NASCAR's new car: Does it meet the criteria

NASCAR's new car: Does it meet the criteria

One year after its introduction, NASCAR's homogenous "Car of Tomorrow" has sifted out as the almost inevitable clash between design theory and harsh, practical reality. Budweiser Dodge. Photo by Eric Gilbert. While NASCAR has set...

One year after its introduction, NASCAR's homogenous "Car of Tomorrow" has sifted out as the almost inevitable clash between design theory and harsh, practical reality.

Budweiser Dodge.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

While NASCAR has set aside the "Car of Tomorrow" moniker, the sanctioning body remains anchored to the original three design tenets: driver safety, cost containment and quality competition. Most people in the NASCAR garage area agree that driver safety has been improved, and everyone agrees that cost containment is delusional, at best. Opinions vary about closer competition, and it may take some time for an accurate picture to emerge.

Driver Safety

Driver safety will always remain a priority item with both NASCAR and the teams. While approaches and opinions may vary, the importance of driver safety is not an item for debate. In the new Sprint Cup car, increased driver safety is accomplished with a mandate for a larger driver compartment which incorporates a number of safety advantages.

First, and most obvious, taller drivers aren't folded, creased and crammed into a space more suited for a jockey. Junior Johnson once pointed out that Bill Elliot's fairy tale year of domination on speedways and super-speedways was accomplished with a car that simply was smaller than the competition, and Junior took exception to the dimensional handicap of his own Chevrolets. Other manufacturers soon followed suit with similarly smaller cars and one inevitable result was a smaller driver's compartment. Compounding the problem, the current safety seats are much larger and, coupled with the HANS device attached to the driver's helmet, can impede the driver's ability to quickly exit the car during a fire.

In NASCAR's new car the driver's position in the larger compartment is mounted slightly closer to the centerline of the car. This seating position, coupled with the mandated energy-absorbing material in the car's side panel, offers greater protection in driver-side impacts. During a crash, the new car's bigger compartment provides a larger crumple zone and safety "cocoon" for the driver. Further, the larger compartment includes a larger window opening to allow quicker and easier exit from the car following a crash.

So, everyone seems to agree with the safety elements of the new car.

Cost Containment

On the subject of cost containment, no one outside the sanctioning body agrees that the new car reduces the cost of running a Sprint Cup program.

Red Bull Toyota at tech inspection.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

The design was intended to reduce costs through standardization of bodies, roll cages and aerodynamic appurtenances, coupled with the absolute prohibition of the subtle, sophisticated and expensive aero development that has ratcheted up in recent seasons.

The theory was that all cars would have exactly the same body, roll cage and aero devices (front splitter and the rear wing) and the teams wouldn't be allowed to alter those at all. The intended result was teams would spend less on R&D, simply because there wasn't as much on the new cars that could be tweaked.

In reality, cost containment hasn't been realized, and probably never will be.

First, the teams had to spend tens of millions of dollars building new fleets of cars. And the previous cars have very little resale value, since they can't even be used as show cars. So the up-front transitional costs have been enormous.

Further, the operational costs haven't decreased at all. Every race team has the same, or larger, engineering staff. Every team continues to spend as much time as possible in wind tunnels, on seven-post shaker rigs, and on K&C (kinematics and compliance) machines. And every team tests as much as possible at non-Cup tracks like Kentucky, Milwaukee and Nashville. The larger operations have established "test teams" to run real-world evaluations of the computer simulation programs -- which are more important than ever.

Todd Bowland, an engineer at Joe Gibbs Racing, said engineering costs probably are more exaggerated than ever. "If you look in the garage, all the teams have more engineers than before."

Jeff Gordon explained it pretty clearly: "The engineering that the teams come up with is more important than it's ever been before. On our seven-post rig that we have at our shop, which a lot of teams have now, or in the wind tunnel, or in computer simulation, or during testing....if we can find something that allows us to get an edge, then that's going to be huge because the cars are so close."

NASCAR official at tech inspection.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

Crew chief Bootie Barker confirmed that by saying the "tighter box" -- the more restrictive regulations of the new car -- requires teams to spend more money looking for smaller advantages. Without question, those smaller advantages are found in the wind tunnel, during computer simulation work, and on test equipment like the seven-post rig.

Explaining engineering and development costs of the new car, Jack Roush summed it up most succinctly by saying "use of simulation equipment will remain constant." He further explained "the kinematics of front and rear suspension, the grip of the tire, all will be defined more by engineering and analysis, and less by driver input." Roush's choice of terminology is illustrative, and definitive. "More engineering and analysis" translates into more engineers, more simulation, and more time on test rigs.

And all those things are expensive.

In the early stages of CoT development, some years ago, initial thoughts were that strict enforcement of the standardized bodies would curtail wind tunnel use. NASCAR intended there would be no room for interpretive or creative approaches to the new car's body-work. And, following stiff penalties last year at Sonoma for the #24 and #48 Hendrick teams, there remain no uncertainties about NASCAR's intent to strictly control the aero properties of this generation car.

Interestingly, opinions in the garage vary on the subject of wind tunnel testing. While everyone agrees that 2008 will see no reduction in wind tunnel time, some think it might be less requisite in the future if the body regulations remain constant.

Roush explained that teams are still learning to build new cars, and they're using wind tunnels to compare individual cars for differences. And, if they find subtle differences, they test to learn if those differences translate to the track. Asked about diminished wind tunnel use in the future, Roush replied: "possibly."

Pemberton was more convinced: "Right now it's used as much as ever. But six months to a year from now, it will be less. There's a point of diminishing returns."

Lowe's Chevy and Dupont Chevy garage area.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.

But one engineer said there would be no decrease in wind tunnel use, citing the ever-greater emphasis on ever-smaller details of performance. Pressed for an explanation, he simply smiled and declined to elaborate.

Bootie Barker laughed and said "to run well you spend tons of money all the time on everything." He briefly discussed Haas' new wind tunnel, large enough to accommodate two cars on a rolling surface. Barker expects the new tunnel to be plenty busy.

NASCAR officials have suggested the new car would reduce costs by allowing teams to build fewer cars, since the bodies and cages are standardized for all tracks. And most teams acknowledge they may build slightly fewer cars, perhaps 14-16, instead of the 18-20 they built for the previous regulations. But the costs of the new cars might actually be higher.

The new cars must be built to tighter, more exacting, tolerances. And, as an owner of one of the smaller teams explained, "after any race, even if you don't bang it up, it takes a lot of work to get it back to the tolerances they (NASCAR) want." That critical, exacting work requires additional hours in the shop after every event, further increasing the costs associated with each car.

Finally, each new car must be "certified" at NASCAR's R&D center near Charlotte, and must be re-certified if it incurs significant crash damage. This is an additional cost, as teams must pay for each certification test.

Quality of Competition

Among the original three design intents, improved competition remains the most elusive, and least definitive. It's perhaps too harsh an evaluation, but it may be appropriate to cite the old maxim: "Figures lie, and liars figure."

Jack Roush was more diplomatic, simply saying "it remains to be seen" if the new car will improve the quality of competition.

Yes, as NASCAR proponents claim, at this point in the development cycle it appears the fields are closer in time, front to back. And it also appears the smaller teams aren't as far behind the curve as with the previous car.

Kyle Busch leads the field.
Photo by Action Sports Photography.

Based solely on the numbers, there's some merit to the argument that the new car has improved Sprint Cup competition. NASCAR officials point out that, since the new car's introduction a year ago, more races have been decided by less than a second, there have been more green-flag passes for the lead, and more drivers are leading the races. Statistically, those comments are inarguable.

But it's also true the new car remains extremely aero dependent.

That reliance on aerodynamic downforce, which compromised passing and close racing, was one of the challenges of the previous car. And it has carried over to the new car, albeit to a lesser degree.

It's still common for drivers to comment about the difficulty of passing, because closing on a car ahead of them robs their car of the downforce required to complete the pass. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon has commented on the issue, and it's tough to dispute the evaluations of someone with his track record.

Radio traffic between drivers and crew chiefs also confirms the ongoing problem of aero dependency. During caution periods, they sometimes debate the conflicting advantages of fresh tires and track position. Pitting for tires may sacrifice a driver's position at the front of the field, and track position is sometimes deemed more important than fresh rubber. Those same discussions were common with the previous car.

So the goal of closer competition remains an open debate.

Overall, garage area opinions of the CoT are mixed, and largely dependent on one's role in the sport. At this point, the current appraisal of the new car may fall in line with another old saying: "All things are both good and bad."

Or: "Time will tell."

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About this article
Series General , NASCAR Cup
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Junior Johnson , Jack Roush , Eric Gilbert , Bootie Barker , Kyle Busch
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing