Ingram's Flat Spot On: Car of Tomorrow

Flat Spot On Commentary by Jonathan Ingram Car of Tomorrow Somewhere on the roads of North Carolina Gary Nelson must be smiling behind a dark helmet visor while riding his Kawasaki Ninja. Nobody's talking about Nelson's mechanical baby known...

Flat Spot On
Commentary by Jonathan Ingram

Car of Tomorrow

Somewhere on the roads of North Carolina Gary Nelson must be smiling behind a dark helmet visor while riding his Kawasaki Ninja. Nobody's talking about Nelson's mechanical baby known as the Car of Tomorrow, the biggest technical undertaking in NASCAR history, and that suits him just fine. Except for those sideways slides that are so often caught by the drivers, nobody's talking about a rear wing. Instead it's all about whether Michigan winner Carl Edwards can beat Kyle Busch in the Chase for the Championship?

Nelson could be forgiven for thinking of himself as one of those mysterious superheroes while tooling down the Carolina by-ways on his favorite form of transportation, because his project is succeeding just as NASCAR needs the rejuvenation to fight the economy as well as the eternal struggle to become a mainstream American sport. The goal was to put the drivers back into the equation and significantly reduce the threat to life and limb in the event of a crash. In these regards, Nelson's COT is passing most tests, especially last weekend at Michigan.

It seems only yesterday that the Lowe's Motor Speedway hosted a special test for a suspect COT in the hunt for green October (as in closer racing, clicking turnstiles, slap-happy sponsors, rising TV ratings, etc.) And it was just last month that the tire semi-debacle at the Brickyard fell across the bow of the ungainly looking COT.

Now a consultant, Nelson himself was worried back in May when I visited him while taking a break from the special test days for the COT at the nearby Lowe's track. He was worried that teams would decline to put the genie back in the bottle and continue to rely on aerodynamics in the corners on the intermediate superspeedways. In recent years before the COT, that has created some really boring races.

Nelson had hoped that teams would find a way to use both the mechanical grip from the suspension and aerodynamics of his design in place of running the cars flat to the ground in the corners on the intermediate tracks. "If they keep running the new cars just like they used to run the old ones, there may need to be some changes," said Nelson, who observes the COT's progress from one step removed these days in his modest offices at a small industrial park just down the road from the NASCAR Research and Development Center.

By anybody's observation, the radical COT with its front splitter and rear wing has been a hit on the short tracks, flat tracks and longer superspeedways, everywhere but the intermediate tracks.

Nelson first heard of the idea of changing aerodynamic devices in place of the traditional airdam at the front and the spoiler at the back from Cal Wells, a former IndyCar team owner. Wells pointed out that an entire season could be run with one chassis, or tub as the open-wheelers say, by changing the aerodynamic devices on the front and rear to suit the different track configurations.

Both Wells and Nelson were familiar with the problem in NASCAR presented by the old traditional cars. To win races, teams needed a different car for each track based on vertical loads and aerodynamics, a very expensive proposition that was also killing fan interest. Teams were tweaking the height of the frame rails to get a single millimeter of clearance while the chassis was compressed into the banking to get the most out of the aerodynamic effect.

The jury is still out whether the COT will be much better at the intermediate tracks, because there was a surprise ending at Lowe's when Tony Stewart got caught on tire strategy, which masked a runaway race. The only other intermediate race since then was in Chicago, where there was a fair amount of back-and-forth before Busch emerged triumphant. Will a single driver hit it right on the intermediate tracks and run away to boring finishes come this fall?

Michigan's low-grip 2.0-mile track along with the large oval in California are not considered intermediates. But this past weekend's race confirmed the COT generates a lot of side-by-side action (which is part of Michigan's long heritage) as well as an unusually large number of spectacular saves from what the Brits used to declare lurid slides.

This latter development, including Edwards' spectacular save when closing on Patrick Carpentier on Sunday among many others, is now part of the heritage of the COT. Busch has practically built a fan base from his saves at Talladega in the spring and at Daytona in July. There's a reason why these incredible recoveries -- as dependent on talent and raw nerve as they may be -- are happening these days.

To achieve this self-correcting aspect of the COT, Nelson relied on his experience in the early 1990's during the creation of the roof flaps, which deploy during spins to generate enough dirty air to keep cars from lifting off into places like the grandstands. "We found that when a car got sideways before the roof flaps opened there was more pressure at the front of the car ahead of the center of gravity trying to make it want to spin more," said Nelson.

The COT was an opportunity to reverse this process. In effect, Nelson changed the center of aerodynamic pressure toward the rear of the car by making the back longer (hence it's ungainly aspect). The wing that sits on the far back edge of that limousine-sized trunk carries endplates that generate sideforce. Instead of wanting to spin more when at yaw -- or out of shape -- the COT has a tendency to correct via the wind.

The prospect of brilliant, hungry young drivers behind the wheel willing to test the limits of a car with more sideforce and less downforce has brought us to the aforementioned discussion of Edwards versus Busch. They have been sideways more than anybody else in the field this year, especially in comparison to some of their, pardon the expression, seniors.

This wide-open driving style may well carry these two through the five races during the 10-race Chase conducted on the intermediate tracks better than anybody else. If there are drivers who run away and hide during the races in Kansas, Charlotte, Atlanta, Texas and Homestead this fall, Edwards and Busch are considered most likely to disappear into the distance.

Personally, I like the brassy kid from Missouri, because I always pull for the underdog. He's got a smile bigger than a horse eating briars, the gift of gab and the cold cunning of a warrior. And, according to all the blogs, after winning at Michigan he's got momentum, which is another way of saying Busch has company.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.

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About this article
Series General , NASCAR Sprint Cup
Drivers Tony Stewart , Patrick Carpentier , Carl Edwards , Kyle Busch