Has NASCAR taken ingenuity out of the equation?

The Car of Tomorrow is causing numerous ripples throughout NASCAR. Marty Smith writes in Door-To-Door that one concern is that ingenuity is being taken out of the sport.

Updated: March 29, 2007, 8:49 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Since the advent of NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow concept, many crew chiefs and owners have complained to me that the ingenuity that defined legends like Smokey Yunick and Ray Fox and Junior Johnson, and in turn helped define the sport, is virtually extinct.

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At the turn of the century, Cup cars had to fit roughly 10 templates during inspection to be cleared for competition. Jack Roush said there are now more than 100, prompting him to liken COT competition to IROC racing -- the theory being placing drivers in virtually identical cars and letting them determine supremacy on the racetrack.

That's a dagger to NASCAR's heart. It does not want to be compared to IROC, and probably shouldn't be. Ray Evernham told me the COT might even open up more opportunity for innovation given its penchant for offering more mechanical grip than the old car.

But Roush isn't the only person making the IROC comparison.

  • Greg Zipadelli: "Right now the box seems really small, because you're overwhelmed at all the things [NASCAR is] controlling. Once you get over that, and learn the areas you can work in, that box will open up a little bit. But it'll never be like it used to be. It's pretty small."

  • Alan Gustafson: "We all know we have to have rules, but some of the artwork -- I call it artwork -- that our body hangers do, and some of the development we do in the wind tunnel -- to be able to gain five counts or 10 counts -- that's my job. That's what they pay me for. The drivers are a big part of this sport. I know that's why we all do this. But we can't discount what the body hangers do and the crew chiefs do and the engineers do. They're a big part of what makes this sport good, too."

  • Evernham: "They want the sport to be about the drivers, and it should be. The sport has been about the drivers for a long time. But the sport, through history, has also been about great mechanics and great race teams. As you take the mechanical things and ingenuity away it does take a little bit of the personality away."

  • Roush Fenway Racing president Geoff Smith: "[With] the Car of Tomorrow, the theory is if there's less competition in the hardware there's more competition on the racetrack because the cars will be close all the time. It'll be really hard for an engineer's brain to be the difference between first and 20th. It's just going to be drivers. NASCAR's trying to manage the quality of the product for everybody's benefit. If you turn every car into exactly the same, you have IROC. And in theory what ends up happening is the car becomes nothing more than a tennis racket. The best player always wins the tennis tournament. So it could drive it that the same person wins every time. When you have all these ancillary intellectual contributions that go into a car -- which we still do today -- then that guy's contribution helps temper the driving quality. Suddenly the competition product on the racetrack is a true combination of the car guy and the engine guy and the driver. Suddenly a guy that's 15th place every week becomes a winner."

Zipadelli, though, made a stark admission to me, one I was somewhat taken aback by: It's not NASCAR's job to keep competitors happy.

"Look, the sport's [very] healthy, and they've been doing this for 50 years. You can't argue that," Zipadelli said. "Me? I'm very selfish. I don't want them taking something away that I've worked to learn. But that's what I get paid for.

"They don't care about me. They care about keeping this sport healthy for everybody. They've done a great job of that, even though a lot of us don't agree with the avenues we've went down. Because that's not our vision. Our vision is winning races. NASCAR's vision is keeping everybody in [the industry], and new teams coming in, healthy."

That's why they've implemented this car, figuratively and literally. It's safer. But Gustafson says that's not the only reason for its institution.

"The chassis stuff, I'm okay with," he said. "That's for safety. But the body stuff, that's definitely not a safety issue. That's just to try to level the field out."

Evernham hopes to keep some semblance of adjustability in the cars. Otherwise separation from the pack is made extremely difficult.

"We're limited on rear springs here, there's shock rules there, there's weight rules here," Evernham explained. "There's a lot of rules that have taken away what you can do to adjust the car and we'd like to have a little of that back.

Ray Evernham
AP Photo/Terry RennaRay Evernham is concerned the Car of Tomorrow will eventually take some of the personality out of the sport.

"Even though a lot of the [equipment is] the same, you have enough adjustment to use the piece better than somebody else. I don't want to see them keep taking the adjustments away."

Smith summed it up well.

"Clearly, Brian France and Mike Helton are committed to trying to make sure that the product on the racetrack is the very best for the fans to see, and for television to see," Smith said. "There's a bit of a gamble, in my mind, about whether or not reducing the ingenuity opportunities to make your hardware superior is the way to do that.

"In the end we'll all benefit if the product on the racetrack is exciting and fun for people to watch. It's really that simple. It's not our teams' job to determine which way that's the best. That's NASCAR's issue completely.

"Naturally, there are a lot of people in the garage whose jobs and income level are based upon these intellectual contributions they're making. If we can stamp out bodies and cut cost, and the product is still great, then that's what this forces you to do. That's why you have this undercurrent in the garage."

Asked his thoughts on the lack of room for ingenuity these days, NASCAR legend Junior Johnson scoffed at the notion.

"I don't think this car has brought that [box] down as small you think it is," Johnson said. "You have a big window right now you can work in. Some of the old-timers could take that [COT] and really burn your ass with it."

Classic.

Condolences
Thoughts are with our NHRA brethren for the loss of Funny Car driver Eric Medlen. Medlen, one of the most popular drivers on the Funny Car circuit, died March 23 from severe head injuries suffered in a crash during testing in Gainesville, Fla. He was just 33 years old.

I didn't know Eric, but he was very close with a great friend of mine, Top Fuel star Brandon Bernstein. Bernstein, as happy and full of life as anyone I've ever known, is emotionally exhausted.

Thoughts and prayers to the Medlen family, to John Force Racing and the entire NHRA community.

Chop's Line of the Week
(Note: Pork Chop is maniacal about Jeff Burton, and was on hand at Bristol last weekend as his boy nearly took the checkers): "The last time I saw such class in an athlete was when Cal Ripken ran a victory lap after his 2,632-game streak came to an end. I cried in my seat at Bristol -- then chugged my beer."

On that note …

Hi Marty,

I've heard people downplaying Jeff Burton's display of good sportsmanship on Sunday -- in not bumping Kyle Busch out of the way for the win -- by saying that Burton was merely racing for points. Am I missing something, or do these naysayers not understand the nature of the new points system?

Since the points for the top 12 are reset to the same value with bonuses awarded for wins, then someone comfortably in the top 12 like Burton should be concerned about the number of wins he is racking up.

If Burton was really concerned about points on Sunday, he would have done what it took to win. After all, come race No. 27, 12th place is the same as first. It's the wins that make the difference.

-- Mark Danielson, Rochester, Minn.

Personally, Mark, I think it's much simpler than that. It's called respect. Burton summed it up simply after the race Sunday evening: his mama taught him to do unto others as he'd have done to him. The ol' Golden Rule. It's the word.

Here's another one:

Marty,

I want you to explain something to me: Explain to me the reaction of people after the Bristol race. I have seen TV shows, I've heard radio conversations, I've read online forums, and I can't understand people complaining about Jeff Burton NOT bump-n-running Kyle Busch.

On Dave Despain's show Sunday night, I even heard a caller say he is no longer a Jeff Burton fan because he didn't tap Busch. I understand not being a big Busch (Kurt or Kyle) fan and not wanting them to win, but what kind of stupid backwards logic is that?!

-- Dustin, Maineville, Ohio

That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, Dustin. Anybody can wreck somebody, but not everyone can be gracious.

Remember the 2002 All-Star race? Dale Earnhardt Jr. got underneath Ryan Newman on the final lap, got him squirrelly, easily could have dumped him in the fence. But Earnhardt lifted, let Newman slide. I remember Junior taking a bunch of heat from fans on that -- and that race paid no points at all.

Marty,

How long before Toyota dumps Michael Waltrip? They can't be happy. Mikey hasn't made a race yet, and Dale Jarrett needs the champion's provisional every week. What gives, and how long will Toyota tolerate this?

-- Jonathan Omaha, Savannah, Ga.

Toyota isn't happy, Jonathan, but they're no more concerned about Waltrip's No. 55 team than any other Toyota team according to Lee White from Toyota Racing Development.

White admits Michael Waltrip Racing has organizational issues to work through on its competition side. Toyota has taken over an office inside MWR in order to help. White stressed that Toyota is patient, he just hopes NAPA and Waltrip's other sponsors are patient.

Here, though, is an example of Toyota's commitment to Waltrip:

Toyota took the car Jarrett drove at Fontana and spent last weekend dismantling it piece by piece. It analyzed every piece, weighed every component. Once finished, Toyota shipped the car off to its High Point, N.C. shop, where it was put through a thorough chassis evaluation, measured and checked to ensure it's right.

Anything needing to be changed will be changed in a matter of days.

The car will then head back to Waltrip Racing and be rebodied in a fashion suggested by Toyota engineers. Then the suspension will undergo a thorough regimen on the seven-post rig and the K&C (kinetics and compliance) rig.

After that, Toyota has scheduled four test days -- with Waltrip as driver.

Toyota and its teams are committed to righting the ship.

Marty,

If you were old enough to shave, you would not be shocked at the fans' support for Benny Parsons.

-- Sweat Jr., Cumming, Ga.

I beg to differ. Father Time would have been humbled by the volume of responses.

Marty,

Can you tell me why NASCAR has moved the start times so late? Is it strictly for the West Coast viewers? I have to tell you, I watch all the NASCAR I can get on any channel I can get it. But, I hate that the races on Sunday don't start until 2/3/4 p.m.

My wife hates NASCAR enough as it is, and now it interferes with dinner and bedtime for our youngsters. I say that NASCAR gets a Black Flag for starting races so late and having them interfere with Sunday dinner with my family.

-- Tom, Barrie, Ontario

Fox race director Artie Kempner tells me it's all about the left coast, Tom. He said they've been trying to change that for years. And I'd bet Fox/ABC don't mind one iota, either, that the conclusions of those 3 and 4 p.m. start times butt right up against prime-time programming for East Coast viewers.

That's enough for this week. Please send more questions. Anything is game. This week was slim pickin's. Martinsville on deck. Pink sunsets and pink hot dogs. See you there.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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