Michael McDowell‘s terrifying near-head on collision with the SAFER barrier and subsequent barrel-rolling down the track at Texas Motor Speedway Friday was the most serious real-life test yet of NASCAR’s new car, known during its developmental period as the Car of Tomorrow (CoT). But the five-year project by NASCAR’s Research And Development division had been preparing for just such a moment; after all, their work was primarily prompted by as series of accidents that had kept drivers such as Jerry Nadeau unable to continue their careers while leaving the sport’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt, dead. NASCAR knew that something had to be done to better protect drivers at speeds approaching 200 mph; and with the advent of some major structural changes, they hoped the car would live up to the challenge the next time an accident occurred.
With McDowell able to immediately extricate himself from his Michael Waltrip Racing No. 00 Toyota and wave to the crowd after such a horrendous accident, NASCAR has, although still to an unknown level, claimed initial success in improving driver safety for this vehicle. However, though safety was touted as the overriding reason for the investment in both time and money to build a new and revolutionary racecar, it was not the only reasoning behind the biggest adjustment to stock cars since 1981. The newly-designed CoT was also meant to reduce team costs and create closer competition amongst teams, making an even and exciting playing field for all. And though I do not question that NASCAR was concerned with the safety of its competitors and desired to better protect them from harm, the other two goals the for-profit organization hoped to accomplish proved much more important to their very reason for existence, making money. After all, that’s what it’s about; the fact every other goal for the car was achieved has merely proved to be icing on the cake.
But NASCAR making a profit has never been a problem for me. Money is how a business measures its health and viability, and from all I’ve seen, NASCAR is plenty healthy; in fact, it’s the most viable motorsports enterprise in the United States. And to stay ahead, you must think ahead. In order to keep their product successful, the sport knew that they needed to develop a car which would bring parity to all manufacturers, all the while attracting other car builders to come on board to further diversify their competition. All they needed to accomplish that is give them an equal footing in which to hawk their brand names; for it had become increasingly difficult to govern all the brand-specific modifications to provide a semblance of equality, and the differences and legislation were on the verge of spiraling out of control.
That is why I was CoT before CoT was cool! But I was in the minority. It seemed that during the months leading up to the introduction of the new platform, it became fashionable for many NASCAR pundits to knock the sanctioning body at every turn after the car made its debut at Bristol just over a year ago. What these naysayers refused to acknowledge, however, is that regardless of how smart they believed themselves to be, these people were not matching wits with just Brian France, but a whole committee of pretty smart individuals that could collectively exceed their perceived genius. Plus, my father taught me that only a fool argued with success; and NASCAR certainly has proven that they know how to be successful!
So, I simply trusted that the combined “brain trust” of NASCAR was capable of building a better mousetrap than a sportswriter could conceive of. And they did. After seven races of the 2008 season, it appears every change for the CoT has borne fruit; all four manufacturers have been given an opportunity to proclaim themselves No. 1 from victory lane, and the battle for the championship is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years. As long as Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and Toyota are able to be a part of that, they will be satisfied and continue to contribute to NASCAR’s coffers.
But from the beginning of the project, I was cognizant that critics of the new concept would be plentiful, consisting largely of groups that, in my estimation, just love to hate NASCAR. I listened to their complaints with open arms; but, quite honestly, I never found substance in their refusal to accept the new car.
The most popular battlecry of the anti-CoT legions from day one has simply been that, “These people are turning NASCAR into IROC.” But why is that a bad thing? Heck, in theory I had always liked IROC; they just needed more equally-prepared cars and about 30 mph more speed. The idea of drivers battling one another in relatively equal equipment always seemed like a good idea and a sure bet to create some close, side-by-side racing.
Others have griped they don’t like the cars because they’re too generic in appearance. Well, that ship had already sailed. The backend of a Camry or Impala when driving down Interstate 10 is very difficult to differentiate between in real life, anyways. In fact, the auto manufacturers are to blame for the commonality of appearance of their vehicles nowadays… not NASCAR. I too miss the diversity in body styles of yesteryear; but those days are gone, and we’ll survive without them just fine.
In the meantime, what the common template is doing, and will increasingly do, is allow for the gap between the wealthy and semi-wealthy teams to narrow. And of course, that is why NASCAR has been so aggressive with fines and penalties when anyone monkeys around in areas that they have made clear are off limits to tweaking. It’s because they do not want teams going back to finding aerodynamic advantages on today’s cars; the whole purpose of the CoT is to eliminate that advantage, and level off the challenges for everyone involved. It’s been an exceptionally onerous and costly proposition; teams flush with cash had derived great competitive advantages by spending extravagantly on body massages in recent years, and small-budget teams simply could not keep up. It was to the point where only three team owners had those kinds of resources to outdo everyone else aerodynamically, and they were taking the fun out of the sport in the process.
Instead, the excitement has returned while the money has scurried back into the pockets of plenty of car owners. Frankly, I could never understand how anyone could not see the considerable cost savings those men would eventually realize from the car. How can having one car for short tracks, superspeedways, intermediate tracks and road courses not be more cost efficient than a fleet of specific-purpose built racecars for each of the venues? Certainly, during the phase-in period of last season there were considerable extra expenses; but in the end, the savings to owners over the next several years as they campaign this one body and chassis design will result in extraordinary savings to teams.
The concept was hard for some to accept; but as time goes on, resistance has subsided as the car continues to prove itself race after race. Fewer and fewer are put off by its boxy appearance and are able to accept it for what it is, a very fast and much safer Sprint Cup racecar.
Yet, in spite of evidence to the contrary, I am almost amused at those that will not give up the ghost and admit that they have misjudged NASCAR’s ability to build a better racecar. They will not say, “I give;” but instead, in a last-gasp effort to not admit they have simply been wrong, they’re pointing out that the cars are more difficult to drive. Who cares? They clearly are drivable, fast and safe. If they were easy to drive, we wouldn’t need skilled racecar drivers on Sundays. Carl Edwards recently said so himself after winning for the third time this season at Texas Motor Speedway:
“I’ve heard people say that the races are boring, and people always want something to complain about – if it’s too hard to drive, you don’t get enough side-by-side racing,” he said. “The fact is, these are the 43 best drivers in the world. The cars have 900 horsepower and go 200 mph, and the track is slippery and the tires are slippery, and that’s a spectacle – and that’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be easy; it’s not supposed to be driving down the interstate.”
“I’m tired of hearing people complain, the media make up stories about how terrible it is and stuff – this is auto racing. There are going to be people that are faster. We’re going to have days when we can’t keep up because the car is too hard to drive. Somebody’s going to win. That’s racing.”
And so it should be. Besides, the next time a driver makes a statement about cars being a “handful to drive,” I would like a further explanation as to just what that means, exactly. Is it hard to handle in the sense that a World of Outlaws sprint car is a “handful,” or is it a “handful” in comparison to the car it replaced? Yeah, I already know what the answer is; but when you say it, my reply is simply, “Boo Hoo!”
So, as far as I’m concerned, McDowell’s successful emergence from his wreck proved the final stamp on a positive verdict for the new car. It’s so far, so good in every aspect; and common sense dictates that things will only get better as time passes. But even if this car had never saved team owners a nickel, and even if the competition between the haves and the have nots remained as far apart as it has been, when Michael McDowell climbed from his crumpled car and waved to the crowd, I knew that NASCAR had scored big!
And that’s my view from Turn 5.