Matt McLaughlin · Thursday March 20, 2008
It's hard to believe an entire year has passed since the first Car of Tomorrow race was staged at Bristol last year. (Some might say that the year is the only passing in NASCAR right now). The unsightly little bastards that looked so ungainly upon their competitive debut remain an affront to those with any sense of aesthetics; but putting their awkward looks aside, how has the new car performed to date?
A lot has changed since the new car debuted last year. The winner of that first CoT race, Kyle Busch, was pretty blunt in his assessment of the newly designed vehicle that day, noting that he felt it “sucked” and he hated the car he'd just won in. Other drivers were somewhat more politically correct, but they were almost universal in their dislike for the winged wonders.
Other things have changed since then. Perhaps most importantly, NASCAR moved up the new cars' schedule by making them the mount of choice in every race this season, rather than the more gradual rollout they originally envisioned. That was in response to team owners' frustration with the expense of having to field two sorts of wildly different cars rather than a standardized mount. Drivers have also toned down their criticism of the new car, by and large, partially because NASCAR told them to do so. Still others seem to have developed a fatalistic attitude that, while the new car isn't much good, everybody is dealing with the same issues and there's no sense in complaining about something that's not going to change anytime soon.
Cynics might feel that the Car of Tomorrow has done precisely what NASCAR wanted it to do. The standardized cars have wiped out years of notes, experimentation, and experience the Ford, Chevy, and Dodge teams had used as an advantage over upstart Toyota last year. And, lo and behold, one of those standardized cars carrying Camry logos rolled into Victory Lane at last. Surely, that's got to be a coincidence.
But putting aside cynicism temporarily, let's look at how the new car has done as far as meeting its design goals.
First and foremost, the new car was supposed to be safer in a wreck than the old car. Over the last year, no Cup driver has been badly injured enough to miss a race. We've seen several hard wrecks with the new car, and thankfully, the drivers have always hopped up. They’re a bit battered and bruised, perhaps, but always able to relay what had gone wrong — all while walking away under their own power (though the numbness in his legs Tony Stewart suffered after his Vegas crash was worrisome). That being said, we've also seen several hard wrecks in the Busch / Nationwide series races, and those drivers weren't injured, either… despite driving the older style cars. So, let's give some credit to the SAFER barriers and HANS devices, too.
In regards to safety, I'm in agreement with a line of thought I believe Mercedes Benz originally championed; "The best way to survive a wreck is not to be in one in the first place." That means a car’s active safety features — the ability to stop quickly, veer around a potential wreck, or maintain traction in dicey circumstances — is at least as important as passive safety features, things like airbags which mitigate consequences when an accident does occur.
In that regard, the jury is still out on the new car… but leaning towards conviction. The new cars have proven to be a handful in race conditions. The radical front suspension setups necessary to make the cars handle to date make the new cars unpredictable… and that’s being kind. On rougher race tracks like Daytona, we've even seen bent and broken control arms eliminate contenders. But that’s not the only equipment getting put through the wringer. The new cars are tough on tires; we've seen several wrecks triggered by failed right fronts. In response to those issues, Goodyear is bringing harder compounds to the track; but, as we saw at Atlanta, that doesn't make for very good racing. Doubtlessly stung by the criticism of their product after that race, Goodyear is certainly looking at alternative solutions. But as long as the new car produces the sort of stresses it does on those right front tires, Goodyear is going to compromise towards safety; and in the process, that's going to compromise the quality of the racing fans enjoy.
The Car of Tomorrow was also supposed to contain costs for the team owners. The fact some teams that wrecked their primary cars at California and were able to go to backups originally intended for Martinsville, a very different track, seems to indicate there is at least some progress in that regard.
But with the revised rollout of the new car, team owners suddenly found themselves with stables full of the old designed cars that were rendered obsolete overnight. There are only so many of those cars that could be absorbed by wealthy collectors, racing schools, and racers in other series with rules similar to last year's Cup Series. As such, those old cars now fetch pennies on the dollar, when normally those cars would have been eliminated through attrition while earning their owners some more prize money in the process. That's been a particular hardship on the smaller teams, who had to replace their stable of race cars in a single year while still holding obsolete inventory that's been rendered near worthless. After all, with the glut of used race cars on the market, would you buy a former Hendrick car — or one from Robby Gordon's fleet?
The bizarre suspension setups the new cars need to hustle around the track have also all but mandated a team owner have access to a seven post shaker rig — a piece of equipment that in and of itself costs more than some teams used to spend to compete in an entire season of racing. The days of drivers analyzing what a car needs by the seat of their pants and having their crew chief adjust the car to their liking are gone. The drivers tend to dislike the setups the computer generated testing produces, but the computers say that those bizarre setups are the hot ticket for speed — and most often, they are right. Of course, just having a seven post shaker rig isn't going to do a team owner any good unless he has some quality engineers to interpret the data and conduct the proper experiments. Those engineers demand high salaries and benefits. Transporting, housing and feeding them on race weekends isn't cheap, either. But just as the best engineer can't make up for an average driver, the best drivers aren't going to win races without quality engineers. More and more, we're seeing crew chiefs with an engineering background on top of the pit boxes, not fellows who learned how to set up a race car competing on the Carolina bullrings on weekends, while wrenching at the local service station Monday to Friday.
Another design goal of the CoT was to improve the quality of racing. To be fair, there have been some good races with the new car. I'm thinking in particular of Martinsville last Spring, with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson drag racing off Turn 4, beating and banging on each other like the good ol’ days. So far, it seems the new car is at its best on tracks that feature a lot of mechanical grip — places like Martinsville, New Hampshire, and Richmond, where the grip of the tires is more important than aerodynamics. Also, on the positive side, as ungainly as those rear wings look, it does seem that when a driver gets his car sideways, they aid in helping him gather the car back up rather than backing into the nearest wall.
Unfortunately, the new car suffers from the same Achilles' heel as the old. On the fast tracks, where aerodynamics dictate speed, the phenomenon of “aero push” is still compromising the racing. For anyone who has been living in a cave for the last five years, the problem is pretty simple. The car leading the race has clean air on its nose, which increases front end grip and allows its driver to look like a star. When the driver of a faster car closes in on the leader, he's OK until he gets within a few car lengths. At that point, he loses the air off the nose of his car and loses front end grip. That's why we see drivers increasingly circling the track at respectful distances behind the driver ahead of them, all to keep his car turning in the corners. That's not racing; that's a parade. Too many times, we have seen a driver who looked unbeatable up front suddenly become an also ran when bogged back in traffic by pit strategy.
There's a growing sentiment among fans that the drivers need to quit complaining about their cars, get up on the wheel, and race. Of course, that sentiment comes a lot easier safely seated on a sofa than it does strapped into an out of control car heading towards a wall at 185 MPH. Look at it this way; if a driver running second tries three times to get under the leader to make a pass, and each time his car takes off up the track towards the wall, he's not going to be real eager to try it again. Even if his self-preservation instinct isn't factored in, his career goals have to be. In NASCAR racing, consistency — not wins — determines championships. There's just not enough incentive given the points spread between a win and a second place finish to risk wrecking out of a race in the final laps.
For there to be great racing again on the big tracks, the drivers have to be comfortable running in close quarters side by side. The computers might say a setup is fast; but if a driver isn't comfortable that his car will react predictably, they're not going to push the envelope to find the car's limits. In that respect, the Car of Tomorrow must be seen as a failure, even if it is not solely to blame for conservative race strategies.
Increasingly, engineers and crew chiefs are saying the CoT experiment could be salvaged if NASCAR would allow them to extend out the noses of the new cars as little as three inches. That would put more downforce on the front tires, even when a driver was close to the rear bumper of the car ahead of him. That additional downforce would also allow the teams to run more conventional front end geometries that would, in turn, make the drivers more comfortable and more willing to race. What would such a car be called; "The Car of Tomorrow of Tomorrow?" Whatever they’d call it, it behooves NASCAR to do some work on their congenital idiot of a car in its infancy if they want to draw back the old time fans.
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