NASCAR is taking a step back in time with the introduction of the new Car of Tomorrow race car in an effort to improve safety for the drivers, regain tighter control of the inspection process and to reduce operating costs for the teams and the sanctioning body itself.
It has taken NASCAR more than five years of research and development to create the COT in their effort to make racing more safe after a rash of driver deaths. Over the years, the teams had been steadily increasing the stiffness of their car's chassis to reduce flexing of the frame as the cars were driven into the corners and experienced heavy "G-loads." If the frame flexed then the various settings -- front end geometry, spring and shock travel and bump steer, etc. -- would change and thus impact the car's handling characteristics. Unfortunately their efforts to improve the car's handling and performance unknowingly placed the drivers at greater risk of death or injury because the G-loads were being transferred directly to the drivers via the stiff frames versus being absorbed by a more flexible and collapsible frame.
For many years now the open-wheel cars have been designed to crush incrementally in a crash so the driver does not experience the same G-force impact as the outer part of the car does when it hits another object. Stock cars were thought to be safer because there was more frame and car body around the drivers but if that extra steel does not collapse in a controlled manner then the driver is exposed to greater harm. That realization has led NASCAR to expend tens of millions of dollars to develop the COT to make the driver more safe in a crash.
NASCAR has also spent many millions of dollars and compelled the tracks to spend millions more to install "SAFER barriers" that would flex and absorb some of the impact from the heavier stock cars. So the COT is the symbol of NASCAR's surge to safety over the past few years. Because they were redesigning the cars to be safer, it seemed like a good idea to also make them more economical to build and race, which would be a simple method for them to recapture control of the technology craze that has driven racing costs through the roof of late. Their other hope is that the COT will improve the level of competition and allow the smaller single-car teams to get back in the game before they go broke.
The rule book for the COT is much more black and white than previous rule books that allowed varying shades of gray. NASCAR has dramatically shrunk the former gray areas in chassis construction and body configurations. The tolerances are very limiting in what teams can do to gain any advantage either in chassis setup packages or in aerodynamic packages.
Teams used to spend thousands of man hours and untold millions of dollars tweaking the car bodies to gain an aerodynamic advantage. NASCAR's old template system was composed of many different individual templates that could be manipulated to allow warping or twisting of the individual body panels for an aerodynamic advantage while still conforming to the template requirements. That is why many of the cars look like they are being reflected in one of those old circus fun house mirrors that distorted your image when you stood in front of it as a kid. Now, just like your days as a kid at the circus are over, distorting the body panels and still fitting the templates is over for the Nextel Cup teams.
Meet "The Claw"! NASCAR's new COT template machine that does not allow for any variances in the body configuration. None, Nada, Zilch, Zip Zero. She either fits or she doesn't. If she doesn't then you are probably looking at a $100,000 fine and a multi-race suspension. That's what Hendrick crew chiefs Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte experienced after trying to stretch the envelope on the COT earlier this year. Can we now say NASCAR is serious about reducing the spiraling costs to compete and regaining control of the inspection process? I'm betting that Knaus and Letarte could be put down as affirmatives on that one. My guess is the next crew chief who is caught with his hand in the cookie jar is going to face even tougher penalties and a longer vacation.
So how did they make the COT safer? Well, they made it two inches taller and four inches wider plus they moved the driver's seat more in-board by four inches to provide more crush space. They added foam to the side rails to help absorb some of the shock of impact. They added a second side rail on top of the original one to the left side to put more steel between the driver and a left side impact. Too bad they didn't do that on the right side where the fuel line runs from the fuel cell to the engine. You could get another 1,500 feet of fuel line in that second rail and never have to stop for fuel again! Oh yeah, I forgot, they are trying to make it more safe. Scratch the added fuel line idea.
The side windows are now bigger for a quicker escape by the driver and for easier access by the safety crews in an emergency.
The windshield is more vertical than before so it is more akin to the stock version. How's that a safety gain? In case of a rollover the car's roof is not as likely to collapse with more vertical supports.
The fuel cell is now made of a thicker material, is smaller and no longer has a ball style check valve that could possibly leak during a wreck or a rollover.
The frame or chassis construction is now much more tightly regulated (measured to the thousands of an inch) to make sure that the cars will perform better when they are wrecked. The tubing type and thickness is also much more tightly regulated for the same reason. There will be sensors built into the chassis and body to detect any attempts to cheat. Excuse me, "to become more competitive."
All in all there has been a dramatic technology shift away from the teams and back into NASCAR's hands because they will regulate the new COT with extremely tight tolerances. So many things that the teams have been doing for the past several years are not going to be applicable to the COT. All that aerodynamic work they have spent millions of dollars on is now worthless because it will not apply to the COT. It is a different body style and cannot be manipulated anyway. All of the extensive testing and development of front-end geometry packages along with the related shock technology development goes out the window as well because the pick-up points for the upper and lower A-frame and control arm mountings are now dictated more tightly by NASCAR.
As I write this and read back over what I have just written, it seems I have to agree with Ron Hutcherson that NASCAR is pretty much taking most of the fun out of being a racer with the introduction of the COT. Hutcherson, who owns Hutcherson-Pagan Enterprises that is a major car builder and parts supplier to many of the teams, expressed that concern when he said, "We're racers and stretching the envelope is what we do!"
If they don't allow the teams some leeway in how they set up the cars then they are taking a major aspect of what it's all about out of the equation. We both agree that NASCAR is probably erring on the side of caution with their strict interpretation of the rules knowing that it is impossible to get the genie back in the bottle once it is released. Just look at the current car to validate that statement. They can ease up on the rules gradually once they determine how well the COT is going to perform and what might be needed to improve competition and therefore the entertainment value of the racing.
One thing is for sure. It now takes much longer for the teams to get through inspection at the tracks when they race the COT because of the tighter inspection process. So if they fail, then they run the risk of not being able to qualify for that particular event. While that might not be a problem for a team in the top 35 in points making the show, it could be a disaster for a team outside the top 35.
I know a lot of crew chiefs in the Nextel Cup garage are nervous whenever the COT is being raced because it is now a pass or fail situation where they had some leeway in the past. At present very few adjustments can be made to the COT by the teams. They have some limited ability to adjust the rear wing or the splitter on the front and some very limited adjustments to the front end geometry but other than that it is pretty much a cookie cutter program. However the tolerances for building the cars are so restrictive that the teams are extremely apprehensive and nervous when they show up at the track with a new car until it passes that first inspection.
The racers are all wringing their collective hands and hyperventilating because the hammer is hanging over their heads. There is a lot of gloom and doom being expressed over the future because we always fear the unknown. History is limited on how NASCAR will operate with the COT. However, NASCAR is not going to mess up a good thing and will do whatever it feels is necessary to keep the teams in check but also put on a good show for the fans. In the long haul it has to be better for the sport for NASCAR to regain control of the inspection process and level the playing field.
In fact, the COT actually already has some positives over the present car. Drivers can bump draft more easily because the bumpers on the COT match up much better and therefore will not lift the lead car off the ground when the trailing car bumps it in the rear. The COT does not relate nearly as well to the current Busch cars so there will be less advantage for the Nextel Cup regulars to invade the Busch ranks to gain more knowledge about a track on a particular race weekend. There may still be some value for the Nextel Cup drivers to race in the Busch series if the tires are the same for both divisions but I believe it will help level the Busch series playing field as well.
Have you ever seen a steel envelope? They don't stretch very much.
Bill Borden is a former championship winning crew chief who operated David Pearson's Racing School for many years.