Commentary

Changes to car won't be coming soon

Updated: November 14, 2009, 2:45 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Please don't kill the messenger here. Try to keep the e-mail civil.

I went and asked NASCAR on your behalf, and now I'm conveying the answers.

Bottom line up front: There'll be no relief on "the car" for you the fans, the drivers, the crew chiefs, or anyone else who despises the thing. It's here to stay, just as it sits, for 2010 and beyond.

Now I can't say that's bad news to 100 percent of you. Since the car's introduction in 2007, my e-mail has run, at various times, at only 94 to 99.5 percent disgust, outrage and ridicule of the vehicle introduced as the Car of Tomorrow, then called the Car of Today, and currently considered by many of you the Contraption of Turmoil.

So some of you are happy. The rest will just have to take it or leave it. Reminds me of a T-shirt I saw once on the streets of Atlanta: "If you can't change conditions, adjust your attitude."

During a sit-down interview with Sprint Cup director John Darby the other day, I asked for NASCAR's responses to specific suggestions I'd heard recently from someone who has thorough knowledge of race cars, from driving them to building them, every nut and bolt.

That person spoke on the condition that "Hinton, I'll kick your a--" if I betrayed his anonymity.

"Get rid of the bump stops and put springs on 'em again," the guy said. "Get rid of the spoilers and put air dams on 'em again. Get rid of the wings and put spoilers on 'em again.

"And you'll have a pretty damn good race car."

As you can see, the guy isn't anti-COT. He just sees adjustments that would ease the frustration of the drivers and crew chiefs, and give veteran drivers back the feel in the car they need to win.

It also offers NASCAR an out from what many perceive as a corner it has painted itself into with the COT. Each of these suggestions I'd heard before from veteran, savvy racers. This guy just happened to list them all together.

OK, so then I listed these suggestions to Darby and asked if there's any possibility any one, or two, or three of them could be implemented anytime soon.

"Probably not," he said. "What we know is that the racing today is better than it's been in 61 years of our previous history. So why screw up the racing when it's so much better today than it has been?"

I'll let that comment sit with you the fans for a minute.

I had a pretty good idea what you would think of it, but I didn't argue the point because I knew where Darby was coming from. NASCAR measures competition with "Loop Data" from its scoring sensors and computers.

By that measure, take the race you the fans howled about the most lately (crying "BO-ring!"), Talladega on Nov. 1.

Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of corporate communications, wrote in his blog that Loop Data showed 13,348 passes during that race.

If there is a typo in that number, it is Poston's. I have double and triple checked it: 13,348 passes. Now let me write it out as you'd write out a check, just to make sure the number is clear: Thirteen thousand, three hundred and forty-eight passes.

Considering the time of the race, 3 hours, 13 minutes, 54 seconds, that's more than one pass per second.

[+] EnlargeJamie McMurray
AP Photo/Dave MartinNASCAR Loop Data showed there were 13,348 passes at Talladega, which is impressive for a race that was single-file for many laps.

A lot of you (and I) must have missed a whole lot of what the computers saw.

Unfortunately for NASCAR, computers don't buy tickets, driver merchandise or products advertised on NASCAR telecasts.

You do.

And in today's world, as NASCAR president Mike Helton himself once said to me, "Perception is reality."

Now, on to Darby's answers about the three proposed quick-fix areas of the car:

"A splitter and a valance [air dam] are the same thing -- they do the exact same thing," Darby said.

I said the valance didn't seem to create nearly the headaches for the teams as far as being damaged or broken off.

"I won't say that," Darby said. "If you look at where the teams were in the last year of the old car [2007, during the transition], it [the air dam] was worse.

"The splitter is more of a carefree item now. Where with the valance, if they hit a little piece of anything on the track that would just dent it a little bit, it was an emergency to get to pit road and fix it.

"Now the splitter is much more durable. We don't have those problems anymore."

Next, "a spoiler and a wing do the exact same thing," Darby said. "A spoiler puts downforce on the rear of the car; so does a wing. The advantages of a wing are, for example, you can control air over more than one surface. So you can use the wing not only to control downforce, but you can also generate a pretty good bit of side force for it -- the side forces when you spin out."

I told him I'd had inquiries from fans as to whether a spoiler as opposed to a wing might have mitigated Ryan Newman's airborne crash at Talladega.

"The new car has a better [higher] liftoff speed than the old car," Darby said. "The wing reacts better than a spoiler."

In wind-tunnel testing over the past four years, "We've blown more air over this car backwards than we have frontwards," Darby said. "When you blow the air over frontwards, it's just about how it drives. We've obviously got a much bigger concern over what it does when it's backwards."

Bringing back coil springs and getting rid of bump stops -- sophisticated and very expensive extensions of shock absorbers -- is probably the most widely suggested change I hear.

"These cars haven't been on springs since the '70s -- you know what I mean?" Darby said.

I didn't at first. You could have fooled me, all these years between the 1970s and 2007, with all those crewmen changing all those big steel coil springs all the time in the garage stalls, trying to get the proper balance and get the cars to turn.

"Well, they had springs in them," Darby said, "but [when] they're smashed flat and coil-bound, they're not springs anymore."

Coil-bound was indeed a term I heard from drivers, mainly about cornering, where the coil spring had so much weight on it that it would compress upon itself so that it would lock shut and have no more "give" or "travel" in it.

"So the bump stop is a softer way to settle the car than being steel-to-steel on a coil-bound spring," Darby said.

[+] EnlargeRyan Newman
AP Photo/Mark YoungDrivers are concerned the car gets airborne when it goes backwards at speed.

The new Nationwide car, to debut in four races next season, will have springs instead of bump stops -- largely because the transition will be expensive enough as it is for Nationwide team owners, who don't have nearly the budgets Cup owners work with.

"But in one [Nationwide] test last week at Talladega," Darby said, "everybody's already locked down on coil-bound springs. So at the end of the day there isn't a difference."

If, scientifically, there is no difference between springs and bump stops, wings and spoilers, valances and splitters, might all the discontent of drivers, fans and crew chiefs be -- well -- psychological?

"Oh, yeah! Sure. Sure," Darby said. "Anytime you call something by a new name, you've got to think about what it really does."

So there it is. And as has been said so many hundred times by drivers and crew chiefs, "It is what it is."

And perception is what it is, in Helton's own lexicon: reality.

If Jeff Gordon perceives that he just can't get the feel for entering a corner on bump stops that he got on springs, that is reality.

If Chad Knaus perceives that he is handcuffed from adjusting Jimmie Johnson's car in ways he wants to, that is reality.

If the fans perceive that the racing is boring and the car is to blame, that is reality.

And the thousands upon thousands of empty seats I saw last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway -- the biggest pleasure palace with the most creature comforts in all of NASCAR, in one of the biggest markets, staged by master promoter Eddie Gossage -- those empty seats were very real indeed.

Not even Loop Data can argue otherwise.

And so if NASCAR will not change reality, it had best get to work on perceptions. The task is monumental.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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