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Backing into the future

Racing experience finishes second to driver safety

Posted: Thursday March 22, 2007 11:53AM; Updated: Thursday March 22, 2007 2:31PM
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While the new Car of Tomorrow's wing promises to facilitate passing, a more upright profile may keep speeds down.
While the new Car of Tomorrow's wing promises to facilitate passing, a more upright profile may keep speeds down.

When most entertain the idea of a car of tomorrow, gull-winged time machines and Firebirds that talk are often the first thoughts to spring to mind. NASCAR, however, envisioned something far different for its Car of Tomorrow: something safe and boxy that wouldn't look, what's the word, Swedish.

After a seven-year gestation, the stock car of the future debuts this weekend at the Ford City 500 in Bristol, Tenn., in what will be the first of 16 races for the COT during the 2007 season. While that seems like plenty of time for curious gearheads to call their local box office for an up-close look, prepare to be underwhelmed. The Car of Tomorrow looks very much like the car of today. It's slightly wider and taller than its predecessor -- making it kind of a drag in terms of looks and speed, concessions NASCAR says were made in the interest of safety. To compensate, teams will have to find a happy medium between the features that help them and the features that don't.

Some of the features that likely will help:

• A wing. Often confused with a spoiler and previously thought to be reserved for the sports car set, the spoiler bolts to the rear decklid, cutting a wider swath of air behind the car, thus making it easier for the Cup series' many tailgaters to pass one another.

• A splitter. This flat shelf below the front bumper catches the air closest to the track to keep the car planted firmly on pavement.

The negatives? How about a windshield that's notably more upright and a front bumper that catches more air than a windsock?

While many drivers have already voiced their objections to the changes, the pleas to reverse course are likely to fall on deaf ears at NASCAR. The way the suits see it, they'd rather kill a buzz than kill a racer. (See Earnhardt, Dale, whose fatal crash seven years ago catalyzed this series-wide initiative).

"Driver safety was our No. 1 goal," says NASCAR technical director Steve Peterson. Hence the bigger roll cage, sturdier seat, reinforced driver's side and a smaller gas tank with an anti-ballistic bladder.

NASCAR also hopes the new car brings some sense of sanity to the skyrocketing costs of racing. In theory, the new car's myriad adjustable parts will make it easier to adjust and tune to specific tracks -- from the short, to the superspeedways and road courses -- saving teams the expense of customizing the hundreds of cars they typically stockpile in a given season.


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