Car of Tomorrow shaping up as pretty nice ride
The Car of Tomorrow has been the subject of many gloom-and-doom predictions, but it looks -- and should perform -- better than early expectations, writes David Newton.
CONCORD, N.C. -- Did you know NASCAR will pay for the rear wings used on the new Car of Tomorrow, then distribute them at the track and collect them after each race?
Did you know the COT, which is two inches taller and four inches wider than the current car, will fit inside the current haulers?
Did you know the inspection process at the track should be faster with the COT because of nine radio frequency IDs that will be installed on each chassis, allowing inspectors to verify its legitimacy electronically instead of manually?
Did you know the restrictor plate as we know it at Daytona and Talladega likely will become obsolete with the design of the COT engine package?
Did you know the COT looks more like the car on the street than the one currently on the track because the angles of the windows and headlights aren't nearly as severe?
If you listened to a lot of crew chiefs and drivers over the past few months, you probably didn't.
So many rumors have been started about the COT that Mike Fisher, the new managing director of NASCAR's Research and Development Center, came up with a name for them.
"Urban legends," he said on a recent tour of the inspection process.
For example, one team official complained that the COT really won't save money as NASCAR promised because parts such as the wing cost substantially more.
He left out that the $4,000 part, minus the end plates, would be issued at the track so teams won't have the opportunity to tamper with it. The only cost to teams will be for wings they use in testing.
Others have said they will have to buy new haulers because the cars won't fit in the old ones. Fisher thought that was strange since every COT brought to tracks for testing arrived in current haulers.
"They told me when I took this job I needed to have a thick skin and not take all these criticisms personally," he said. "I'm starting to see why."
Fisher and Brett Bodine, who has logged more miles in the COT than anybody, said most of the complaints have subsided. They said most people have a better appreciation for the car and all the work that has gone into it after watching it go through inspection.
"One of the best compliments I've heard came from a top-10 team owner that said it takes half the time to build the COT," said Bodine, dispelling another rumor.
Just over a hundred chassis have been inspected at the Concord shop, with almost half passing. A record 14 consecutive chassis passed inspection earlier this week. That's a far cry from initial tests when five out of six were turned away, most for minor problems such as sheet metal being too thin.
"Nobody was wild out," Fisher said.
Pre-certifying the chassis and fitting them with the radio frequency IDs will save time at the track, where in the past all chassis inspections took place.
That makes for a busier than normal holiday season, but Bodine doesn't mind.
"What we do here is way more technical than anything we did at the track," he said.
The chassis can be pre-certified because, as was the intent, they can't be altered as in the past to help create aerodynamic advantages.
This had some crew chiefs up in arms because they won't be allowed to push the so-called "gray areas" that sometimes led to victories and sometimes led to penalties. On the other hand, this also will save them time.
"We've eliminated the time-consuming element of it, let's say," Fisher said diplomatically.
But there are parts of the COT that can be modified. Teams can adjust the angle of the spoiler from zero to 16 degrees to control downforce. They also can choose to have flat wing side panels or curved ones, mixing and matching them in any way they want.
The front-end splitter also is adjustable from four to six inches wide.
"We want them to be able to tune the thing," Bodine said.
Bodine is so excited with how the new car drives and the ultimate cost-saving features that he wishes he were a team owner again.
He said most of the complaints from drivers have come from those who had little to no time behind the wheel. He predicts most will love the car in time because the wing will create less aero push and allow for more passing.
He's so confident that he predicts a track qualifying record may fall when the COT debuts in the first of 16 races in the 2007 season at Bristol in late March.
He's also excited about the possibilities at Talladega and Daytona, where restrictor plates are used to limit horsepower and keep speeds around 190 mph.
"We'll still have plates, but the holes will be substantially larger, probably around an inch," Bodine said. "The engine package probably will fall very similar to what you would run at Michigan."
But the bottom line, from the driver's seat that is closer to the center of the car to the energy-reducing foam that lies between the sheet metal and cage around the doors, is that the car is safer than anything that's been on the track.
And it's not as "butt ugly," judging from the Chevrolet Impala on display at the R&D Center, as some have said.
"This is not our first attempt," Bodine said. "We did a tremendous amount of testing. I can't imagine what NASCAR has put into this. To see it where it is today, I'm really proud."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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