When NASCAR fully instituted its newly designed Car of Tomorrow at the start of the 2008 Sprint Cup season, its intentions were honorable: increase driver safety and reduce team expenses. While no driver has been seriously injured in the standardized vehicle, there has been one major rub—the car produces follow-the-leader racing. "We've sanitized the sport so much that it's not as exciting to watch," says former Cup champion Darrell Waltrip.
Indeed, television ratings for Cup races are down 13% from last season, and wide swaths of empty seats have been visible at nearly every track. (NASCAR does not release official attendance figures.) This drop-off was one reason NASCAR chairman Brian France called a mandatory, closed-door meeting for drivers and owners on May 26 at the organization's research and development center in Charlotte. The conversation covered a range of issues, but the focus was on how to improve the quality of racing.
SI spoke to more than a dozen drivers and garage insiders about what it will take to reinvigorate the sport. Here are three ideas:
• Rethink the CoT design
For example, how does the car handle in traffic? "It's like passing a semi on the interstate when your car bobbles, but at 190 mph," says Jimmie Johnson. "This car moves side to side so much. That's why guys are scared to pass in the turns. You feel like you're going to crash."
THE SOLUTION: Equip the cars with more aerodynamic downforce to give the tires increased grip. One way to achieve this is to replace the rear wing with a spoiler. An increase in downforce will allow drivers to attempt more daring moves in the corners
• Put more drama in the restarts
Currently, cars on the lead lap line up one behind the other on the outside while cars one lap or more down are on the inside. Purely a case of follow the leader.
THE SOLUTION: Implement double-file restarts with the leaders side-by-side and the rest of the field similarly aligned based on their standing. Lining up the top cars side by side would make the restart a heart-pounding drag race to Turn 1.
• Untie the hands of the crew chiefs
Before switching to the CoT full time, NASCAR had 28 common templates with which every car had to comply. There are an additional 100-plus areas on the CoT that NASCAR inspects each week to make sure the cars are virtually identical.
THE SOLUTION: Give the crew chiefs more discretion in, say, determining the range of motion allowed in shock absorbers. This change would allow crew chiefs to tinker with the angle of the front tires and give them greater freedom to improve the car's handling.
As France knows well, the teams' expertise and ingenuity in finding speed was what the sport was founded on.
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Cup analysis from Lars Anderson plus Mark Beech's Racing Fan at SI.com/bonus