YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Vehicle for change

Drivers will start to phase Car of Tomorrow into races next month, with increased safety as the goal.

February 22, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Nextel Cup drivers soon will be racing the new Car of Tomorrow, a car specifically designed for the series. It will be phased in gradually this season and next, until, in 2009, it will be used in all Cup races. But whether the car will benefit the series, or upset the competitiveness that helps make stock car racing so popular, depends on who's talking about it.

NASCAR claims the car will be safer, foster closer racing and, ultimately, prove more affordable for teams because they won't have to build different cars for the different tracks on the Cup series' 36-race schedule.

After recent tests, some Cup drivers also lauded the car, which is slightly boxier than the current cars in the series. Except for the engines, the cars will be the same, whether Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge or Toyota.

Supporters included Kurt Busch, who reached speeds of 190 mph in his Dodge Avenger version of the car in recent tests at Daytona International Speedway, and his team owner, Roger Penske.

"When NASCAR gets the rules just right, we're going to see a safer car and one that we can take to multiple types of circuits," Penske said.

But 2005 Cup champion Tony Stewart called it "a basket of junk," "a flying brick," and "an old station wagon," though he also said it should get better as the teams tweak it further.

And others, such as Greg Biffle of Roush Racing, said they didn't know what to expect until they saw how the car performed in a race with an entire 43-car field.

The car will be used in 16 races this year -- starting March 25 at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee -- mostly at tracks shorter than 1.5 miles.

The car won't appear at the two-mile California Speedway in Fontana until next year.

The new cars will still only vaguely resemble the production cars they represent, although NASCAR contends they'll look more like their street cousins than today's cars do. They'll have grilles and decal "headlights" designed to make them look like the Chevrolet Impala SS, Ford Fusion, Dodge Avenger and Toyota Camry.

Pat Suhy, NASCAR group manager for GM racing, noted that his company and the other automakers helped design the car and said it would "continue to provide competitive and entertaining racing."

Perhaps the car's most noticeable features are its adjustable rear wing, which supplants the attached rear spoiler now in use, and an adjustable front "splitter," a wing-like panel that hangs under the nose and can be adjusted for better aerodynamics.

But safety is the main purpose behind the Car of Tomorrow, which NASCAR has been developing for seven years.

Plans for the car gained urgency in 2001, when seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500, the highest profile in a series of fatal accidents.

Among other things, the driver's compartment has been redesigned to better protect drivers in crashes -- especially when the car is hit broadside, or "T-boned" -- and it includes more steel plating and energy-absorbing materials to deflect damaging blows.

The cockpit also has been enlarged by a few inches to move the driver slightly closer to the center of the car, away from the point of impact.

After the Car of Tomorrow arrives, it's an article of faith in NASCAR that crew chiefs and other team members will then do everything they can to make their cars go even a fraction faster than the competition's.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Car of Tomorrow in general will keep giving NASCAR fans a good show.

Said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, "The wing and the splitter and some of those technologies and some of the safety features of that car are definitely positives. But I don't know if they are all fully complementing one another right now."

Gordon complained about turbulence after testing the car at Michigan International Speedway.

"I hope more than anything that the car performs well and we put great racing on and that the fans love it and the sponsors love it and the [television] ratings go up," he added. "But based on assessing it right now, I can just tell you that I'm not thrilled about it."

Los Angeles Times Articles