The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Judging the CoT One Year Later by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday March 20, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off : Judging the CoT One Year Later

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.

The Car of Tomorrow is now the Car of Today; but looking back, was it the right decision to make?

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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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
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Douglas
03/20/2008 07:50 AM
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WOW!! What a fine summation!

I hope people read what you have written very carefully!

Thank you!

tim king
03/20/2008 08:47 AM
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Matt,
Don’t you think the suspension breakage problems could be stemming from the teams using coil bind or riding on bump stops? They’re virtually eliminating any compliance in the suspension system.

Douglas
03/20/2008 09:17 AM
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Hey timking, I think NA$CAR mandates the use of these stoppers! They dictate the shocks and springs, so this is a NA$CAR issue not anything a team has control over!

Actually I think for the last race NA$CAR “allowed” some different things, but overall I think the CoT is a poorly and under-developed car that NA$CAR forced down the throats of the teams like it or not!

Maybe Matt can verify what I said for accuracy!

M.B. Voelker
03/20/2008 09:21 AM
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You didn’t mention the COT’s amazing ability to recover from being so sideways that you can read the door numbers. An ability that has saved at least a dozen wrecks in the handful of races we’ve run so far. But that would go against your determined negativity, wouldn’t it?

I liked what Richard Petty had to say about the situation. He essentially called the drivers and team wusses and whiners by telling them that he used to get a new car every year and had to race it without any of the kind of testing that teams do now.

The best feature of the COT is its toughness. Unlike the situation in the aero-monstrosity (now that was a affront to aesthetics with its twists and distortions) — where the tiny dent from hitting a mosquito would ruin the car’s chance of running well — the COT is so durable that Kyle Busch won Atlanta in a car that had slapped the wall and “bent something” in the rear end.

And but for a fuel pickup issue Denny Hamlin could have won Bristol in a car that had had its right rear fender folded up, unfolded, and taped into a rough approximation of its intended position.

If people want light, responsive, agile, designed-for-perfection race cars they can go over to open wheel.

Stock cars are supposed to be bulky, heavy, clumsy dinosaurs that call for great skill in adapting to challenges and overcoming difficulties. (I hear that those F1 drivers made quite a mess of their first race without traction control). That’s why the best of the best are driving them.

Douglas
03/20/2008 09:43 AM
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I have “gone over to open wheel”, at least those cars handle and are nimble on their feet!

Not slugs of metal called “race-cars”!!

How sad!

Douglas
03/20/2008 09:47 AM
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Hey M.B. Voelker, I forgot to add:

BRIAN FRANCE LOVES YOU BABE! KEEP SENDING MONEY HIS WAY!

Brian found yet another gullible one!

Christian Budd
03/20/2008 11:05 AM
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“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. “

Hey Voelker, try actually reading the article, mkay?

Mike
03/20/2008 12:12 PM
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The COT was supposed to save the teams money. It hasn’t. It was supposed to eliminate aero problems. It hasn’t. It was supposed to eliminate the restrictor plate. It hasn’t.

The only plus is the safety features which could’ve been built into the old car.

The coil binding is mandated, so it will take an act of God, or someone who thinks he’s God, to get that changed.

Stock cars never handled like the open wheel cars but in the past, they were able to turn. The COT doesn’t turn like the old car or even like the real stock cars in the old days before they had power steering.

The COT is the half-baked idea of a half-wit.

Tom in Bristol
03/20/2008 12:21 PM
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Anybody ready for a large serving of irony?

How ‘bout if NASCAR sez, ‘Hey, everbody…wotch-iss…we’re gonna have ya’ll do yer front fenders jest like Chat and Steve brought to Sonoma last summer!!’

Oughtta get some front downforce, any-hoo.

Kevin in SoCal
03/20/2008 12:34 PM
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Matt said: “Over the last year, no Cup driver has been badly injured enough to miss a race.”

Did you forget about Ricky Rudd at California? Or were you talking about wrecks in the new car?

Mike at 12:12pm, NASCAR does not mandate bump stops or coil binding or any thing of the sort. The teams are using bump stops because they are more effective than coil binding in the new car. And while it hasnt eliminated the restrictor plate, it was enlarged a bit, and the driver’s DID notice the improved acceleration and response that gave them in Daytona.

Hey Douglas at 9:47am, why dont you respect someone else’s opinion in this still-free-as-of-today country we call America? This isnt politics, its NASCAR.

Douglas
03/20/2008 01:49 PM
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Whoops!

Hey Kevin In Socal, I really do think NA$CAR mandates the springs, bump stops, and so forth on the CoT! But, as I said, Matt can verify this!

OH! OH! Did I offend? I really thought was I said was kinda accurate!

Oh my, and you state “this isn’t politics, it’s NA$CAR”!!

HUH??? More politics in NA$CAR than most organizations I have seen!

But thanks for keeping me in line at times, I need a reminder once in a while! Will be more “careful in the future! (or try to anyway)!

I think Mike @ 12:12 summed it up best! “The CoT is the half-baked idea of a half-wit”!!

Tim S.
03/20/2008 02:10 PM
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Voelker:

“You didn’t mention the COT’s amazing ability to recover from being so sideways that you can read the door numbers. An ability that has saved at least a dozen wrecks in the handful of races we’ve run so far. But that would go against your determined negativity, wouldn’t it?”

McLaughlin, paragraph 12:

“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.”

Determined negativity, indeed.

Kevin in SoCal
03/20/2008 02:41 PM
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Douglas, according to Speed’s RaceDay on Sunday morning 3/16/08, Kenny Wallace, Jimmy Spencer, and Hermie Sadler said the bump stops were not something NASCAR makes the teams run. The teams run the bump stops to keep the splitter from hitting the ground.

Douglas
03/20/2008 05:10 PM
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Hey Kevin in SoCal!

So, if the teams “voluntarily” use the bump stops and such to “keep the splitter from hitting the ground”!

Would that not indicate a design problem with the CoT? In other words, if during “normal” racing the suspension cannot be tuned to prevent the splitter from dragging,and the teams have to resort to suspension stops, thus limiting proper suspension travel and binding the springs, then I say something is wrong with the total design of the car!

So, here we have NA$CAR saying to the teams: “Teams, here is your new car, the CoT, now in order for this car not to drag it’s front end on the ground and bottom out, you will have to run bump stops”, “We know this lack of suspension travel will then bind up your suspension,causing a poor handling race car, but that’s your problem”!!

Is that the scenario?

Sounds like it!

Margo L
03/20/2008 06:06 PM
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The idea that the new cars are more
“ saveable “ when sideways is something the people in the booth came up with . Lets all think back carefully to every time we saw a car get sideways and then saved over the years . I can think of hundreds over the last twenty years . In fact a case might be made that the new car seems to get sideways far easier than the old . That might be a tire issue , but they certainly seem to be loose at every track .
New race car designs always take time to evolve . When the cars were downsized in the early eighties , they had some spectacular aero induced crashes because no one was familier with the new body styles . That eventually worked itself out , and i have no doubt that the current car can also be made into a race car in time . Aero has been a problem for race cars for as long as anyone realised there was such a thing as aero . Drivers have complained for every race of every season for 25 years that the cars were ubstable side by side in the cornors . Hence we saw the roof rails , which were supposed to cure that problem .They only helped , not cured . As race cars have gotten faster , the aero problems have increased , and no body design , or add-on can or will be totally effective .

Kevin (the other one)
03/20/2008 07:16 PM
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Douglas, once again you show your ignorance on setup.

They make springs in different spring rates. Sure, they could put a stiffer spring in the car so that the splitter doesn’t drag the ground, but by using bump stops with a softer spring, they can control the exact height the car rides off the ground.

Why do you pretend to know what you’re talking about Douglas? It’s obvious that you don’t have the technical knowhow to pump your own gas, and yet, you want people to think that you have suspension geometry theory down pat. Your a $ad man Dougla$$. A $ad, $ad, man

Chris2
03/20/2008 08:31 PM
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Margo, you bring up a good point. I didn’t watch the whole Bristol race but I did catch Jimmie Johnson saving his car from going into a full spin..nice save. But what actually got my attention was the bobbleheads in the booth talking about the new car being the reason for such saves. If I recall one of aspects in the design process for the brand new spanky Car was to take care of aero issues that previous cars had. What had me somewhat baffled is how the NASCAR parrotheads in the booth came away with Bristol being an aero track. I would give merit to the design of the new car aiding in a driver trying to save his car on a superspeedway or an intermediate track..but Bristol? C’mon guys..you don’t always have to break out the pom-poms in the booth..how about..“Damn, that was a nice save..”

Wayne Lewis
03/20/2008 09:15 PM
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This is an great overview of the CoT, much more even-handed than I expected. I like the idea of extending the nose to help, the aero push. I suspect, though, that the only true solution is to slow the cars down by 15 mph on the faster tracks to lower the aerodynamic drag on the cars.

Susie
03/21/2008 08:51 AM
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Matt Kenseth to Robbie Reiser, Martinsville #2 2007:

“What’s the computer say to do?”

Somehow I think the real answer to that question may be better left to the guys with grease all over their hands and not to a slew of microprocessors in a supercomputer somewhere.

I guess the drivers and teams are just trying to do their jobs…using whatever they can to be safe, go faster, turn left better.

marc
03/21/2008 10:20 AM
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Matt “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.”

That’s not entirly true. Roush-Fenway is allowing all Ford teams to use their in-house 7 post and I believe Hendrick is also.

VIPER who Petty just donated two cars to, also allows some teams to use their 8 post shaker although access is somewhat limited.

This is probably the best explanation of bumps stops I’ve read.

“Something new this year is the use of bump stops, which can affect the tires the same way that coil binding did in the old car. In the old coil-binding setups, the cars were configured so that at some point coming into the corner, the coils on the spring would compress enough to touch. The spring lost all its springiness, so the driver was driving on one (or sometimes two) wheels essentially without springs. Imagine jumping on a pogo stick and having the spring suddenly disappear. The only thing bouncy is the rubber end, so that’s all you have absorbing the force of the bounce. In a coil-bound car, the tire is forced to fill the role the spring should be serving– absorbing bumps. The problem is that tires are not designed to do this.”

I’d also recommend reading that entire post and the other two i the series dealing with tires.

P.S. What’s that old saying? “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Here’s the potential imitation of NASCAR’s new car.