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Car of Tomorrow on Horizon

October 16, 2005|From Associated Press

The Car of Tomorrow is coming, ready or not.

NASCAR is moving ahead full speed with its new concept car, a bigger, boxier number with which it plans to replace the super slick aerodynamic car -- NASCAR chairman Brian France calls it a "bullet" -- that manufacturers and teams have worked so hard to build over the past 10 years.

NASCAR president Mike Helton asserts the new cars will still have enough areas for the teams to work on that fans will be able to pick out their favorite brand, whether it be Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge or even Toyota, which is coming soon to a stock car track near you.

The Car of Tomorrow recently had its first on-track test at Talladega and Helton says it could be raced as early as next fall's Talladega race, and it could replace all of the current cars in time for the start of the 2007 season.

The major reason that Gary Nelson and his team of engineers at the NASCAR Research and Development facility in Concord, N.C., have made the Car of Tomorrow a priority is safety.

"We eventually decided that you could not accomplish the ultimate safe car with the current stuff," Helton said. "We've done a lot things in the current car to make it a lot safer, particularly around the driver's compartment. But, even in doing that, and while the guys have adapted to it, we've certainly shrunk their world.

"It's more difficult for them to get in and out. It's certainly more difficult for the fire and safety teams to service a driver who might be hurt in the current configuration. So that plays into it."

Besides being slightly taller and wider -- an effort to make the cars less aerodynamic -- the new car moves the driver away from the door and incorporates new crush zone technology in both the nose and the door areas.

In the end, what NASCAR came up with is a virtually complete makeover of its Nextel Cup car.

It could be a difficult and costly changeover for the teams, making their current cars practically obsolete overnight. Helton and France have met with team owners and discussed the timing with them.

"As we get clear with what we want to do, we get clearer with them," France said. He said NASCAR does not want to saddle the owners with "giant costs," and the owners told France and Helton what they want to avoid is running half the races with the old chassis and half with the new cars in the same year.

"It's not uncommon for them to build eight or 10 cars at the drop of a hat, so that's not an issue," France said. "But they want us to cycle these cars out and try the best we can to start the new year, if it's '07 or whenever, and have as many events with the new car as possible. That's exactly what Mike ended up authoring."

Helton said the new car, with fewer aerodynamic devices and gray areas for the teams to work with, should make it easier for NASCAR's much-maligned inspectors to enforce the technical rules.

Jack Roush, who fields five Cup cars and has won the past two championships, said he is "guardedly optimistic" about the Car of Tomorrow.

"If they can move the dates out so that we're able to balance out our existing hardware and be able to make the changes they want with the present staff, it will be a seamless transition at a modest cost to the teams," Roush said.

But he warned, "If they compress that [time period] to where you have to dig a hole and bury your existing cars, you haven't got value out of them, regardless of whether you might have a strategy with the IRS or a strategy with the investment folks ... well, then there's a loss.

"Given the number of cars that are potentially involved, the loss could be huge. It could be catastrophic."


While nearly everyone watches the guys racing for the Cup title in the 10-man, 10-race Chase for the championship, there is another, even more intense battle raging among seven drivers for 11th.

As a consolation for failing to be part of the Chase, the driver who finishes 11th not only earns his team a $1 million bonus but also gets to attend the postseason awards ceremony in New York, along with the top 10.

Eleventh-place Kevin Harvick was separated from 17th-place Brian Vickers by exactly 100 points. In between were Jamie McMurray, Elliott Sadler, Jeff Gordon, Joe Nemechek and Dale Jarrett.

"Of course we're shooting for 11th in points," said McMurray, who finished 11th last year, the first year of the Chase. "But, ultimately, we'd like to win a race before the season is over, so we're not going to be racing in conservative mode so to speak.

"We'll just have to see how everything plays out and hopefully we'll be in the money position in the end."

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