With the competition debut of NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow just a mere seven months away, last Monday's tests at Michigan International Speedway were said to be an "important barometer" and the "final tweaks" before the COT takes to the track in March of 2007 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Monday's test included 14 drivers from 11 teams and marked the first time former Champions Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have tested in the new design. It also marked the first time Toyota has participated in COT testing.
"It's fairly comparable to what we have now," Busch said. "It's not anything like a night-and-day difference. It's real close. It's just a matter, again, of working with the front end to try to get that splitter real close to the ground."
In the new design, the front air intake is located beneath the bumper (which itself is 3 inches higher and thicker) and the "splitter" is at the bottom and can be adjusted front to back to give the car a "tight" or "loose" setup.
"It doesn't drive bad," Gordon said. "This is my first time with the car and I think this is the first time it's been on a track this big, as far as an unrestricted track. By itself, the car drives pretty good."
As for the COT's reactions in heavy traffic, Gordon said, "You're going to get in behind another car and you're going to push, and it's going to draft good. The thing should suck up really good down the straightaways, but we'll see. My car is a little bit too tight right now because it's the first time for us. We're being a little bit conservative and creeping up a little bit, but we probably need a little more time. We're going to make some adjustments and hopefully, we got it where it needs to be."
One of the reasons NASCAR has said it designed the COT in the first place it to increase driver safety. The driver's compartment has been moved 4 inches toward the center of the car and is said to offer less of a cramped ride. While Michael Waltrip was thrilled with the new setup, Gordon was less positive.
“Well, I don’t see that there’s that much more room other than headroom,” said Gordon after a test run for Hendrick. “I still have my reservations and concerns. My seat’s moved further inside the car to the right, but I’m closer to the door bars than I was before. To me, there’s not really any big gain there. For me, headroom’s not an issue in the current car we have so that was never an issue that we focused on, but I’m happy that it’s going to work out for those (larger) guys.”
“I was driving down the back straightaway, lookin’ around, and saying, ‘Damn, look at all this room I got!’ That’s just a wonderful feeling, knowing that you’re not all crunched down in there,” Waltrip said. “I’m real sensitive to the space that we have because of my size and it’s just really neat to have that feeling.”
As with any new design, you will always have differences of opinions. After hearing what the professionals have to say, I have a concern or two that I'd like to throw on the table.
The COT is designed to increase drag overall which will slow the cars and bring them closer together. One of the biggest problems that NASCAR has been battling lately is what they have termed "slam drafting", and they have taken a dim view on anyone who practices it. Now, aside from the front bumper being thicker and higher, the rear bumper has been designed lower, to match up with the front bumper of cars that are attempting to bump draft. If the car "sucks up" as well down the straight-aways as Gordon says it does, wouldn't common sense suggest that NASCAR has essentially designed a better battering ram with which the drivers can do battle? Didn't NASCAR, just earlier this year at Daytona and Talladega, mandate that the front bumper be designed weaker to discourage "slam drafting"?
It is a good thing the new design incorporates "crush zones" near the driver's compartment, because in my opinion, with this new set-up, "the big one" will become a common term at most of the tracks and not just the super-speedways. It makes no difference that the cars will be going slightly slower. "The big one" at 180 mph is no different than "the big one" at 190. The pieces just may not fly as far.
The other thing I don't understand is why NASCAR should choose Bristol as the first place to run the COT in competition. Perhaps they want to see how the new design will react while racing without a front clip as many cars often do midway through any race at Bristol. Racing at Bristol has always been less about handling, and more about just staying alive. If it were up to me, I'd start them out first thing in February at Daytona. Then we'd really see what the future of NASCAR will be like in a couple of years, but, as always, NASCAR knows best, I'm sure.
Stay off the wall, (even if you do have "crush zones")
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