It’s no secret that I am not a fan of the Car of Tomorrow. Just saying the phrase elicits certain feelings: Anger. Spite. Loathing. Still… as much as I would love to sit here and rail against it for another 1,500 words, I have made peace with the fact that it is here to stay, and you should, too. Call it what you will – a work in progress or mechanical cruelty – but there’s no denying this is the vehicle that will represent NASCAR for well into the next decade. With this weekend’s race at Phoenix being the last for the CoT’s initial foray into competition, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the car, how it has performed to date, and what can be done to help make racing better for both the fans and the drivers – before these things go full-time in 2008.
First off, we’ll start with competition. You’d be hard pressed to argue the new car started off with more than its fair share of good finishes. Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton battled down to the last lap in the CoT’s debut at Bristol back in March; the margin of victory then? A microscopic .064 seconds. That would prove the norm rather than the exception; the next race at Martinsville saw both current title contenders locked in an epic duel, as Jimmie Johnson hold off Jeff Gordon to the tune of .065 seconds for the win. In that race, the new car had also proved itself to be quite resilient, even rebuffing Gordon’s attempts to resurrect his Rusty Wallace bump & runs of years gone by in the closing laps. The next weekend at Phoenix, another late race battle ensued between Gordon and Tony Stewart. This one wasn’t as close, but the margin of victory still stood at a reasonable .697 seconds.
Maybe we’re onto something here? From the outset, we saw increased competition, close finishes, and a host of safety improvements. From that perspective, you’d have to give the car an A+.
The next two races at Richmond and Darlington also produced endings that were decided with a margin of under one second; it wasn’t until Martin Truex Jr. put a hurtin’ on ’em at Dover that we had a really big blowout in a CoT race. It was also the first time a non-Hendrick car would win; but as parity creeped in, we also began to see boring, follow the leader racing with little to no passing. Even the car’s debut at Talladega – save for the last lap – was little more than a three-hour nap for most fans and drivers; Gordon was even driven to yawning at one point during the event that he won.
That falloff puts the new equipment in position for a definite downgrade, in which the racing with the CoT has seemingly become worse. So, what gives? Many different factors are at play, as I’ll outline below; but the bottom line is what started out as an unqualified success has seemingly divulged into something less than enthusiastic, with the fanbase, the crews, and the drivers that slip behind the wheel now bordering on indifference. Surely, something can be done to help the beleaguered CoT… right? Well, let’s just say when the idea for this article was first conceived, my initial reaction was, “it’s nothing that an 870 Remington and a flame thrower couldn’t fix.” But I still came up with some options below… and no, none of them involve a gigantic magnet and a car compactor.
Rock Your Body: Is it too much to ask NASCAR to let the army of fabricators in North Carolina actually have a crack at this thing, and play with the body a little bit? Sorry to break it to everyone, but even “back in the day,” when stock cars were allegedly “stock cars,” the bodies were tweaked and massaged beyond what was originally a body in white from one of the Big Three. But even that spirit has now been eroded due to the implementation of common templates; any alteration to the body incurs a stiff penalty nowadays, often including the loss of your crew chief for up to a couple of months.
Yes, I understand that the idea behind the genericness is to control costs and cut down on wind tunnel time; but isn’t that why teams have sponsors, and places like Lockheed-Martin have tunnel time available to race teams? It isn’t like these bodies represent all new technology. And since the cars are now fitted with a bookshelf of an airdam by way of the splitter, some consideration should be given to using stock-looking front ends for each make of car, as opposed to cheesy headlight and grille stickers. It was cool when the old ASA series was doing that 15 years ago – it isn’t today.
Monster Meats: “Tires, Cole, are what wins a race.” We all remember Harry Hogge’s nugget of wisdom to Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder. However, that was back when tires were a little to the left of Topaz on Moh’s Scale of Hardness. Nowadays, even Fred Flintstone thinks these things are a little firm. It has often been NASCAR’s goal with the CoT to “put the driving back in the driver’s hands.” Well, that’s fine. Most drivers are all alike on new tires. And when the tires don’t wear out, that takes another element out of the competition equation. Not to mention that rock hard tires and a suspension with no travel do not make for a happy race car or race car driver.
I Don’t Feel Right: Next to watching Tom Cruise trying to dance on BET, nothing looks more uncomfortable or out of place than the CoT flying into turn 1 at Martinsville, slamming the brakes on, and watching as the nose dives about an inch, then awkwardly wobbles its way through the corner as if the shocks were 42-ounce aluminum Easton softball bats. As the cars exit the turn, it was always a sight to see them rear up on the back tires, and – as they struggled to put all 800+ horsepower to the ground – pull the nose back up towards the horizon. Now, these cars just kind of, go forward. The cars are in a perpetual state of understeer (i.e., pushin’), and are so stiff-legged, they often pull the inside tire up off the ground in the middle of a turn, followed by impromptu puffs of smoke. The combination of a granite-like tire, little downforce, and no suspension travel make these about as fun to drive and watch as when an ’83 Renault LeCar (French for, “The Car”) is put through its paces.
Spilt Lip: And that brings us to the two main points of contention that I, and many observers, have with the CoT: the front and the back. The front splitter – suspended by flaccid, flimsy looking support braces – is what gives the car any semblance of front downforce now that the typical airdam has been removed. This presents a number of problems, though. If the splitter becomes damaged, your day is pretty much done; much like an open wheel racecar that is dependent upon its front wings, the front splitter, once bent out of shape, can ruin a team’s day. The same could be said of the fenders on the traditional car; however, at least those could be hammered out and pulled back with some degree of success. If the splitter falls off, well… good luck getting it reattached in less than 15 minutes! The reduced frontal area also makes for wimpy and ineffective brake ducting on the CoT.
Since the car can still go fast in a straight line, it would seem to make sense that you’d want to be able to stop it repeatedly without boiling the brake fluid. But I digress…
Wings Clipped: Perhaps the biggest physical eyesore of this car is that abomination on the rear decklid. What at first glance looks to be someone’s Erector-set endeavor gone horribly wrong is instead the main component on the CoT that makes it look decidedly un-NASCARy: the rear wing. It’s nothing compared to that tasteful decklid spoiler, one that has been used for the last 40 years which worked fine and to great benefit.
The thought behind adding the wing was that it would reduce downforce and by handing them out to teams, it would help keep them honest with the rear deck lid area. Huh? You can’t do that with a pair of three-foot wide metal plates? Unless they are going to festoon the car with dragon graphics and a bunch of indecipherable Japanese writing that seems to delight the NOPI-tuner types, NASCAR needs leave the wings at home. Not only are they offensive and silly, they tarnish the true heroic winged cars of the past: the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona and the 1970 Plymouth Superbird.
While this is one man’s opinion of what needs to be changed on NASCAR’s newest ride, the sport has hopefully learned, as well, from this season’s trial run with the new car. It will take some getting used to… but as we worked through the downsized cars of the early 1980s, they became the familiar, cock-eyed, contorted, downforce monsters that the soon-to-be-obsolete car became. This newest major change can wind up working out the same way; all that needs to happen is for the sanctioning body to be open to change. If NASCAR really wants to make the CoT a success, and right the wrongs of their current prototype, it would do them well to listen for to the engineers, fabricators, mechanics, and drivers, and implement their input.
And that, in itself, would be a welcome change – and a good head start – in fixing the CoT.