Tomorrow's world

For better or worse, stock car racing’s unloved ‘spec car’ has arrived
By Gordon Kirby

Over the course of last season, NASCAR phased in a new standard ‘spec’ car, called, to amusement from some quarters, the ‘Car of Tomorrow’ (CoT). Its arrival probably represents the biggest single change in NASCAR’s long and successful history, yet the move to the larger, taller car has been criticised by everyone from drivers and teams to the fans and media.

Although the new car is a spec car, there’s no one manufacturer. Any team can build its own cars as long as they conform strictly to the specifications, and a giant universal template has been designed and built by NASCAR’s R&D division to check each car.

As soon as the first prototypes began testing many people started joking about the ‘Car of Yesterday’ and many have complained about the arrival of ‘spec’ cars in major-league motor racing. Most people seem to agree that the new car is less attractive than the tried-and-true NASCAR machine, and of course any visual differences between manufacturers have been essentially eliminated. Nor do many drivers like the feel of the new car, and it may not race as well as the old one because it creates only half the downforce. Last year’s experience suggests it’s even more difficult to pass with the new car than the old.

“It just doesn’t have the feel of the old car,” commented 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, lead driver for the four-car Roush-Fenway Ford team. “It doesn’t give you the same confidence and it doesn’t feel as secure, and that makes it tough to race and pass other cars. Maybe it’ll get better as we get it figured out.”

The new NASCAR Car of Tomorrow made its debut at the half-mile Bristol bullring last March and was mandatory for 16 of last season’s races, plus the two road circuits at Watkins Glen and Sonoma and the autumn race on the superspeedway at Talladega. For the 2008 season, the Car of Tomorrow will be used in all races, including the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on February 17.

NASCAR’s leaders – CEO Brian France, president Mike Helton and competition director Robin Pemberton – believe that the taller, wider, chunkier new car will substantially improve safety, reduce costs – at least for the smaller teams – and assist in achieving a level playing field.

“It’s been a big step,” admits Pemberton, part of the team based at NASCAR’s R&D centre in Concord, North Carolina. “It’s been a challenge at times, but a lot of the teams and drivers have been very open. A lot of very positive things have been said. Most of the time the things that get written are negative, but that’s just the nature of the beast.”

On its inception, the new car represented the first major technical change in NASCAR in 25 years, since the cars were shortened by five inches to a 110-inch wheelbase in 1981. At the time, Pemberton was working as a chief mechanic for Petty Enterprises and he recalls how the team decided which General Motors brand it would race to the new short-wheelbase specifications.

“Richard Petty, Dale Inman and Maurice Petty came wheeling in the parking lot, one driving a Buick, one driving a Pontiac and one driving an Oldsmobile,” Pemberton says. “They’d taken them straight off the floor from local dealerships and we took a good look at them to choose what car we were going to build for the following year.

“It was definitely different back then. There wasn’t anybody getting together to talk to Bill France or discuss anything. In those days a big meeting would have been a dozen people. This last year, we had meetings every week with 40 or 50 people.”

Certainly, you cannot fault NASCAR for not putting the time and effort required into the Car of Tomorrow project. “We started early in 2006 with weekly meetings and weekly conference calls,” Pemberton says. “There were probably 30 or 40 groups on the call every Tuesday. There was one call with all the teams and manufacturers and we followed up with another conference call with the manufacturers. We’ve been pretty proactive in involving everybody and shame on anybody if they had an opinion and didn’t share it with the group, or had a solution to a problem and didn’t share it.”

Dale Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 was the trigger for the creation of the new car. Following such a high-profile fatality, NASCAR became increasingly obsessed with safety. “The main thing that’s driven this has been the safety aspect,” Pemberton explains. “Everyone has to realise that without safe race cars we might not be racing at all. If you look back to how dangerous it was in the 1960s and ’70s, that would not be tolerated in today’s world.”

NASCAR decided to retain the basic existing elements of the suspension and steering geometry, engine, transmission and drivetrain. “We wanted to use those pieces that we’re used to working on for the last number of decades,” Pemberton says, “but move things around so we could get the room to integrate high energy-impact foam into the sides of the cockpit and fit modern carbon-fibre seats.”

The driver sits closer to the centre-line of the new car and the ‘greenhouse’ surrounding him is both taller and wider. “We wanted a safe environment for all sizes of drivers,” Pemberton explains. “Even though the suspension geometry is similar, we’ve gained space for the driver inside. The symmetrical left suspension means the leftside is wider by an inch. We’ve gained an inch with the suspension and the driver is moved over two inches.”

A more symmetrical car theoretically means there will less playing around with weight distribution. “It shouldn’t be too different across the new car,” Pemberton says. “With the old car, you had quite a bit of difference in weight distribution between the teams; now everybody is in the same boat.”

NASCAR has learned a lot about energy absorption in developing the car. Liberal use has been made of high-impact foam. “It’s probably one of the best things we’ve done,” Pemberton remarks. “In the old cars, the door bars were right out against the skin but they’re in from the skin on the new car, and that gives us room to insert the foam with its composite backstop.”

Pemberton believes the new design will reduce the number of cars the teams will have to build to suit different tracks. “When you look at the economics, it makes very good sense on the number of vehicles you need to build due to the sheer demands of the racing schedule,” he observes. “Going from coast to coast a few times as well as testing, building, maintaining and also repairing cars means that a dozen or more cars are needed.

“The opportunity to have fewer cars in your stable will be there more than ever,” he adds. “We suspect that it won’t have an effect on the larger teams, but we think it will allow teams to make aero adjustments with the splitter, the wing and the curved end plates on the wing.” Can they get the right aero balance for their particular driver without changing the body location and configuration as much?

“Today, fabricators, crew chiefs and aero guys do such a good job of having a car that fits a driver’s style. But one driver may not like the aero fingerprint that another driver likes.”

The new car is tuned aerodynamically by a large front splitter made from bullet-proof, nylon-fibre composite material rather than the traditional vertical air dam at the front, and there’s now a small wing at the back, rather than a spoiler. “The wing should help with the competition,” Pemberton says. “It should in theory produce less wake than the old spoiler. There should be more air on the nose of the car behind, which should help them race closer and maybe have more of an opportunity to pass.” The teams are also allowed to run different combinations of specified flat or curved rear wing endplates on the CoT to vary side force.

Meanwhile, the big teams – Hendrick, Childress, DEI, Roush, Gibbs, Evernham, Penske and Ganassi – will do everything in their power to challenge NASCAR’s theses. Many former F1, CART and IMSA engineers are enjoying life working in NASCAR these days and are among those being unleashed on the Car of Tomorrow. Rule changes in racing historically cost the teams money and usually result in the richer teams pulling away from the little guys, and many people say the same thing will happen with the new car, that the big, multi-car teams will spend massive amounts of money in testing, development, simulation and wind tunnel time, investigating every tiny detail. And, of course, all the teams, big and small, have had to spend many millions of dollars on building or buying fleets of new cars.

“To be honest, it wouldn’t be right if somebody wasn’t complaining,” remarks Pemberton. “There are teams that have a large advantage over the rest of our world in technology and chassis and handling. If we can close up the development room a little bit we can help some of the groups that only periodically hit the right combination, those guys that every half a dozen races might hit the top five.”

The logistics of the switch to the CoT appear to have gone much better than predicted. Pemberton says a healthy working relationship between the organisation and its teams and drivers is the key to this successful process. “There’s a mutual respect between the teams in the garage area and us,” Pemberton says. “A lot of times it gets played out in the media as something other than that, but for the most part there’s a mutual respect. They understand what we’re trying to do and we understand how they try to compete and get an advantage. Everybody voiced their opinions and had their little fixes.

“We’ve made some changes at the request of the teams,” he adds, “small things to help the cars in the building process. We’ve moved the tailpipes to a different location, for example, because it was hard to maintain them when they were running through the frame rails. We’ve redesigned the exhaust bracketry, changed a couple of sheet metal parts to make it easier to make the body panels.”

Pemberton says the Nextel Cup series’ top drivers have provided invaluable input into the development of the Car of Tomorrow. “You go to different racetracks and drivers say what they’re working on, what it’s doing, what they think is important,” Pemberton explains. “Whether it’s a Jeff Gordon or a Jimmie Johnson or a Matt Kenseth, or any of those competitors, they’ve all given us their input.

“Now that we have this good working relationship on this car, we take what they say and we go to work on it. We look at everything, but if it’s something that we think is valid and deserves a good look, we will do it.”

Pemberton is proud of how well the new car has worked in the face of predictions about shattered splitters littering the tracks and suggestions of other reliability problems. “A lot of people underestimated the work that all the people at the R&D centre did ahead of time,” he says. “We did a lot of homework and I think that was a surprise to some people. Our guys did a really good job and the competitors did a great job of taking it seriously when it was time. Everyone made a good go of it.”

He points to the inspection templates as another thing that required refining. He adds that the new car’s brakes have worked much better than critics predicted and says that the real difficulty in stopping the new car is adapting to its higher centre of gravity.

“There was a concern that the brakes were going to run hot, but they flow more air than ever,” Pemberton points out. “We’ve allowed the car to take in more air, even though it was an over-compensation, because with a higher CG [centre of gravity] the car is harder to stop and hard to make handle.

“It’s been a good learning process. People have been able to tune their cars quite differently with bits and pieces rather than the entire car being scrapped. That’s a good point with this car.”

The failure to manage changing technology and its effects has been a major reason for the demise of so many racing series from the original CanAm through IMSA’s GTP championship to the much-lamented CART Indy Car World Series. The same basic set of problems, allied with unrivalled arrogance and avariciousness, are prevalent in Formula 1 these days. But by its very nature, stock car racing did not encompass or encourage new technology, a key fact which always made NASCAR’s job much easier. The new car aside, incremental change has always been and will continue to be NASCAR’s mantra.

So everyone will be watching closely to see how NASCAR’s new Sprint Cup car fares on its 2008 debut at the 50th Daytona 500. That race and the season to follow will tell us if the CoT is going to be as successful as NASCAR’s previous Cup car of the past 27 years. The new car may be a big, ugly brick – the antithesis of the time-honoured concept of sleeker, faster, better – which rakes the souls of some people, but the fact is it’s here. Whether you’re a driver, crew chief, team owner, or fan, the time for complaining is over.

US success
Single-seater star Juan Montoya is NASCAR’s rookie of the year

Former F1 and CART superstar Juan Pablo Montoya’s move at the end of 2006 to Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR team was a first for the series, and his pair of wins to date have paid off for Ganassi and NASCAR as a whole. Other former open-wheel stars such as Jacques Villeneuve, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish and Patrick Carpentier have followed suit.

Montoya took last year’s Rookie of the Year award and couldn’t be happier with his move into the 900bhp, 3400-pound beasts.

“I’m having fun,” Juan says. “The races are awesome and the cars are a handful. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

“In open-wheel you get frustrated because you can’t pass people. Here, if you don’t you can try again and again, and you will pass. There are always different patterns and grooves, every week it’s a different track and a different set-up.”

Juan admits there are politics in NASCAR, but nothing like F1: “There are some politics, but I think it’s a well-balanced environment.

“The biggest thing you’ve got to learn when you come from open-wheel racing is that some weeks you’re going to run 30th or 35th. That is so hard to understand, especially when you ran 30th and did a good job! It’s hard to explain because there are races where you did a worse job and you finished fifth.”

Juan says there are more details for the driver and team to dial in than there are in F1. “In open-wheel, you’ve got bars and springs and the front wing, and that’s it. Here, you’ve got shocks and steering and suspension geometry that you’re always messing with – more things to either get right, or screw up.”

Montoya finished 20th in the points last year and hopes to make this year’s top 12 and therefore qualify for the Chase for the Cup championship play-off. GK