"Father" of Car of Tomorrow confident in his baby
Gary Nelson hears the detractors of the Car of Tomorrow, but he stands ready to defend it at every turn. He should, because he's practically the father of it, writes David Newton.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Gary Nelson sounds like a proud father when he talks about NASCAR's controversial Car of Tomorrow.
No matter how many bad things are said about it, from the boxy look that has been described as "butt ugly" to the technology that has been called a step backwards, he defends it like a parent does a child.
In many ways, Nelson is the father of the COT that will debut in 16 Nextel Cup events this season, beginning with the March 25 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Four years ago, it was Nelson who organized efforts at NASCAR's Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., to design a car that would enhance safety and promote better racing.
So when he hears negative comments, he takes offense, even though he resigned last February as vice president of the R&D center to open his own consulting agency specializing in the overall safety and performance of motorsports.
Still actively involved with NASCAR and individual teams in completing the COT, Nelson said many complaints come from the same people who recommended features incorporated into the car.
"Oh, yeah," said Nelson, biting his tongue not to throw anybody under the bus. "The way I sort it out, each team to be successful has to work their own agenda, what's best for them.
"That's a moving target based on where they are in the rankings. If I'm a championship contender I don't want anything to change. My agenda would be to have another great season in 2007. If you notice, most of the complaints are coming from those in the top 10."
Nelson said reaction to the COT is no different than reaction to NASCAR's decision to switch from full- to mid-size cars after the fuel shortage in the late 1970s.
"It went from the size of a Cadillac Fleetwood to a Buick Regal," Nelson recalled. "If you went to the Daytona 500 [in 1981] you would have heard a much larger percentage of the garage say, 'We'll never get these cars to run good. Why can't we have our old cars back?'
"Now they're wondering the same thing about this car. It's like guys that said they didn't like the Chase [NASCAR's playoff] when it was first announced. I know some people had to eat their words."
Nelson, who was behind NASCAR's move to SAFER [Steel and Foam Energy Reduction] barriers, is confident the same thing will happen with the COT once it gets into competition.
"We feel certain there is going to be developments with the car that makes it work better," he said. "There is no way the R&D Center can find all the answers without going out and racing."
Fighting change is a way of life in NASCAR. Nelson noted there were those who fought the decision to mandate head and neck restraints after Dale Earnhardt was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
He said some even fought NASCAR over having to wear gloves.
"It kind of reminds me of being a parent, telling a kid how to cross the street and how to ride his bicycle," Nelson said. "NASCAR has the confidence that the studies they have done are accurate and the idea is solid and the result will be good."
Nelson was assigned to the R&D center four years ago, shortly after it began operation to make the sport safer following the loss of drivers Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin in 2000.
The priority on safety increased after Earnhardt's death, beginning with improving the driver restraint system and testing all belts used. That was followed by safety training sessions for those who built and worked on the cars.
That led to countless tests to get the SAFER barriers used in the Indy Racing League suitable for stock car racing, which was followed by getting each track to install them.
As the R&D introduced new safety features, it was determined that a new roll cage and absorption system were needed to make the car safer for the smallest to tallest driver.
Nelson said the only way to do that was to make the car bigger and boxier.
He laughs when people such as four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon say they could implement all the safety features of the COT into the current car. He tells them to talk to 6-foot-4 Michael Waltrip, who is 6 to 12 inches taller than most drivers.
"Michael Waltrip or anybody near his size would not have the margins for safety that the little guy has," Nelson said. "If the sport caters to little guys only, then that is an injustice to those other guys."
Nelson also chuckles at those who question the boxy shape, recalling the hundreds of times he's been told all NASCAR had to do to make racing more competitive was to make the cars boxier.
He quickly remarks that the current car has been twisted and bent so much to improve aerodynamics that it looks like "it's been in a wreck."
"If you stood behind the car of today, the back bumper is six inches off center line of the rest of the car," Nelson said. "It looks like somebody has run into it.
"I have to argue big that a car that looks like it's been in a wreck cannot look as good as a car that has smooth lines."
Nelson also scoffs at complaints that the rear wing that will replace the spoiler, as well as the front-end spoiler, detracts from the looks.
"My opinion is it looks pretty darn good," he said of the COT. "Once you see them painted and see them on the track the fan sitting in the grandstand won't be able to tell the difference.
"Sure, a wing on the back of a stock car is an adjustment. But I was in stock car racing when there was no spoiler. When they first went to a spoiler people said it was ugly. Now they say it looks good."
NASCAR's extensive research indicates the wing can't help but create more passing and better racing despite concerns that it will create more problems.
Nelson said the current spoiler distributes turbulent air off the sides of the car, making it easy to catch another car but difficult to pass. He said most of the air from the wing is directed behind the car, making passing easier in what drivers commonly call "clean air."
Reaction from on-track testing has been mixed. Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says the car is more aerodynamically dependent than research indicates.
"We feel there is value there that a lot of folks don't understand," Nelson said. "And we certainly won't completely understand it until we get a lot more experience, but the logic certainly is there."
Cost also has been a matter of debate that bothers Nelson. NASCAR insists the COT will save money because teams won't need to build special cars for short tracks, 1.5-mile tracks, superspeedways and road courses.
The governing body argues teams will be able to get by on eight to 10 cars instead of 18 to 21 once the COT is completely phased in four years from now.
Not everybody is convinced. Evernham Motorsports owner Ray Evernham says the cost of building the COT and maintaining the current car will run some smaller teams out of business.
Owner Richard Childress estimates he'll need 21 COTs in 2007. He already has added 90,000 square feet of work space and 50 new employees to accommodate preparations for the new car.
Todd Berrier, the crew chief for Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick, estimates he'll need more cars because the COT can't be repaired as fast as the current car.
"If you hit the wall like Mark Martin did [at Lowe's Motor Speedway in October] the complete body has to come off of it because of the way the templates are all integrated," Berrier said this past fall. "It's not like you can roll it into the fab shop and get it back by lunchtime and have a side on it."
Nelson understands the concerns, but believes they are an overreaction to the unknown.
"All of us at NASCAR know in our hearts the car is going to be less expensive for the owner," he said. "When we hear these negative responses, you've got to realize a guy that feels like he's got the team with the best engineering and best budget and performance doesn't want to change anything.
"We know everybody has an agenda that may not be best for the whole sport. NASCAR's agenda is what's best for the whole sport."
Nelson insists all the homework he and other NASCAR officials have done on the COT will make the sport better. Because of that he discounts most of the rumors and speculation about problems with the car.
He'll continue to work closely with NASCAR and race teams until the project is complete.
"I've got a full calendar," said Nelson, who was considered one of the more innovative crew chiefs in the garage before he moved into NASCAR management in the mid-1990s. "I'm much busier than I ever thought I would be when I left.
"It's too early to judge the car now. The grade the car gets in three years, almost four years from now, that's the one I look forward to. When you compare it to the car of today it's going to do very well."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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