Car of Tomorrow ... Today
by C.J. Radune
on February 6, 2008 @ 15:12:12
In 2007, NASCAR implemented the Car of Tomorrow for 16 races, the first coming at Bristol Motor Speedway. It was the beginning of the end for the previous generation of aerodynamically sensitive cars that bared little resemblance to the production versions they were based on. After years of making adjustments to aerodynamic packages at superspeedways and taking into consideration driver complaints and injuries, NASCAR set out to design a car that would increase driver safety, reduce costs and enhance competition.
In the Beginning
The introduction of the COT was a huge step in standardizing a formula to be used in the series. In the early days of stock car racing, drivers literally raced the same cars they used in their everyday lives. Most drivers, to find an advantage, began making modifications to the cars, making them faster. During the 1950s, the manufacturers recognized the value racing brought to their sales and began to introduce models specifically designed to race.
Roll bars were first required in 1952, and through the '60s, the roll bars became an integral part of the car to stiffen the frame and improve handling. Engines evolved through this time and the basic engine design has not changed to this day. Through the '60s specific car modifications to promote safety were introduced. This process continued through 2006, when we have the tubular chassis with a metal body hung upon the frame.
The New Era
After a seven-year design process, NASCAR introduced the COT in 2006. The new design was bigger and less aerodynamic than the current version; it featured a rear wing and an adjustable front splitter. The safety design concepts centered mainly on concerns that arose following the death of Dale Earnhardt. Specific changes enhancing safety included moving the driver four inches closer to the center and moving the roll cage three inches backward. The car is also two inches taller and four inches wider. Double frame rails were built into the driver's side door and were covered with steel plates to prevent anything intruding into the cockpit. Energy-absorbing material was also placed between the roll cage and door panels to provide even more energy absorption in a collision. These designs give the driver greater protection in nearly all angles of a collision.
Safety was not the only issue NASCAR attempted to address with the COT. Cost was another factor. Efforts to enhance aerodynamic performance with the old car design were forcing top teams to spend hours upon hours in an expensive wind tunnel massaging the car's body. Each manufacturer's body design had its own set of specifications. Inspections at the track also required NASCAR teams to have three templates on hand at all times with tolerance levels built into some areas, leaving inspections to take up to a full day. The move to the COT is also expected to save teams from building track-specific cars, which, considering the number of tracks, would save teams a lot of money.
These aspects were virtually eliminated with the COT. NASCAR now certifies a team's chassis once and attaches sensors and seals to roughly nine spots throughout the chassis. At the track, the bodies are then inspected by one template that is lowered over the body to confirm its dimensions. This reduces the need for teams to spend money and time in wind tunnels. Every car has the same specifications and only limited adjustments are available with the wing and splitter. Repeat inspections of the chassis are not required each weekend. A simple scan of the affixed sensors indicate conformity, and another full-chassis certification is only required after a portion of the car is rebuilt or replaced.
An area of concern with the car's design was competition. A bigger and less aerodynamic car meant less speed. A greater emphasis would have to be placed on engine performance and driver ability since every car is essentially the same. The discrepancy between the top and bottom cars narrowed, tightening the field, creating a greater number of cars running competitively. A side effect of the closer competition was contact. However, with the bumpers being the same height on every car, they reduced the chance of an uneven bump causing a crash. Drivers learned this in the first race, resulting in them driving more aggressively.
At the superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona, the less aerodynamic cars and slower speeds allowed NASCAR to use a restrictor plate with a wider opening to allow for more air to get through to the engines. The controversial restrictor plate, which was designed to reduce overall speeds for safety on the 2.5-plus mile tracks, created a pack of cars, which some argued created a more dangerous situation. The larger restrictor plate that they will currently use allows stronger cars to pull away. During testing at Daytona in January it was discovered that the last car in the draft found it difficult to stay with the pack. This effect strings the cars out and reduces the number of cars in the pack that fans have grown accustomed to seeing at these tracks.
In theory the COT should make drivers safer, reduce costs and enhance competition, but all three points remain debatable. While drivers are cushioned more from impact, the cars are more evenly matched and also encourage more aggressive driving. Teams won't have to build a specific car for each track due to the limited changes that can be made to the new car, but those dollars saved are only being diverted to smaller areas of research to find an edge. Some may argue that more money will be spent since advantages will be smaller and more difficult to find. Lastly, some drivers have complained about the car's stability while in traffic, and traffic is a way of life on most tracks.
While horsepower has remained similar from the previous generation, teams will try to regain the speeds lost to aerodynamic changes. Preseason testing has also indicated that once standard setups for multiple tracks do not work. Michigan International Speedway will require a completely different setup than its sister track in California. Overall, it remains a work in progress, and with the car being run full time during the 2008 season, teams will be able to gauge how effective the COT has been in all three categories.
Many teams struggled with the introduction of the COT. David Stremme and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates had notable difficulties. Outside Juan Pablo Montoya winning (on a road course), the team struggled to get the COT up to speed. Bill Davis Racing also struggled heavily. Dave Blaney was their best driver in the COT with an average finish of just under 30.
It isn't hard to recognize that the team most successful with introduction of the COT was Hendrick Motorsports. Kyle Busch won the first race in the new car at Bristol, and the team combined for nine wins in the seasons 16 COT races. Penske Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing all had success in the new car as well. Each of those teams had total average finishes under 20. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon scorched the field in 2007, and the COT races were no different; however, Carl Edwards quietly recorded two wins in the new car. While some teams certainly were making progress in getting their new cars up to speed, look for Hendrick, Roush and JGR to continue their dominance, as they've all looked very quick in preseason testing.
About C.J. Radune
Radune has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.
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