Darby figures COT a learning experience for all
The Car of Tomorrow isn't going to be just a learning experience for the drivers. John Darby leads a legion of NASCAR officials wringing things out, writes David Newton.
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- John Darby fiddled with an empty halogen lamp box as he took a short break from the speed charts after the final practice for last weekend's Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
All was quiet in the back of the NASCAR hauler, except for the occasional rumbling of the man on a ladder in an adjacent room.
"Something blew up," said Darby, the Nextel Cup Series director.
The scene was quite different from the one on Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Darby and his crew got a 24-hour jump on the normal inspection process as they prepared for the debut of the Car of Tomorrow.
Crew chiefs and inspectors shuffled in, out and around the NASCAR hauler from the time the garage opened at 10 a.m. until it closed 10 hours later.
It was far from the normal Thursday, when the only commotion typically is from hauler drivers setting up shop so everything will be in place when the teams arrive on Friday.
Fortunately for Darby, nothing blew up.
Oh, there were plenty of questions as teams went through the tedious process, from having the chassis verified by radio frequency tags that were attached to the frame during the initial approval process to the new one-piece template that replaced multiple pieces used to measure the car's body and angles.
For the record, the template is now called the "claw" because it resembles a big claw as it drops over the car to make sure the body's eight reference points match specifications.
Darby, who has prepared for this moment for more than three years, tried to go over every imaginable question before he arrived.
"You would like to wonder if there was any questions asked that hasn't already been asked," he said. "But sure, there's a lot of things that will jump up. The good part of all of that is the groundwork has already been laid."
Darby and his crew have been as busy as the teams building COTs over the past 10 months. They've spent every free minute refining and redesigning the car in order to make it as safe and functional as possible.
"From June of last year until this point I don't ever remember being as busy as we've been," Darby said. "I don't think we're 100 percent done, but we're 95 percent there."
NASCAR chose to debut the boxy-looking car with the front-end splitter and rear wing at Bristol because aerodynamics won't be a major factor. Between Sunday's race and next week's at Martinsville, another short track, they hope to have many of the kinks worked out.
"It'll give us the opportunity to work through the issues with the teams before we get to tracks where the bodies count more," Darby said.
The inspection process has been a primary concern for teams since they succumbed to the realization the car is here to stay. Many left last month's test at Bristol with questions, particularly after their bodies didn't match all of the template points.
"Our template advisor was probably on the phone 12 hours a day two weeks before the Bristol test and it's been non-stop since then," Darby said.
The good news here is that none of the cars were so far off that they required more than a rub here or bump here.
Kyle Busch's car, for example, was slightly off on the front fender. As crew members banged away with a rubber hammer, Darby smiled and said, "That may be enough there to fix that."
The biggest concern was over the right side, which apparently is heavier than the left and creating a few problems with balance.
"This was all about details and little small things," Darby said. "The teams actually did a very, very good job of constructing these cars."
The last time NASCAR opened the inspection process a day early was in 2002, when the governing body aero-matched all of the cars.
It didn't get nearly the attention this did.
"I've never seen anything like this," said seven-time champion Richard Petty, who has been through probably more inspections than anybody in the garage.
The scene around the inspection station indeed was different. It was just as much of a learning experience for the inspectors as it was the crew members.
Some drivers, such as Carl Edwards, came out of curiosity.
"I'm going to sit in my car and see if it pedals right," Edwards said.
Inspections took about 80 minutes per car, compared to about 45 minutes under the previous process. At one point officials were going to come back on Friday to finish, but opted at the last minute to work overtime and finish.
So if anybody missed practice time, which was a problem at California and Las Vegas, it wasn't because NASCAR didn't do its part.
"If teams show up to the track correctly they're going to get their practice," Darby said.
In theory, the new process eventually will expedite inspection so no team will have to miss practice.
But that's not the primary goal.
"It's more about doing a better and tighter job more efficiently," Darby said.
Because the system is tighter, teams should be less inclined to push the gray areas that slow inspections. That doesn't mean teams won't try to bend the rules, but it's even less likely than before they'll get away with it.
But Darby isn't looking for cheaters as much this day as he's looking to educate. More important than having every template locked into place is leaving Bristol where a majority of the garage has a better understanding of "what their future looks like."
Darby also hopes to bridge the gap between the engineers that have spent most of the time building the car and the crew chiefs and road crews that will put it to use.
"I've had questions about where are we going to release a part or how does the TV package work," Darby said. "Those are things that teams have had in [engineers] hands for a year.
"Now that the race is getting closer, the guys actually here doing the work, they ask the question and you tell them their engineer has had that for a year. They're like, 'What's up with that?' "
Darby laughed. He is excited about the possibilities.
"As excited as hell," he said. "For years and years it's always been a bit of looking at the car next to you, wondering why your fender doesn't look like his.
"A lot of that stuff has been addressed by this new car where hopefully teams will be able to focus on the chassis, springs and shocks and make them race better."
Darby hopes eventually this makes his job easier on Friday and Saturday when most of the inspections are done. He certainly can't lose any more hairs off of a head that is almost as smooth as the hood of the machines he inspects.
"It'll be all the things everybody is talking about," Darby said of the COT and inspection process. "It'll be different. It'll be new. There'll be a lot of stuff we haven't anticipated.
"But it's going to be a fun deal."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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