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Sunday, November 19, 2006
Car Of Tomorrow causing consternation for some

By Terry Blount
ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The Car of Tomorrow is the biggest boondoggle since the Edsel. That's one school of thought.

Clint Bowyer
Clint Bowyer got a taste of the Car Of Tomorrow during testing at Talladega in October.

Another side claims the COT is a major advancement in safety, cost and competition.

Time will tell. But the new version of the Nextel Cup car, which debuts next season, is the most controversial subject in the garage as the 2006 season comes to a close.

NASCAR testing on the car is complete. Teams can test it on their own at non-NASCAR tracks. Evernham Motorports will test the COT Monday and Tuesday at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.

People laughed a few weeks ago when Tony Stewart referred to the COT as the flying brick. For some guys building the new model, it isn't funny.

Philippe Lopez, competition director for Hall of Fame Racing, said continuing problems with the design of the COT has caused trepidation over where things are headed.

"I believe there are some aspects of the cars that just won't work," Lopez said. "A lot of things still need to be figured out."

The COT will replace the current Cup car in 16 races next season. It's a gradual phase-in over three years.

The teams still are trying to build one the right way. Of 16 COT models submitted to NASCAR so far, only one passed inspection. The cars that failed cannot be rebuilt.

Brett Bodine, NASCAR's director of cost regulation, is heading up the COT project. He's a former Cup driver and an engineer. Bodine said the inspection problems were easily avoidable.

"Ninety percent of those rejections were metal thickness," Bodine said. "There was a tolerance given and some people just aren't reading the rule book."

The new model is boxier and wider than the current Cup body. The goal is increased safety, cost containment and better competition on the track.

No one disputes the COT is safer, but there's a lot of doubt over the racing aspects.

"The splitter will collect trash, but there's a higher location [for air intake] they can use that won't plug up. The teams want to use the lower one because it creates less drag."
-- Brett Bodine

One goal was to reduce aerodynamic dependency. Less aero would make it easier for the cars to run side by side and pass each other. The cars would have similar aero characteristics to the NASCAR Craftsman Trucks.

But the COT has two things the trucks don't have: A front splitter below the grill and a rear wing.

"That the problem,'' Lopez said. "The splitter and the wings are super aero-sensitive pieces. If you put those on the trucks, they wouldn't be able to pass, either."

The splitter is an indention at the bottom front of the car.

"That thing is a vacuum cleaner," Lopez said of the splitter. "We are going to have overheating problems because so much debris gets caught on it."

Bodine said the issue is the location of the air intake to the radiator.

"The splitter will collect trash, but there's a higher location [for air intake] they can use that won't plug up," Bodine said. "The teams want to use the lower one because it creates less drag."

Lopez said the teams want to build the grill above the bumper, but Bodine said that's no allowed on the COT. It would become a competition issue by affecting the aerodynamics.

"That's the reason for the splitter," Bodine said. "They can make adjustments to it at the racetrack."

Cup teams also are having a hard time meeting the specific chassis settings of the COT.

"The problem is the rules keep changing," Lopez said. "The tolerances on the chassis are so tight that it's really hard to get right."

If the COT is difficult to build properly, it will cost the teams time and money. Bodine doesn't buy that argument, either.

"I've heard the opposite," he said. "One of our prominent race teams told me they could build two COT cars in the time in takes to build one of the current cars. If that's the case, then what is the problem?"

Bodine said teams had ample opportunities to iron out these issues sooner.

"We couldn't make everybody come to the tests," Bodine said. "Now everybody is saying things, but they should have participated when they had the chance."

The teams also have concerns with the rear wing. The fear is the wing is easily moved or broken with incidental contact during a race.

"If that happens, your car is junk," Lopez said.

Bodine doesn't think the wing is any more fragile than the rear spoilers on the current model.

The bottom line to all this bickering is whether the COT will produce better racing.

"We won't see an immediate big improvement," Bodine said. "It's going to be subtle and it's going to take time. But I've got more miles than anyone in these cars and I'm very confident it will improve side-by-side racing."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.