Records And Rules
The official NASCAR rules and regulations are not made available to the general public or to the media. NASCAR reserves the right to disseminate those regulations only to those teams it deems of merit as seriously contending participants. NASCAR issues different Rule Books, each of which includes in its title reference to a particular NASCAR-sanctioned series.
The NASCAR Car of Tomorrow (COT) is an interesting concept. In NASCAR Nextel Cup racing, historically very little of the technology developed there pertained to the short-track racer. That has all changed with the COT. For the past eight or nine years, teams in what is often referred to as the "top stock car class" have concentrated on aerodynamic technology. They have spent hundreds of expensive hours in wind tunnels and invested thousands of manpower hours in tweaking the metal bodies into shapes that would produce more aero downforce. It was expensive and restrictive for teams just starting out with no history of aero research.
All of that has come to a grinding halt with the unveiling and implementation of the Car of Tomorrow. With the testing and racing in select events in 2007, the teams and NASCAR have decided to go full-time with the COT for the '08 season. What is the COT and how has it changed the way NASCAR teams prepare for competition?
The COT has, by rule, a well-defined body shape and the chassis is also specified as to the exact construction layout with certain leeway for front geometry. Basically, the COT lost about 600 pounds of downforce in the front and about 300 pounds in the back of the car over the earlier model Cup car. So, it's comparatively unbalanced downforce-wise when compared with the old design.
Then, NASCAR mandated a rear wing in place of the old spoiler that's similar to the Grand Am Daytona Prototype road-racing wing. Any aero engineer worth his/her salt will tell you the spoiler produces more drag than downforce. The wing, on the other hand, produces tons of downforce and a lot less drag. The wing is adjustable within strict tolerances as to angle of attack, so the actual downforce can be adjusted somewhat.
The whole COT is 2 inches taller than the old car, which raises the center of gravity. The car is wider by 4 inches, the driver is not significantly closer to the centerline as previously advertised. The driver's compartment is 11/44 inch wider, which doesn't provide the opportunity to move the seat in by much.
The individual parts and pieces are heavy and the car now weighs close to the limit once completed with all of the components installed. Some teams did not have to add ballast at a recent race using the COT. A few additions were added to help protect the drivers. The left-side framerail is doubled on the COT. The floor is heavier with a choice of steel plating or honeycomb aluminum installed under the driver's seat.
The car has a driveshaft tunnel that must be installed to the specs. It is heavy gauge steel and has heavy steel strap assemblies at the front and rear. This tunnel fully encloses the driveshaft and nearly eliminates the danger of a loose shaft. It also adds a lot of weight to the car.
As for the construction of the cars, each team and/or car builder must build the chassis/rollcage assembly and submit it to a NASCAR facility, where the location of each joint, component, and measurement is recorded and a data sheet is produced by what is called a coordinate measuring system. If the car is not within a certain tolerance, it is rejected until it's brought within the specifications.
This process can take as few as two or three passes through the gauntlet or as many as nine for one team. Teams must follow a set of construction plans to build the car, as well as a whole section in the rule book explaining the process. The base frame/rollcage cost of the COT is higher because of this process. One car builder told us it used to cost about $8,500, and it now costs around $18,000 for a bare frame and rollcage with some sheetmetal.
Most top teams had the older car figured out so that it turned well and was fast and consistent. With the COT, most teams are lost. With a loss of 300 pounds more downforce at the front than at the rear of the cars, drivers complain that the cars won't turn. Gee, we wonder where we've heard that before.
With the addition of a rear wing capable of producing loads of, well, added load, we have a car that's seriously front-grip deficient. So teams are looking at making changes to the front geometry, rear wing angle, and other factors to help get the cars to a neutral handling status again.
Since the rear wing is mostly exaggerating the problem, many teams have learned they need to adjust it to maximum angle of attack and in effect stall the wing so it produces less downforce. With the problems they have with less front grip, the last thing they need is a wing that can add rear grip.
In reality, the COT handles much like the Street Stock cars we are all familiar with-they lack front grip. Observing the cars on TV tells the tale. We see where the car is either pushing up the track, or if the crew has loosened it sufficiently, it's tight/loose, but either way it's slow.
One driver reported that each time he entered a certain turn, the car behaved differently. One time it pushed and then snapped loose on exit (the old tight/loose syndrome) and the next time it turned well and was loose all the way around the turn. It's this uncertainty that unnerves many drivers.
In the past, the teams have put a significant portion of their resources into aero technology and will now have to rethink how they engineer their cars. The chassis dynamicist will now be in demand and the aero engineers can either find another genre or try to get up to speed on their dynamics lessons. Mechanical engineers will be in demand and any new technology that leans in that direction will need to be utilized.
It's an exciting time for all of circle track racing. Maybe now we can finally find common ground with the top levels of stock car racing by virtue of having common goals and experiencing common problems. The Car of Tomorrow is no more as NASCAR's newest creation officially becomes the Car of Today in 2008, some questions formed at the beginning of this process are finally beginning to get answered. Early indicators have opened eyes as to how this invention will change the way the game is played for drivers, teams, and manufacturers alike.
Around a decade ago, making a change to a team's fleet of cars was a decision so crucial, you needed to do it months before the end of the season. With different body styles, designs, setups, and more, turning from Ford to Chevrolet was equivalent to knocking your shop down with a bulldozer and starting over.
But with the advent of the CoT, making the switch isn't rocket science ... literally. The only major difference on the body of these CoT's is the nosepiece ... which means you can turn a fleet of cars from a "Ford" to a "Chevy" in as little as a week and a half. That pales in comparison to the weeks or even months it would have taken to change things over as little as a half dozen years ago.
Take Robby Gordon as the perfect example. Hurting for money, Gordon made a last-ditch partnership with Gillett Evernham Motorsports in order to remain viable for '08. That involved a switch from Ford to Dodge just a little over one week before Daytona; but surprisingly enough, the No. 7 made the transition with ease (although they did get their nose confiscated at Daytona inspection).
Not only can these moves be made quicker ... but those who make them have the confidence they can be competitive right off the bat. Take Joe Gibbs Racing - just five years ago, they endured a bit of a transition after winning the championship, as they transitioned from Pontiac to Chevrolet. However, after announcing the move to transfer from Chevy to Toyota, it seems the team has gotten stronger in the offseason; their cars were at or near the top of the charts in Daytona testing, and Stewart finished runner-up in the Saturday night Bud Shootout with the Camry, the highest such finish in the year-plus that vehicle has raced.
During the Shootout, Jimmie Johnson came from the back of the pack in his backup car to finish third. But what was remarkable wasn't how Johnson did it; it was the equipment in which he did it with. The No. 48 car he used was a "short track" CoT, with extra downforce built in to aid for handling on short tracks. It was a vehicle better suited for Martinsville than Daytona -- but it was still capable of winning the race. "There is no way you would bring the old downforce car here," said Johnson after the race, reflecting on his team's choice. "It just wouldn't happen. (So the CoT) has certainly closed up that gap."
That's drivers news for underdog programs who don't have the money to keep a fleet of 15-18 cars per season. Now, just 4-6 CoTs can last the length of the schedule, should they avoid any major crashes; what races at Daytona one week can be brought to Bristol the next. The next question, of course, is that should costs get cut there ... how will teams spend their extra sponsorship money?
No matter what any driver thinks of the CoT, all of them will tell you the same thing - this vehicle's a whole different animal than the ones NASCAR approved since they went to a smaller car in 1981. That means that even the savviest of veterans will be starting from scratch; it's not that their skills are rendered useless, it's that they need to learn a whole different way of driving - and that takes time.
In the short-term, that benefits guys like Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and other open-wheel drivers without a ton of stock car experience. Suddenly, veterans have only a handful more starts with the CoT than rookies do. On the same level as their peers, rookies can now let their skills make up for a lack of experience driving stock cars. How much will that help? We'll know more after trips to the intermediate tracks of California, Las Vegas, and Atlanta following the 500.
Remember all those body engineers that turned NASCAR into a giant wind tunnel of technological innovation? With the Car of Tomorrow, their focus changes away from aerodynamics; these body rules are so tight, it's going to be impossible to tweak that extra bit of air out of a common template. Notice a refreshing lack of parts confiscated during Speedweeks this year, a far cry from a year ago when anything and everything was under suspicion.
But while body engineers are looking for a new lease on life, the increasing use of electronic technology will continue to filter through the Cup garage. Look for teams to work more towards improving handling through techniques like computer simulations of race setups to gain an edge. With teams' ability to adjust more limited than ever at the track, it makes the meeting of the computer minds more important off it.
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Bud Shootout Saturday night, he used a term many of us thought would never return to the Cup series on a plate track: the slingshot. Back in the '70s, this move defined racing at Daytona and Talladega. On the last lap, it was actually better to be the car behind than the one in front. That's because momentum from the draft ahead of them could cause a car to gain momentum and "slingshot" it past his competition, pulling out of line all by himself and using that extra speed to jump ahead and win the race.
The restrictor plate has since put a cap on how fast you can go at these tracks; and with it, the slingshot appeared dead in the water. Moves were being made that hadn't been seen in quite some time. Junior's car made several passes in which he didn't need a car behind him; his own momentum carried him through. According to drivers, it appears the reason behind that is the side draft has virtually disappeared. No longer can a car swoop up some of your draft while they're trying to block your maneuver. If you get beside somebody, it's much harder for that momentum to be stopped.
Now, certainly there's a long way to go before the way this car drafts is figured out completely; just four months ago at Talladega, the race was equivalent to a single-file parade as the cars struggled to race side-by-side. But one thing was clear at Daytona; parade racing didn't apply.
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