What's Vexing Vito · Vito Pugliese · Thursday March 18, 2010
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Three long years after inducing nausea and arousing feelings of hatred and revulsion among both fans and drivers, the much lamented rear-wing of the CoT is going the way of the dodo bird next week at Martinsville. The more familiar and fitting rear spoiler replaces it, and masses will rejoice upon its return.
But as much as NASCAR nation would just like to pull the trigger, throw those wings away, and kill off this failed experiment, a change this big demands a little extra guess-and-check without the pressure of green flag conditions. That’s why on Tuesday of this week, 24 teams showed up at Talladega Superspeedway as part of a seven-hour test session to help figure out the best aerodynamic and power train package for April’s Aaron’s 499.
During the morning session, teams primarily focused on single-car runs over the 2.66-mile superspeedway. But before a break in the action for lunch, five cars linked up in a draft to post times that raised eyebrows of fans and NASCAR officials alike. Jimmie Johnson clocked the quickest single-car speed of 196.467 mph in the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, while in the draft, several drivers exceeded 210 mph, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. claiming a 213 mph top speed.
The teams eventually settled on a plate size of 31/32 inches — while spoiler size and angle was adjusted accordingly — to help slow the rate of closure yet maintain a healthy balance of handling, grip, and draft manageability. The restrictor plate package they produced will differ greatly from that of other tracks, but it provides the framework for NASCAR’s second test which covers everywhere else. That’ll be held March 23rd and March 24th at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with over 50 teams expected to grab a little extra practice before the change goes into effect for good at Martinsville the following weekend. As you might expect, officials hope next week’s effort lays the groundwork for the Cup Series teams to figure out the configuration for 1.5-mile race tracks — those that now dominate the Cup schedule.
But let’s take it one step at a time. Following ‘Dega, a number of things came to mind about NASCAR’s latest testing, although I resisted the temptation to tag this article with Spoiler-ed Rotten or On a Wing and a Prayer.
Nobody would like that. But here’s a few observations that aren’t quite so cheesy…
First off, calling the wing a spoiler isn’t so far off base — if used in the context of “it spoils the car’s appearance.” As if it wasn’t hateful enough that the Sprint Cup CoT came equipped with a common template where the only way to identify the cars was by a manufacturer’s emblem sticker, grille, and headlight appliqués, the wing offered little in the way of downforce… and even less in the way of tradition. It reeked of pandering to a segment of the youth market and the import tuner crowd, a desperate attempt to attract new fans to the series that worked overtime to turn them away instead.
How could they miss the mark that badly? After all, this generation wasn’t the one that grew up on Bullitt, Two Lane Blacktop, or Vanishing Point for their point of reference for car movies. Instead, the miserable Fast & The Furious franchise tops the list, where a PlayStation doubles as a performance modification and equipping anything wheeled with a big blue bottle of “NAWS” is the answer to all of life’s troubles.
But I digress.
On the plus side, the wing also removed an element of saving a loose race car, as it acted a bit like a rudder when cars would get out of shape on a big, fast racetrack. A slow, lazy slide would be correctable, thanks in part to the end plates helping to catch the car in mid-yaw; it’s impressive enough, although the cars have been crabbing sideways down the straights since the 2008 All-Star race at Charlotte.
The same could not be said about the winged Mopars of 1969-70 vintage. Their three-foot high wing was aptly named, cars of beauty with twin posts resembling rudders on the yet forthcoming F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle that helped to steer it smartly around the track. Even Buddy Baker was driven to remark that you had to really try to spin one out to actually lose it.
The spoiler that ran for part of Tuesday’s test session looked much like the version used in the Truck Series, with a foot-wide section on each end pitched up a couple of inches higher than the center section of the spoiler. The convex shape wraps around the deck lid a bit and onto the rear haunches of the quarterpanels, offering improved visibility, greater downforce, and sapping about 90 horsepower more in aerodynamic drag than the wing it replaces.
Those changes also have an effect on how the car feels and drives in traffic as well.
“The cars have a little bit more turbulent air when you’re behind other cars,” said Jeff Gordon, one of 24 drivers who took part in the test session. “Makes the car rattle and shake a little bit more, which I heard was similar to what the Nationwide cars have. So no big surprise there. A little bit of a visual (problem), not necessarily behind you, but when you’re behind a car, because the corners of the spoiler are real tall.”
“Just seeing across those corners to the side of somebody, trying to look further ahead [is a problem].” It’s an issue NASCAR seems to have addressed already, though; by the end of the day at ‘Dega, the width had been cut down to a flat 4.5 inches while narrowed by an additional two.
That led to “comfortable” drafting speeds in the low-to-mid 190’s, good enough for officials to call the test a smashing success. Did the drivers agree? Kurt Busch, last week’s winner at Atlanta, had a favorable impression of the final product the sport created.
“Overall, I’d say we have a thumbs up with the spoiler,” he said. “We might need to trim a little bit to balance out the drag, because right now the lead car can get out there, but he can’t go anywhere, and it invites everybody else to suck up real easy. That’s a concern. We need to balance out how close we keep the pack and yet how controlled the pack is. But the spoiler felt comfortable.”
So what does that mean from a safety standpoint?
Ryan Newman, whose No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet blew over quicker than Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat XXXI last November at Talladega, said the changes give hope cars hurtling through the air at death-defying heights won’t happen quite so often anymore.
“I hope it’s better; I don’t know that it could be a whole lot worse,” he said. “It couldn’t possibly be any worse. The biggest thing for me with the spoiler is the shape of the spoiler. We will have better racing. On the straightaways, we’ll have more side-drafting, things like that. I think the fans are going to enjoy that; we saw with the old spoiler on the new car, that kind of went away.”
The spoiler will also be augmented by a “shark fin,” a 3.5-inch tall blade of metal that NASCAR implemented for the left side of the rear deck lid and window for the Daytona 500. That will be used at all tracks once the spoiler is introduced, a further disruption of airflow that’s supposed to help keep cars on the ground, according to Kurt Romberg, the chief of aerodynamics at Hendrick Motorsports.
The fin should also help prevent the low pressure area from developing across the top of the car that creates liftoff. It’s a 1-2 punch when paired with the spoiler, which acts as a big air brake – it proved to slow the car substantially more than the wing during a “backwards” test in the wind tunnel test last week. Another part of the new restrictor plate aerodynamic package are small quarterpanel extensions that sit aft of the rear tires in an effort to help aid in drag as well as add some overall stability. In a perfect world, the trio will work together with roof flaps to ensure getting airborne is a virtual impossibility.
So now, rather than having some goofy wing that was better suited sitting atop the decklid of some teenager’s tarted up Honda Civic, replete with dragon graphics and a Folgers fart-can muffler, the superspeedway CoT is now a conglomeration of spoilers, lips, flaps, and ailerons. In a way, it has become the F-4 Phantom of race cars, the classic Vietnam-era multi-role fighter jet, one that was, according to noted aeronautics engineer Pierre Sprey, a flying band-aid of aerodynamic fixes that were trying to keep it flying straight and true. In this instance, though, the objective is for the vehicle not to fly, keeping itself planted on terra firma.
Whether or not that can be done to a car that is sliding sideways at over 200 mph, possibly tumbling or being assisted by another vehicle has yet to be seen. But if it doesn’t work, at least the drivers will look good doing it, and not embarrassing themselves with that Erector Set contraption on the trunk.
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