Tech folks in higher demand than ever with COT

The cookie-cutter Car of Tomorrow is forever changing the face of NASCAR. But one thing won't change: High-tech demands mean job security for Nextel Cup car builders, writes Marty Smith in Door-To-Door.

Updated: June 28, 2007, 6:59 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

NASCAR's black-and-white, zero-tolerance stance on policing the Car of Tomorrow greatly concerned me this week. And it was only partially because of the shift in regulation philosophy.

It was more about the realization that NASCAR's trademark ingenuity was dying a slow death, and how that might affect jobs in the industry.

A bit dramatic, I know. Sort of Dr. Phil. But I'm serious. Fortunately, it seems, this specific concern is undue.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
Do you have a question for ESPN NASCAR analyst Marty Smith? Go to Smith's SportsNation page to submit your question or comment for Marty, and check back regularly for the column in which he will provide the answers.
Ask Marty
There are a lot of engineers and body hangers and fabricators who make a lot of money because, for years, they've found unique ways to gain advantages for their teams while staying within the template boundaries.

But given NASCAR's decision to harshly penalize the Nos. 24 and 48 teams for playing with areas of the body that ultimately fit the hard template but are outside the "gold template" rulebook, it seemed to me at least some of those folks would become obsolete on Jan. 1, 2008. If not sooner.

Why pay an experienced body hanger six figures when he's forced to affix the body to the chassis in a predetermined position? A ninth-grader could do that.

Or not.

To get a better understanding of the overall sentiment among Nextel Cup shop guys, I called my buddy Timmy Petchak at Evernham Motorsports. I've known Timmy for nearly 10 years, and he's one of the best body men in NASCAR.

When I asked him about becoming obsolete, he scoffed.

"These cars are actually harder to build," he said. "It's going to put the body hangers in an even better position. People that hang dry wall for a living won't be able to walk in and [get a job hanging bodies].

"It takes two hours to go from one end to the other to make sure [the body] hits all the [template] hard points. NASCAR isn't kidding with this car. You have to be right. That's job security."

Well, that pretty much shoots down my theory.

The COT, Petchak said, is measured to thousandths-of-an-inch tolerances all over. To register such small tolerances, teams built special measuring devices. The creative skill is now focused on tooling devices, jigs, to ensure that the body is placed perfectly on the car. And I mean perfectly.

"It's amazing," Petchak said. "Making those hard points touch -- and they don't mean the thickness of a sheet of paper [tolerance], they mean touch.

"It's production versus performance, really. You have to be equally as skilled, if not more. You measure now with dial indicators and you're going within a 10th of a degree. Three places [measure] within a 10th of a degree. People can't just walk in off the street and just put a COT on the track."

Well, what about performance?

For years, NASCAR has taken offense at being compared to IROC racing, in which elite drivers are placed in equally prepared cars and sent out onto the track in a "May the best man win" dash.

Can't say I blame NASCAR there. Because the fact is that comparison didn't apply. Cars might have looked similar and been aerodynamically sensitive to a degree that passing was rendered extremely difficult. But those "spoiler" cars are actually very different. The chassis are twisted and the bodies bowed and the springs bound and the air pressures lowered and the shocks doctored.

Not anymore. It stands to reason that NASCAR's "Don't test us" stance with the COT will deter finagling. Teams will show up with cars built precisely to NASCAR's specs for fear of serious repercussion. (I'll bet the farm many crew chiefs were thrashing on their Loudon cars Monday, ensuring they met code.)

They'll all be pretty much the same.

There will be horsepower discrepancies here and there, but it's pretty much up to the drivers and pit crews to decide who wins -- much more so than before, when work done at the shop could mean the difference.

That's how NASCAR wants it. The powers that be also don't think it should take so many people and so much money to go racing. They want to maintain a free enterprise platform conducive to new ownership.

To NASCAR's credit, the COT races have gone well. They've been entertaining. And that's the point of all this, after all.

I just hope it doesn't come at the expense of the ingenuity that long defined the sport.

Marty,

I love Jamie McMurray. I'm his biggest fan. It's been a long time since he won and he was so close at Sonoma. It broke my heart when he ran out of gas. With all that technology they have, how does that happen? I've watched Speedvision and ESPN, and checked the Internet and no one talked to him.

How can you let that happen? How can you let such a huge story go home without talking to him? I really want to know what happened and how he's feeling. Can you please try to ask him for Door to Door this week?

-- Jamie Small, St. Louis

Whoa. Sorry to disappoint you last weekend, Jamie. I'll try better next time …

In an attempt to make it up to you, I ran McMurray down on the phone this week. He was the typical cutup but still carried a bit of a chip on his shoulder from the weekend, which, of course, is fully understandable given how good his car was and the fact that he hasn't won in 165 consecutive starts. (He actually knew that stat off the top of his head. Ouch.)

He's over it, but sleep hasn't come easily. It won't leave his head. He told me he found some solace in stories from guys like Ray Evernham and Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, who shared their tales of late-race heartbreak. They're the only guys who truly understand how he feels.

He knew from the moment he left pit road with 42 laps remaining that he was short on fuel, and said he never pushed the throttle wide open. Even when he was racing Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick for position, he said he never went past 75 percent throttle.

Then, some five laps before Juan Pablo Montoya's winning pass, McMurray saw Montoya coming and knew Montoya was driving much harder than he was.

"I wasn't even concerned with him because I thought he'd run out [of fuel]," McMurray said. "I knew how close we were, and [felt like] he'll never make it driving as hard as he is. Part of the reason he got to the outside of me and passed me is because it's hard to try to drive 75 percent.

"As I rolled up the hill from Turn 1 to Turn 2, I kept telling myself, 'You need to roll faster than that.' Because I was letting off so early, I wasn't carrying any speed. I was paying attention and trying not to let anyone get a run at me, but I saw him coming and I honestly didn't even worry about him -- I thought there's no way he'll make it, as hard as he was pushing his car."

Just one caution. That's all he needed.

McMurray explained the math used to gauge fuel mileage as a 2-1 caution-to-green ratio. So essentially every lap under green uses the same amount of fuel as two laps under caution. Throughout the race, McMurray was turning his car off in Turn 2 and coasting all the way around the course to Turn 11, when he'd refire the engine, drive to Turn 2 and shut it off again.

That ultimately made it difficult for crew chief Larry Carter to figure just how short they were on fuel because the entire final run was all green-flag racing.

All said, though, it's still a lot better than last year, when McMurray's team was the biggest disappointment in the sport.

"Yeah. Oh yeah, no doubt," McMurray said. "I saw Greg [Biffle] after the race at Michigan, and he had a top-two or -three car, and had an oil cooler break with 20 laps to go and finished like 35th or something.

"He was all pissed off, and I said, 'Greg, look at it this way -- it's better off to run really good and not finish well than to run like crap all day.' And he, of course, didn't see my side of that. He was like, 'Whatever.' It's certainly better than what we went through last year when we struggled every single week."

Marty,

Heard Robby Gordon's silly comment: "JPM didn't win the race, he just got lucky." Isn't a corollary to that statement, "The Monster Fusion was a great car, it just didn't have a driver who could get it to Victory Lane?"

-- Dwight Corrin, Wichita, Kan.

I presume Gordon's intent was to make known his opinion of having had the best race car Sunday. (McMurray agreed he and Gordon were the class of the field.) Fact is, he didn't win. He has every right to voice frustration -- getting beat by fuel-mileage strategy after setting the pace for most of the day must be maddening.

But to discount what Montoya did is ridiculous. He all but wrecked that thing twice in the hairpin during the stretch run, overdrove it so hard he was forced to lock it down, regroup and try again. Granted, McMurray's aggression was greatly limited in the name of fuel conservation, and that might have saved Montoya.

Side note: At this point, it is unquantifiable what Montoya's victory will mean culturally for NASCAR. It is absolutely huge.

So, MartDawg …

With Denny's win Saturday night, is this the first time a driver has gotten his first win without crossing the finish himself?

-- Mary Beth Harrell, Emporia, Va.

Negative. It has happened many times before, Mary Beth.

According to historian Buz McKim of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it occurred several times at Bristol Motor Speedway (then Bristol International Speedway) in the 1960s and '70s. The last time it happened in the Cup series was Aug. 7, 1977, at Talladega Superspeedway, when Darrell Waltrip, who retired from the race at Lap 106 after the engine failed on his No. 88 Chevy, subbed for an ailing Donnie Allison in the No. 1 Hawaiian Tropic Oldsmobile.

Waltrip won the race, but Allison was credited with the win because he started the event.

Ironically, if Waltrip were credited with that victory, he'd stand in sole possession of third on the all-time Cup series victory list. But as it stands, he is tied with Donnie's brother Bobby at 84 wins.

The only other time it has happened in the Busch Series came in 1985, when Harry Gant substituted for Jack Ingram and won. It has never happened in the Craftsman Truck Series.

(Shout-out to the folks at www.racing-reference.info. If you've never checked out that site, take a moment to do so. It's unreal -- every statistical tidbit of NASCAR information imaginable.)

Marty,

I know you were in Sonoma since I saw you on ESPN from the track. But on NASCAR Now Monday it looked like you were back in Charlotte. That's a lot of travel. Do you have a private plane?

-- Jaynie, Dallas, N.C.

Uhhh. No. It's called the US Airways red-eye, Jaynie. It's not the most comfortable transit, and given the fact that it's packed to the gills with NASCAR folks who've been industry staples since Awesome Bill was champion, scoring an upgrade to first class is a pipe dream. But at least I got to see my son Monday morning.

And … I didn't have to drive across the country.

Get this craziness: I'm sitting at an infield picnic table Saturday afternoon during Happy Hour practice at Sonoma, munching on a chicken/avocado wrap, when my ol' buddy Barry Collins sits down to shoot the breeze. Barry's been a NASCAR official since I started nine years ago. He was one of the first people I met in the sport. He's a truck driver, hauls the radio trailer around all over creation.

By the time we get to Daytona for the Pepsi 400, Barry and his fellow trucker buddies will have spent just two days at home since Dover, and driven some 10,000 miles.

They left Dover and went straight to Pocono. From Pocono, they went home for a day, then on to Michigan. They left Michigan on Sunday night after the race and headed straight to Sonoma. A breakdown in Salt Lake City (during a Rotary convention, no less, so there were no available hotel rooms) meant two restless nights in a cramped truck compartment.

They arrived at Sonoma at 4:30 a.m. Thursday, left Sunday night after the race and went straight to Loudon, N.H., for this weekend's affair. That's a 56-hour drive. They'll leave Loudon on Sunday night, drive to Hickory, N.C., unload/reload and head straight to Daytona Beach.

"You have to love this to do it," Collins told me. "And if that ain't love, I don't know what is."

I question their sanity, personally.

Hey Marty,

I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about car "stuff." When I hear talk about a round-in, or a round-out, track bar up, track bar down, spring rubber, camber, broken valve spring, etc., I know what's happening and how it's going to affect the car without needing the "Larry Mac" explanation.

However, I must say I'm struggling a little bit with this coil-binding stuff. Obviously, it must have to do with the front springs/shocks, and over the last two or three years, it's sort of become the black magic to get these cars around the racetrack.

But I've never heard a good explanation as to what coil binding is. Can you help me out?

-- Brady Smith, Laurel, Md.

I have your back, Brady. I went to Chad Knaus to get the layman's explanation for you, and it seems I'll forever be ridiculed as a result. He finds it quite humorous that I can't explain it myself. If it were my answer, I'd term it a spring-travel limiter. That would make no sense to you.

Hence, I summoned the expert. Here's what he told me …

Knaus explained that coil bind is when a spring has traveled so far that the space between the coils has completely collapsed, and the coils are resting on top of each other. Hence "binding," and the spring cannot travel any further.

"In a race car, when this happens, it limits the travel of the car around the racetrack, giving it a much more consistent aerodynamic platform," Knaus said.

Makes sense to me.

That's it for this week. Time to make some turkey meatballs. Don't ask.

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