It has been five years since the infamous debut of the Car of Tomorrow at Bristol Motor Speedway. The race itself wasn't very impressive as it was mostly dominated by Gibbs cars with no passing without a crash (or as some call it, "Old Bristol"). It may be best remembered as the race Kyle Busch won before declaring, "I'm still not a very big fan of these things. I can't stand to drive them. They suck." After taking five years to think things over, I'm prepared to pass judgment on what Mike Mulhern has already termed, "A misguided physics project."
The CoT's stated purpose was to improve safety, competition, brand parity, and reduce overhead expenses. Along the way, downforce was reduced, weight was added, tires were shredded, and a few cars went airborne. The earliest growing pains came from those foam blocks smoldering from exhaust heat, splitter struts being knocked out of place, and fuel pump cables breaking. That's right; fuel pumps had reliability problems before fuel injection.
The splitter itself was a conceptual failure. Never mind the risk of blown tires after contact, that's mostly hype. A splitter is most effective when there is space between it and the ground; this accelerates air passing under the splitter, forcing it downward. This works great on a GT1 car with a flat undertray, but with no undertray air traveling under the car will come into contact with suspension and driveline parts causing drag. The splitter became "airdam-plus", crew chiefs dropped it to the ground, and we went right back to coil binding.
The big greenhouse was supposed to add drag, protect drivers, and raise the center of gravity (because overweight, under-tired, and overpowered cars weren't already hard enough to drive). The added drag certainly helped reduce the demand on restrictor plates to keep cars slow at Talladega (as evidenced by the increase of average RPM from 7,000 to 9,000). Of course when we move to an intermediate track, that extra drag robs following cars of cornering speed, making for single-file parades.
The wing seemed a wise method to counteract this failure. Wings produce less drag than spoilers; therefore, wings promote closer racing at intermediate tracks. You may recall the March 2010 blog I wrote on this matter, "Spoiling the Spoiler," in which I predicted that a return to spoilers would hurt racing at intermediate tracks. In terms of 1.5-mile cookie cutters, I believe I was proven correct; however, Michigan, Fontana, Pocono, and Indianapolis produced a result I was not expecting: slingshot passes. I will admit that the spoiler improved racing at those four tracks and those four tracks alone. I also admit that I did not expect the extra drag of the spoiler to decelerate a launching car faster than a wing.
The identical bodies have been the most visible failure. Of course I recall the days of politicking for handicaps. This is an actual quote Dale Earnhardt gave Ben Blake after losing a race to a Ford: "[NASCAR] gave 'em the candy store. Don't you see? They gave 'em the candy store." Earnhardt does not say, "Ford worked really hard in the offseason," or "We should have tried harder," he just assumes any loss must be a failure on NASCAR's part to ensure parity and not a failure of General Motors to produce a competitive product. Politics can make for a toxic atmosphere; however, some of us actually enjoy them and the brands want to actually compete against each other. This is a picture of an early CoT test in 2006; it should contain two Chevrolets, one Dodge, and one Ford. Can you tell which is which?
The safety of the CoT cannot be proven. Many people assume that because Michael McDowell survived his hard qualifying crash (without injury) at Texas in 2008, that the CoT must be safer than the previous generation. This is only anecdotal evidence. To prove it empirically, we would have to put Michael McDowell in an older generation car, have it hit the same wall, at the same angle and speed he did in 2008, and have the driver not survive. I cringed last winter when a supporter of pack racing told me that the cars are safe and expendable. Now people have an expectation that drivers are safe, and they are at risk of being majorly disillusioned when it all goes wrong.
The only promise where the CoT has delivered is cost. Fleet sizes are only half of where they were in 2006. In 2004, NASCAR was accused of paying small teams under the table to start races as field fillers. In 2012, unsponsored start & park cars are displacing full-time efforts, which was not possible when cars were more expensive. Of course a cheaper car has in no way leveled the playing field; this is proven by the fact that Jimmie Johnson has won four out of the last 5 championships.
After five years of observations, the CoT is definitely a failure for all of the mentioned reasons. The good news is that we have nowhere to go but up. The early pictures of 2013 bodies have shown that there may be potential, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Hey, does anyone remember what happened to bigger tires?
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