After Sunday's rather boring Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, this week's final test of NASCAR's new "Car of Tomorrow" couldn't come at a more critical time.
Designed to promote better racing with less dependency on aerodynamics and downforce, NASCAR is hoping the COT -- the next evolution of the Nextel Cup machine -- brings back the ability for drivers to race side-by-side, which in turn will make for improved competition.
And make things safer too.
|Fans fill a section of the grandstand to attend the Car of Tomorrow testing at Bristol Motor Speedway. (AP)|
The new vehicle is, essentially, a big crash-survival cocoon.
The new racecar is larger than its predecessor, providing more space around the driver. The cockpit is 2 inches taller and 4 inches wider, and the driver sits 4 inches closer to the car's centerline, all to increase crush space. In addition, the windshield is more upright, again giving the driver more space to operate behind the wheel and a better view.
"We eventually decided that you could not accomplish the ultimate safe car with the current stuff," said NASCAR president Mike Helton of the COT's creation and development. "We've done a lot of things in the current car to make it a lot safer, particularly around the driver's compartment. But, even in doing that, and while the guys have adapted to it, we've certainly shrunk their world.
"It's more difficult for them to get in and out. It's certainly more difficult for the fire and safety teams to service a driver who might be hurt in the current configuration. So that plays into it."
So with the goal of building a better Nextel Cup stock car in mind, the creation of the new car began nearly four years ago. So far the addition of these safety initiatives, as well as the roomier cockpit, has been well-received by most drivers.
"Absolutely. I really do feel safer," said Dale Earnhardt, Jr. "The car has a lot of room in it. At testing, it is really aggravating to climb in and out of the car, the old car. It was a struggle getting in and out, a real pain. This car, it is real simple. You can hop out even if you only have two minutes to get out; it is no big deal because you can get right back in."
"The first thing about it is the car is safer," said Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick. "Whatever it is after that is a bonus. The drivers have more room inside. There are a lot of things built into the car to absorb energy when they hit the wall. That's just the starting point."
Although it's an off-weekend for the Nextel Cup Series, most all teams are hard at work at Bristol Motor Speedway this week shaking down their new COTs, which will make their debut when the series returns to the Tennessee half-mile track for the March 25 Food City 500.
Bristol will be the first of 16 races the new machines will run in this year, as NASCAR phases in the COT, with the entire 2008 slate more than likely utilizing the car.
This week's test is so important; more than 50 cars were on hand for the final COT dress rehearsal.
"By the time we leave, we'll have it figured out and know where we need to be for Bristol," said Harvick.
While the safety initiatives built into the new car are already considered a step forward, it remains to be seen whether the racing does indeed improve.
The new car's body intentionally has been designed to be boxier than current cars, taking a page from NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series, which features bulkier and taller pick-up truck body styles. The trucks have put on some of NASCAR's best racing, especially on superspeedways, and officials hope less aerodynamic cars will be able to pass each other more easily on the track.
But not everyone is convinced that's going to happen immediately, especially at tracks like the treacherous Bristol Motor Speedway, a short track that features the steepest-banked turns on the NASCAR schedule at 36 degrees.
"I still think it's the same old Bristol," said Greg Biffle. "It's gonna be, get your nose under the guy getting off the corner and try to get inside of him going down the straightaway. But the guy inside of you, you're just gonna have to know to leave him a little bit of bouncing room to come up the race track and that's about the only term you can use to identify it."
The bottom line from the test seems to echo Biffle's comments, that new car or not, the same things needed to succeed will apply.
"From a driver's perspective, once you get in the car it's just a car," said Jeff Burton. "In my world, it's no longer about the 'Car of Tomorrow,' it's just about me doing better in it than anybody else. My car needs to turn better, which is what I said the last time we raced here."