This is it…the end of the world as we know it. It’s the dawn of a new era, one of many mundane clichÃ©s I could probably come up with if I wanted to. But to hear a lot of fans, team members, and drivers, NASCAR as we know it is doomed; starting this week, when the Car of Tomorrow (and what ARE they going to call it now that tomorrow is here?!) makes its long-awaited debut at Bristol Motor Speedway.
If the end of the world is restricted to design, these naysayers may have a point. The car is funny looking; there’s no doubt about that. One driver called it a "cereal box on wheels". He was diplomatic, because others have just flat out called it "butt-ugly." It looks even less "stock" than the current models, although the sad truth remains that the last real stock specs began a slow fade years ago. The fatal blow for the “stock” in stock cars actually came back in 1996, when NASCAR allowed the race version of the Monte Carlo to have a rear deck lid configuration that did not fit the street car's template. Prior to that, the street and race versions would both fit inspection templates, but that change began a string of modifications that took the race versions further and further from the street ones. The Car of Tomorrow, or Today, or Whatever is just the next step in that spiral of change.
It’s fair to say the Car of Tomorrow does have issues, ones that may need time to be addressed as fully as the naysayers may want. The splitter and wing are not easily repairable, meaning that a relatively minor crash could end teams' days much sooner than before, and that’s a very real concern in this day and age of the Chase. The inspection process is lengthy. With the time factor already a major concern in the garage, now it's longer than ever, and that could seriously damage the hopes of some teams should they miss entire practices due to being held up in tech.
Finally, many longtime NASCAR fans have been resistant to the myriad of changes the sanctioning body has imposed over the last five years or so. In many cases, they are right to feel the way they do. As races spread to new markets, the racing was often secondary to the location, and the rules have gotten tighter on creative engineering and on close, aggressive racing in the post-Dale Earnhardt era. Change has been hard and fast, and many are understandably resistant.
Well, in the case of the CoT, change isn't necessarily a bad thing. The cars afford the drivers more space; for a driver of the stature of Elliott Sadler or Michael Waltrip, that's a big deal. In a crash, that space makes for more ways for the car to bend without bending in on the driver. His head is not as close to the roll bars or roof, and the less aerodynamic design slows speeds without taking away crucial throttle response. Less aerodynamic also means more stability in the air, and hopefully less "aero push" and therefore less likelihood of a spin under certain conditions.
"I feel like the best opportunity to win and be successful is to embrace what's ahead of you, whether it's a challenging race track or a tire for race weekend or even for the new direction of NASCAR, which is this Car of Tomorrow. The safety influences on the car encourage a driver," said former NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion Kurt Busch.
While the changeover to the CoT is very costly to teams, especially as it's being phased in, in the long run it may prove to be an equalizer. It virtually eliminates some of today's drastic setups; the front end must be stiff enough to keep the splitter up off the racetrack, or the resulting broken splitter will end the team's day. The cars are tougher to manhandle, and yet, they require manhandling. They're less aerodynamically dependent and more apt to fall under the driver’s control. These setups may favor drivers who remember the boxier cars of a decade and a half ago; Kenny Wallace, who has struggled in the Cup series recently with a small-budget team, ran near the top of the speed charts in the recent CoT test at Bristol. Wallace likes the car; it favors his driving style, a trait long forgotten in the age of engineers, wind tunnels, and aero dependency.
While aerodynamics are not an issue at Bristol, handling will be of utmost important at the bigger tracks. "The car will really create its pattern, I believe, at Dover," said Busch. "What we have for race tires and cambers versus what we have for aerodynamics and setups as far as racing side-by-side, that's what we want to see from this race car, and we want to have more of for the fans to enjoy."
Defending Nextel Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson says that finding speed will depend on finding the car's comfort zone. "Right now it's a rat race to figure out what that car wants, and the first team that finds it is going to have a nice advantage," said Johnson earlier this week. "I think in the beginning, it's not going to seem that way but over time, I know NASCAR - we all know it's NASCAR's vision to bring more parity to the sport - actually, we're pretty equal as it is, and I don't know how we're going to make it more equal out there. So we'll just have to learn with the car."
Learn with the car; that applies to race fans as well as teams. Only time will tell if this latest change was a change for the better or an ill-timed mistake. Despite the obvious flaws in its looks and implementation in the schedule and competition, this one deserves a chance. It's not like some of the other recent changes : the Chase, the Top 35 rule, or the influx of cookie-cutter tracks. It's been a long time coming – a safer, slower car that puts racing in the hands of the drivers. Fans were shouting for this type of car a few years ago; now it's here, for better or worse. It will no doubt need tweaking, and it could work out better than expected… or worse than NASCAR’s worst nightmare. Either way, the Car of Tomorrow is now Today.
Roll with it.
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