1, CART and IMSA engineers are enjoying life working in NASCAR these days and are among those being unleashed on the Car of Tomorrow. Rule changes in racing historically cost the teams money and usually result in the richer teams pulling away from the little guys and many people say the same thing will happen with the Car of Tomorrow.

"To be honest, it wouldn't be right if somebody wasn't complaining," Pemberton remarked. "There are teams that have a large advantage over the rest of our world here in NASCAR in technology and chassis and handling. If we can close-up some of the room for development a little bit we can help some of the groups that only periodically hit the right combination, those guys that every half a dozen races might hit the top five. They're not consistent.

"Of course, you don't want to upset the level of competition so hopefully, we can hit on this thing correctly and really maintain some stability with no rule changes for a number of years. That's what helps the competition get close.

"We try to do a good job of policing it and not letting everything get out of hand. I think you see that today. We haven't had any rule changes in the Cup division for two years, no spoiler changes, nothing. I think you see the benefit of that with the competition the way it is today. We'll learn from what we've done and try not to mess it up."

Certainly, you cannot fault NASCAR for not putting the time and effort into the Car of Tomorrow project. "Probably six or eight months ago we started weekly meetings, weekly conference calls," Pemberton noted. "There are probably thirty or forty groups on the call every Tuesday. There's one call with all the teams and manufacturers and we follow-up with another conference call with the manufacturers. We've been pretty proactive in involving everybody and shame on anybody if they had an opinion and didn't share it with the group, or had a solution to a problem and didn't share it."

Daniel Honeycutt is NASCAR's aerodynamic engineer and he usually chairs the meetings. "We have our series directors and all our engineers, including Brett Bodine," Pemberton added. "We have fourteen or sixteen poeple in our end and we've had a constant flow of people through the facility and getting involved hands-on and making suggestions. It's been a very open process, very unlike when we went to the smaller cars in 81."

Pemberton also confirmed that over time NASCAR will apply the best lessons from the new Cup car to its lesser divisions. "The trucks are bigger, of course," he commented. "They have a bigger cage and are much bigger vehicles, so there's not a problem with room for the driver and the area surrounding the head like the other two series. Plus, they have about a hundred less horsepower.

"The Busch series has the same engine as the trucks. They're almost a hundred less horsepower so the speeds are down a little bit and with the short wheelbase they have more overhang at both ends so their crush zones are a little bit different than a Cup car.

"But we are going to take the things that we've learned from dealing with the Car of Tomorrow and implement some of those safety features in some of our other divisions as the years go by and the economics allow us to do that.

"It started off as a group of safety projects and turned into the Car of Tomorrow," Pemberton added. "Now we need to take those safety intitiatives and pass them down through the other series, and do it right. It's hard to regulate those things. Something that is safety-oriented is not necessarily the best for somebody's personal competition level. You have to make it work across the board for a large group."

When it's complete, the arrival of the Car of Tomorrow probably will represent the biggest change in NASCAR's long and successful history. It will be interesting to watch it all unfold.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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