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Feature Writing

THIRD PLACE
Monte Dutton, Performance Racing News

BACK TO THE FUTURE

            RICHMOND, Va. – Only NASCAR could wheel out the new race-car design that is being phased into the tracks serviced by the Nextel Cup Series and dub it the Car of Tomorrow.

            Tomorrow? There’s a certain futuristic implication in the word. Once upon a time, a nickname with the word “tomorrow” suggested cutting-edge technology. It conjured up visions of Dad commuting to work with a rocket pack attached to his gray-flannel suit, or dropping a tablet into a kitchen pot and watching with amazement as it sprouted into a turkey dinner.

            The Car of Tomorrow, circa 2007, looks like a 1984 Nova with a wing on the back. Among the men who make their livings racing in stock-car racing’s most prestigious series, opinion is widely divided on the so-called COT, but almost all of them consider it ugly.

            When Jeff Gordon expresses his displeasure, he’s not exactly voting his pocketbook. Gordon finished third in the first COT race, second in the second and first in the third, qualifying fastest for all three. By all rights, he should be in love with it. He isn’t.

“We ran well with it from the beginning at some of the tests,” said Gordon. “I think a lot of people thought I was complaining about it because I wasn't going to run good in it, and that wasn't the case at all. It was quite the opposite. We were running really strong with it right from the beginning. My concerns are mile-and-a-half race tracks, and we'll only find out when we get to a mile-and-a-half race track.

“The aerodynamic philosophy and package that it has: not bad. The high-roll center this car has: not crazy about it. And the way it looks: not crazy about it. That might seem like a silly thing, but when you driver a race car, you want to look cool, and I feel like there's got to be a way to get the same aerodynamics characteristics and still have it look sleek and more Car of the Tomorrow.”

            Almost everyone praises the new design for its safety innovation, but safety hasn’t been a major issue over the past few years for the existing cars, the basic design of which is still being used in 20 races and all events in the Busch Series.

            In terms of competition, early indications were good news and bad.

            The good news was that the first three races – at Bristol, Tenn., Martinsville, Va., and Phoenix, Ariz. – were all decided by a margin of less than a second. Kyle Busch’s victory over Jeff Burton at Bristol, and Jimmie Johnson’s victory over Gordon at Martinsville, were both decided by less than 1/10th of a second.

            The bad news was that the COT, at least in the short run, affected the balance of competition. As Mark Martin had predicted prior to the season, the teams with the most resources were the ones who excelled. Each of the first three COT races was won by the same team, Hendrick Motorsports. Obviously, they were all won by Chevrolet drivers, which, in itself, was hardly a surprise since Chevy went to victory lane in eight of the season’s first nine races, COT or not.

            The new car, in terms of competitive technology, was both “dumbed down” and generic. Despite rather contrived claims to the contrary, practically the only differences in the COT versions of the Chevrolet Impala, Ford Fusion, Dodge Avenger and Toyota Camry were in the shape of windows and the decals applied to simulate head- and taillights.

            NASCAR officials promised the teams they would eventually save money, that is, once they stopped having to prepare two entirely different sets of cars, which could be as long as two years. Eventually, of course, these cars will be cheaper. Generics always are.

“It used to be so much more fun,” said Martin. “You used to be able to be creative and bring things to table if you were smart and creative. There are just hardly any areas to work anymore.  For me, I’m not even smart, and I used to be able to bring things to the table.

“Man, you could put the world on pause and 10 years later, I still wouldn't come up with anything.  The box is really tight today. It’s a different world.”

            Though Martin deems it coincidence, he didn’t compete in the first two COT races.

            Then there’s the strange saga of the first COT winner, Kyle Busch. Busch hates the car and didn’t change his mind even when he won by slightly less than a car length over Burton at Bristol. After the race, he revealed that he had fantasized about winning the first race ever since he tested the car for the first time. He had told his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, that he wanted to win the first race, then trash the car in the post-race press conference.

            That’s exactly what Busch did. He had called his shot in a way Babe Ruth never dreamed about. In Busch’s view, it wasn’t the COT (Car of Tomorrow); it was the CTS (Car That Stinks). To hear Busch tell it, he’d won a race of Conestoga wagons across the nearby Holston Mountains.
“I still am not a very big fan of these things,” he said. “I can't stand to drive them. They (stink).”

            Six weeks later, Busch was still holding his ground. Asked to assess the competitive prospects before a COT race in Richmond, Va., Busch said, “Oh, yeah, follow the leader, single file. It's going to be great.”

            Busch’s position was extreme. Most drivers recognized the inevitability. Many owners, fretting over the financial demands of a schedule split between two kinds of cars, are calling for full-scale implementation of the COT next year. Some resistance can be attributed to the natural discomfort of adapting to a different style of car and the accompanying changes in driving style it requires.

            Even its partisans – oddly enough, Kyle Busch’s older brother Kurt is one, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. – concede that the COT is difficult to turn in the apex of corners, which brings us to the most common cliché associated with the car: “It’s the same for everybody.”

            Some drivers, most notably the embattled Tony Stewart, said basically they didn’t care what kind of care NASCAR required them to drive. “Don’t care” could be seen as a synonym for “what I think doesn’t matter.”

"Nothing really changes,” Stewart said. “It doesn't matter to me the whether it's a Car of Tomorrow race or not. Whatever I can get into, it's about how fast we can get it to go and trying to be faster than everyone else is.”

In short, the Car of Tomorrow has been a mixed bag. The early races were marked by close finishes, but also by a week-after-week recurrence of the same names and the same team.
The COT’s implementation marks almost the piece de resistance in a gradual trend toward uniformity that began in the early 1990s. Where once NASCAR officials wanted the various competing manufacturers to field entries of equivalent strength, now the competition can accurately be described as almost equal in the sense of sameness. There isn’t a whit of difference between the bodies and chassis components, and the standardization of the power plants is almost as complete.

NASCAR wants its drivers and teams, not its manufacturers, to make the difference. If the cost, however, is the complete collapse of any vestige of brand identity, what has the sport really gained?
The next logical step – perhaps the only one remaining – would be an end to use of the brand names altogether. Perhaps one day soon, the Daytona 500 will take the green flag with 43 identically prepared, uh, Nascars.

Though the competition may eventually normalize, the birth of the COT resulted in a narrowing of competition. It was almost like a return to the 1970s, when many races came down to a battle between the titans of the era: Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. In general, the Hendrick cars dominated. Two of Joe Gibbs Racing’s entries, Stewart and Denny Hamlin, were usually fast if faulty. Richard Childress’s three cars showed flashes of speed but were notably inconsistent.

All the competitive teams were comprised of Chevrolets. A design intended to make the manufacturers less crucial somehow seemed to have contributed to one, Chevrolet, becoming the only one that mattered. In fact, Hendrick seemed to have become the only Chevrolet team that really mattered.

“We hope to keep it going,” insisted Johnson, “but we know the competition's right there and sooner or later someone else is going to win one of these races.”

For everyone not wheeling a Hendrick-owned Impala, the only possible reply seemed to be “hope springs eternal.”

NASCAR has spent too much money to back off its Car of Tomorrow, regardless of how inappropriate the designation.

“I'm not really paying much attention to what car I'm driving,” said Burton. “I'm just trying to make it go around the track as fast as I can.

“And I think that's probably what everybody's doing.”

Resistance is futile.