For 'Car of Tomorrow,' Plenty of Judgment From Which to Draw

Jamie Reynolds, right, observes as Mike Teaman inspects a car following practice for the Nextel Cup Food City 500.
Jamie Reynolds, right, observes as Mike Teaman inspects a car following practice for the Nextel Cup Food City 500. (By John Russell -- Associated Press)
By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

BRISTOL, Tenn., March 24 -- Don't expect a shortage of opinion when NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow makes its debut Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Regardless of who wins the Food City 500, stock-car racing pundits and prognosticators are sure to start squawking the moment the checkered flag flies about whether the sport's bold experiment in racecar design proved a boon or a bust.

But the answer won't be clear for months, at best.

NASCAR engineers redesigned the Nextel Cup car with three objectives: keep drivers safer during collisions; contain escalating costs; and make the races more competitive. In time, the success of two of those goals will be quantifiable. The new car will either do a better job protecting drivers in wrecks or not. And it will either slow the rate of teams' annual spending or escalate it.

But measuring its impact on the quality of NASCAR races will be more tricky. There's no single statistic that indicates whether a race is a thriller or a bore, though several give a clue. Most agree that a great race has a dozen or more passes for the lead. It has plenty of cars finishing on the lead lap. And it has a razor-thin margin of victory, such as Kevin Harvick's two-hundredths of a second victory over Mark Martin in the season-opening Daytona 500.

Still, none of these is a perfect measure. In a sense, a great race can be as difficult to define as obscenity, calling to mind U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's 1964 comment regarding obscenity: "I know it when I see it."

"What constitutes a good race?" NASCAR team owner Ray Evernham mused rhetorically. "For me, a good race is a competitive deal, when you've got 15 cars that could have ended up finishing first to 10th. You want to see two or three of those cars really battling at the end. But I don't know how you judge it. The best way to judge is ask the fans. They'll know."

In that regard, NASCAR couldn't have picked a more favorable venue than Bristol Motor Speedway for the debut of its controversial new car. The high-banked bullring is virtually incapable of staging a boring race. It's a question of basic math and geometry. With 43 racecars battling at top speed on a half-mile oval that's suited for a field half that size, the sparks are sure to fly. Fans love the bumping and banging, which unfolds at speeds that are fast enough to keep things entertaining but slow enough to keep the drivers safe. The sheet metal may take a beating at Bristol, but the drivers generally emerge unscathed.

Moreover, because aerodynamics play such an insignificant role at short tracks such as Bristol, even battered cars can keep charging as long as their motors run. So no driver, no matter how hard his luck, is ever really out of contention.

"We could race Freightliner trucks here at Bristol, and you're going to have a good race because it's Bristol!" said Kyle Petty, who has raced at the 45-year-old oval since 1981. "It makes no difference whether we run Busch cars, Cup cars, go-karts or trucks: It's going to be a great race."

It's much the same at Martinsville Speedway and Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR's other short tracks.

But the Car of Tomorrow wasn't designed to improve the quality of racing at short tracks; fans and drivers alike are happy with the entertainment value there. The bigger concern is improving the quality of racing at NASCAR's intermediate tracks, the 1.5-mile speedways in Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Fort Worth and Kansas City, Kan., where aerodynamic superiority can turn one car into a runaway winner.

"What we've evolved into lately is the mile-and-a-half racetracks that are really becoming a high-speed parade," said Don Miller, president at Penske Racing South and a former racer. "If somebody gets out in front, they just take off. And the fans don't want to see that. They want to see cars running door-handle-to-door-handle all day long, in and out of the pits. I think NASCAR is aware of that, and they're trying things to make that happen."

The boxier Car of Tomorrow, which is four inches wider and two inches taller, is designed to throw a wrench in all that aerodynamic superiority. But drivers and car owners are waiting to be convinced that the upshot of NASCAR's gamble will be better racing.

"They're trying to make the competition better by not making it not so aero-dependent," Miller said. "And they're trying to make it a little bit safer by giving the drivers more room [inside the car] and more driver protection; I buy all of that. But is it a guarantee? No. Will it absolutely work on a one-mile or a mile-and-a-half track? We've got to find out. No one knows."

Said TV commentator Jimmy Spencer, a former NASCAR racer: "You're not going to be able to judge the car quickly. It will take time. Statistics and lead changes and all that stuff is important, but the main thing is going to be: How close can they run? Can they run side-by-side?"

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