- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

On Feb. 18, 2001, Dale Earnhardt ran interference for son Dale Jr. and one of his son’s teammates during the final lap of the Daytona 500 when he crashed into a wall at about 175 miles an hour. It was an accident that seemed like little more than a footnote to a pretty good race.

But it was the crash that changed NASCAR, resulting in the instant acceleration of a safety program that probably needed a major upheaval.

Earnhardt, known as the Intimidator for his hard-charging ways, a style that made him one of the most popular and successful drivers in the sport’s history, was dead before he was removed from his black No. 3 Chevrolet. And if a driver of his stature could be killed in an accident that seemed fairly mundane, it clearly was time to look at safety.

The result of the initiatives motivated by that tragedy will be visible at NASCAR tracks next season when the Car of Tomorrow (COT) is introduced, first at 16 of 36 events and in all Nextel Cup races by 2009. The changes, some controversial since they were first mentioned, will be mandatory.

“Ninety-five percent of what’s in the Car of Tomorrow is achievable in the car of today,” fumed Jack Roush, who owns five NASCAR teams. “The safety aspect is one thing, but [NASCAR] just wants to tighten the specifications down on cars, so we can’t do as much as we do today.”

The majority of car owners agree with Roush and his complaints about what NASCAR intends to do and the huge costs involved, but there are dissenting voices.

One is Richard Petty, the all-time wins leader with 200 who now owns two Nextel Cup teams.

“Now this is just one man’s opinion here, but that’s the wrong concept,” Petty said, the Southern drawl almost disappearing as the businessman in him took over. “No matter if they change cars or not, we’ve got to build new ones. For ‘07 we’re going to build a fleet of new cars. We’ll run a few of the older cars and upgrade them a little bit but we were going to build all new ones all along. There may be some extra expense in testing the [COT] because we don’t know too much about it but that’s all.”

The goals of the COT, according to NASCAR, are three-pronged: safety of those involved, better competition and cost containment. Nobody argues with the first, and the second is slowly winning converts, but the third has teams seeing a bottom line that is mostly red.

The safety aspect is obvious and becomes more so despite features on Nextel Cup cars today that allow drivers to walk away from some horrific accidents. Tony Stewart, the reigning Nextel champion, has dropped from second to fifth in the points standings since breaking his right shoulder blade after three seemingly minor (by super speedway standards) accidents, clearly pointing to the dangers involved despite the massive precautions already in place.

Some safety features were instituted immediately after Earnhardt’s death. One was the HANS (head-and-neck-support) device that virtually immobilizes a driver’s head and neck once he is strapped in. While the device was available in 2001, Earnhardt was not wearing one the day he was killed. Some safety experts say he might have survived if he had been. No Nextel Cup drivers have been killed on tracks since the HANS device became mandatory.

Another feature now incorporated at all Nextel tracks is the SAFER (steel-and-foam-energy-reduction) barrier developed by the University of Nebraska — a soft, impact-absorbing wall around the inside of tracks that replaced unforgiving and unbending concrete or steel.

The better competition will come from the design of the COT, NASCAR maintains. Currently the most important aspect of NASCAR cars is the aerodynamic affect — the long, flat, low appearance of the racers allowing them to slice through the air. It also makes racing — i.e., passing, even side-by-side competition — difficult among contenders. An average driver can consistently finish better than a superior driver simply by having a vehicle with a better aero package.

NASCAR says the COT should change that. The car will be boxier — wider, taller, shorter and as a result, slower. The nose will be flatter, requiring the vehicle to punch a hole instead of slicing through air. Most importantly, the spoiler on the rear deck will be replaced by a wing (like a Formula 1 racer), thereby reducing the turbulence that could send a trailing car careening out of control. The wing will allow the sport to turn back the clock 10 years as far as competition is concerned and return the driver to a more prominent position.

“It will be slower but also more exciting,” said Benny Parsons, a retired driver who is now a TV commentator. “If I want to see 25 cars run nose-to-tail at 190 mph, I can go down to the freeway. To me, 25 cars swapping position and sling-shotting past you at 160 mph like we did 30 years ago, gahh-leee, that’s exciting.”

But how NASCAR is going about the change is dividing those in the garages. Some think the sanctioning body is correct to institute things slowly — over a three-year period to allow time to change anything that needs refinement. The majority claim the cost of maintaining two separate fleets of cars, up to 15 a team, will be excessive.

“What I want them to do is make a clean cut,” Petty said. “Just throw out all the old stuff and start with new cars. Where the expense is going to come from is having two sets of race cars in the shops at the same time.”

NASCAR maintains the COT will save teams money in the long run because fewer cars will be needed, down to eight or nine from 15 or more. Minor tweaking of the COT, NASCAR said, will allow teams to use some cars at more than one track.

“Well,” said Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of Joe Gibbs Racing, shaking his head, “it’s going to be expensive, that’s for sure. You’ve got to delete all the cars in your fleet and start over. We’ve got road course cars now we’ve used for five, six years, some speedway cars, too. The only thing you can hope for is that NASCAR is right, that we’d need fewer cars. Your short course car may become your road car because there’s so little [adjustments] you can do with them.”

Gibbs remains doubtful, too: “They said it was going to save us money, but that remains to be seen.”

Roush said: “It won’t save us any money, not a dime. It’s going to cost us thousands, thousands in new processing before we’re done and how long will they last before we’re doing it all over again?”

One thing is certain — the complaining is just starting.

“Those who figure it out early won’t complain but those who don’t will,” said Larry McReynolds, a former crew chief who now works in television. “If you run well, you love it. If you don’t you hate it.”

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