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The Way It Is/ Everyone in NASCAR Nextel Cup racing is flat-out preparing for the arrival of the Car of Tomorrow

by Gordon Kirby
After a couple of years of development and six months of testing, NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow makes its debut next month on the 0.533-mile Bristol short track. A strictly-defined 'spec' car that's taller and wider then the existing car the new Nextel Cup car will be required for sixteen races this year on tracks less than 1.5 miles, plus the two road courses and the fall Talladega race. Next year, the Car of Tomorrow also runs at the superspeedways and 2-mile tracks, and in 2009, it will run everywhere. Some people believe the CoT will prove to be a horror show and will have to be withdrawn for further development, but many team owners want to see the transition to the new car compressed into a maximum of two years rather than extending it into '09.

NASCAR's leaders believe the chunkier Car of Tomorrow will substantially improve safety and also reduce costs at least for the smaller teams. According to Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's competition director, the primary driving force behind the CoT has been to improve safety. "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," Pemberton remarked.

NASCAR decided to retain the basic suspension layout and components used for the past thirty or more years, although the suspension has been made symmetrical to make more room for the driver and to bring him, or her, closer to the centerline of the car.

"We wanted to use those parts and pieces that we're used to working on for the last number of decades," Pemberton observed. "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."

NASCAR has learned a lot about energy absorption and materials as they've done their due diligence in developing the CoT. "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, driver-side impacts, new materials have cropped up. That is probably one of the best things we've done."

© Paul Webb
The presence of a wing, rather than a spoiler, on the tail of a stock car has rankled some people, fans and team bosses alike. NASCAR believes the nose splitter and wing will make for better racing. "The wing is something that should help with the competition," Pemberton said. "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."

But many other observers, from four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears to a handful of engineers I've known for years, disagree with Pemberton's aerodynamic assessment. Mears believes NASCAR has made a critical mistake and made the CoT a much more aero-dependent vehicle than the current car while some engineers have told me stories of having their aerodynamic recommendations ignored by NASCAR.

I'm told the current Cup car makes 800 pounds of downforce and that the CoT makes half that. The CoT will run the same aero package at all tracks so the new car will make much less downforce at all the tracks, short tracks and road courses included. This could result in a scenario much like CART saw five or six years ago when it experimented with running reduced downforce, speedway-like setups on the one-mile ovals. To CART's dismay, they discovered that nobody could pass. Once the leader caught the last-placed car, the field drove around in a long, unchanging train. It was literally as exciting as watching paint dry and some aerodynamicists think a similar plague will further infect NASCAR's many medium-speed tracks with the CoT.

NASCAR believes it is adapting the theory of the truck to the CoT and we've already heard the concept propounded on TV by the likes of Kenny Wallace and Jimmy Spencer. NASCAR believes the CoT's front splitter and tail wing as well as its enlarged greenhouse and overall shape will act like the truck and make for exciting side-by-side racing. But my aero engineering friends tell me the truck makes much more downforce than the CoT because it's got a big nose with a lot more surface area as well as a long tail and substantial spoiler. The trucks are similar to IRL cars in that they make plenty of downforce and can run side-by-side at many tracks. I'm told not to expect that with the CoT.

Then there's the matter of the splitter as a weapon or easily damaged piece. It seems like the splitter will be in for a serious test in the CoT's debut at Bristol where it's all too easy to imagine bits and pieces of splitter laying all over the track by half-distance. As well as being a possible debris monster, the splitter means the CoT is more aero dependent than the current car.

And then there's the rear wing which I'm told is a poor choice of shape. More importantly, it's located too close to the rear deck so that there won't be any useful airflow between the lower wing surface and the bodywork, making the wing act more like a spoiler.

The arrival of the CoT probably represents the biggest change in NASCAR's long and successful history and it will be interesting to watch the transition to the new car unfold. Critics note that rule changes in racing historically cost the teams lots of money and usually result in the richer teams pulling away from the little guys. Many people say the same thing will happen with the CoT.

© Paul Webb
"Of course, you don't want to upset the level of competition," Pemberton remarked. "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."

Aero critics aside, you cannot fault NASCAR for not putting the time and effort into the CoT project over the past year. Pemberton and a dozen or more NASCAR officials have taken part in weekly teleconferences with teams and manufacturers with as many as forty people on the line. "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," Pemberton said. "It's been a very open process."

There's been plenty of debate about how costly, labor-intensive and disruptive the CoT will be for NASCAR's Cup teams, but everyone is trying to take a positive public approach to the undertaking.

"Certainly, the safety aspects of the vehicle are something that we're all very interested in and our hats are off to those things," said Dan Davis, Ford Racing Technology's boss. "The CoT represents a tremendous amount of work. We're basically racing two different cars in the same season and there's a tremendous amount of work to be done. In the marketing sense, it's a huge undertaking as well because there are a lot of show cars that have to be converted. So there's a tremendous amount of work associated with the CoT, but we're up for it. All the manufacturers are up for it and we're looking forward to competing with it."

Lee White is senior vice president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development (TRD). "The CoT is a big challenge to Toyota and TRD because we had a big enough challenge anyway," White said. "We've worked with NASCAR for almost two years now on the CoT project and we certainly support NASCAR's safety intitiatives and their intitiatives to equalize competition. We are trying to help and participate as much as we can as fledgling infants in this industry."

The body templates for the CoT weren't confirmed until last month so everyone is flat-out building final versions of the new car. "All the teams, not just Toyota's, are against the wall trying to get cars built--real cars," White observed. "There have been cars out on the race track, but arguably I think you could say that very few of those have been representative of what we'll be racing at Bristol. Now it's time to build the real cars, get to the race track and start evaluating how the thing is going to perform."

White sees the transition process to the CoT being reduced by a year. "There has been some negative attention because a lot of people don't like the way it looks or drivers don't like the way it drives," White commented. "But when it rolls out at Bristol, it's going to be the car and I would guess that based on the cost of running parallel programs that at some point in time the major team owners are going to approach NASCAR about it. They're trying to implement it over three years and I think that might become two years, or might even become one."

Team owner Chip Ganassi says the idea of phasing-in the CoT is a good one, but it's impossible to ignore the cost involved in the change. "Phasing it in slowly was a chance to give everyone a chance to absorb [the cost,]" Ganassi observed. "If you did it all at once it would be a three or four million dollar shot per car per team and teams can't swallow that. If you divide it over two years, it's a little easier to swallow. For us, it's a million and a half per team per year. You're not only developing the CoT, you're still maintaining your development of your current car. You can't just put your current car aside and say we're going to put all our development into the CoT. It's killing us as owners."

Ganassi added that the big economic issue for the team owners is the lack of a limit by NASCAR on the number of people a team can employ. "This business should be called NASCAR transportation and racing," Ganassi remarked. "The biggest problem facing this sport is we're still the only major league sport that doesn't have a defined number of players on the team. You don't have a roster limit. I'm not worried about a salary cap. I just need a roster limit. We keep getting more and more people and the more people you bring to the races the more hotels and rental cars you need. It's crazy. As long is there is no roster limit, costs are going to increase."

Lee White says Toyota looks at the CoT as a chance to utilize its engineering capabilities and resources to help its teams get a leg up on the established Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge teams. "We consider it an opportunity," White said. "There's an opportunity with the CoT for somebody, maybe it will be us. Any time you tighten the box, in our opinion, it enhances the value of advanced engineering and that's something that TRD tries to bring to the party for our teams.

"We are focusing on the CoT because it doesn't make any sense for TRD to be out focusing on the current car. Our message to all of our teams is: you can go hire the guys that have been racing these current cars, build them and race them, but we're going to focus our engineering effort on the CoT because that is the future. Whether we are able to get that in the teams' hands and translate it into success this season or not, that remains to be seen."

White believes some of NASCAR's established teams will take advantage of the challenge of adapting to the CoT. "I think someone like Gibbs or Roush--the teams that already have mass engineering resources--are going to get their arms around the CoT and they are going to kick some butt with it," White remarked. "I predict a Tony Stewart or a Jimmie Johnson--someone like that who is really sharp on short tracks and also good on road courses--somebody is going to win four or five of those races. I'll bet that somebody is going to go out and win a pot full of them."

Both White and Ford's Dan Davis say that the CoT makes the question of brand identity even more difficult for the manufacturers. "That part of it is always a challenge," White observed. "All the manufacturers have worked to get as much character and highlights in the body shape around the hood, the headlights, the front bumper and so on, and obviously, you work with the decal package."

Added Davis: "If you were to ask Ford, we never get enough brand identity. The current car doesn't have enough and the CoT doesn't have enough brand identity. The hood is a little different, but we struggle with that with every car. We'll do our best to try to differentiate the brand. Clearly, the engine package is totally different between manufacturers and that, of course, is the heart of the car. So that is always a good aspect. It's always a struggle because the cars look very simnilar to each other and we'll never be happy with brand identification. It's an ongoing struggle, but that's the way it is."

White pointed out that having a wing on the tail may be useful in driving sales if not helping brand identity. "Don't forget that when you go to buy a high-end Mustang and you want to get a performance package, it's got a wing on the back," White remarked. "It doesn't come with a ducktail spoiler. So there are a few things about the CoT that I think the consuming public can actually maybe relate more to the showroom stock cars that they can go buy."

By mid-summer, after NASCAR has run a bunch of races with the CoT on a variety of tracks, we'll know whether this great experiment is on course, or whether it's created as many new problems as it hoped to solve. In this way, 2007 will be a key season in determining how well NASCAR has positioned itself for the next phase in its history.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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