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|NASCAR's Robin Pemberton and Toyota's Andy Graves have high expectations for the 2013 Cup cars.|
CONCORD, N.C. -- Andy Graves stares at a computer screen full of data that only a NASCAR engineer or video game junkie can fully appreciate as a 2013 Toyota Camry goes through yet another test in the Windshear rolling wind tunnel.
Toyota's vice president of chassis engineering spends about 20 hours a week in this mammoth, gray facility that has tighter security than most banks.
He's worked tirelessly with NASCAR for almost two years on ways to make the next generation car less aerodynamically dependent so we don't have to depend on double-file restarts to create passing and drama, as we saw Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
And many other races the past few years, to be frank.
Graves and those in his position with Chevrolet and Ford -- along with NASCAR -- hold the future of the sport in their hands here. What they are doing, coupled with a key Tuesday and Wednesday test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, is more important than whether Jimmie Johnson goes on to his sixth title or Brad Keselowski his first.
|NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers -- Tony Stewart included -- hope all the testing in 2012 pays off in 2013.|
What they are doing hopefully shapes the excitement of Chases to come.
As tight as this race is, Johnson leading Keselowski by seven points with two races remaining, officials understand fans are clamoring for a better overall show.
They understand fans are as tired of watching drivers struggle to move through the field -- and to pass the leader once they move up.
They understand there are high expectations that this car won't come with the same negativity the current car got when introduced in 2007.
They're ahead of the game from the aspect the car already looks more like the car on the showroom floor, as manufacturers and fans have begged for.
But looks won't be worth the sheet metal that covers the chassis if these cars stink up the show, as many believe the Car of Tomorrow did five years ago.
"The package we're trying to develop, from the splitter, the spoiler -- studying the data, looking at wind tunnel information that is more advanced that it's ever been -- we're trying to understand and come up with some characteristics that performance stays the same whether you're all by yourself or in traffic," Graves says.
"That is going to help racing."
Media members touring Windshear on Monday for what is described as Wind Tunnel 101 -- Wind Tunnel for Dummies might be more accurate -- got an up-close look at the technology that will allow NASCAR to produce a car that hopefully will be light-years ahead of where the COT was when handed to manufacturers.
It is an impressive facility, used by everyone from Formula One teams based out of Europe to the manufacturer of tractor trailers.
During a two-hour tour we learned everything from how the facility deletes results of a team test from its file as soon as it is transferred to how green Teflon on tires produces better wear results than spraying grocery store Pam -- true story -- on the 10-by-30-foot steel belt that simulates a track.
But the No. 1 question at the end of this experience remained the same as it was going in: Will this make for better racing?
Keselowski believes it will. He told me last week the 2013 car is going to be "big for the sport," not only because it looks more like a race car but also because it drives better.
He admitted during a Tuesday appearance at the NASCAR Hall of Fame that the pressure is on the manufacturers and governing body to make that happen.
"Oh, yes," Keselowski says. "There's tremendous pressure. The odds are this car is not going to come out the gate perfect. It's going to take time. Much like if you unveiled a new iPhone and rolled it out and said, 'Well, in a year we'll have it working right,' your customer is not going to be very happy about that.
"We all know that and are braced for it. But we know long term this car is going to be part of the solution for getting NASCAR as strong as it can be."
Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition, believes the new car will improve racing as well.
Given the opportunity to say whether fans should temper their enthusiasm about what this car will do for racing, Pemberton only adds to the anticipation.
"This car will be better than the last car, regardless," he says.
Windshear and other facilities like it are a big reason. It's also a big reason Johnson is in a position to win another title. It was in this facility that allows cars to replicate real-life speeds up to 180 mph that Hendrick Motorsports discovered the rear axle yaw that allows its cars to get through the turns faster.
They were able to do this because the surface on which the belt floats can rotate and turn to an angle where the car gets maximum speed.
"All right here," Graves says.
Right here is where the future of NASCAR is being shaped.
"It'll be a far, far better race car to start off with, and then the teams will take it to the next level," Pemberton says.
But will it allow drivers to pass for the lead without feeling like they're in a Mini Cooper trying to get around a tractor trailer on the interstate in a driving rainstorm?
|Tires prepared with green Teflon results in improved rubber wear on the steel belt that simulates a racetrack at Windshear Inc.|
"We know most of the aggravation, if you listen to the driver, is what it does in traffic and how to pass cars," Pemberton says. "We purposely went places with limited downforce to look at some of those as extreme cases.
"That's what we're concentrating on now."
Allowing more mechanical grip so a car will stay glued to the track when it gets behind or beside another car is one of the things NASCAR is looking at during the Charlotte test.
"There are some things we're working on that show promise," Pemberton says without getting specific.
Keselowski is optimistic. Because he also is honest, as we saw last year when he was critical of fuel injection before it was introduced, he is believable.
"The potential is there to create much better racing," he says. "It will start that [holds fingers a quarter-inch apart] much better than the current car, but the potential is there for it to be quite a bit more."
As much excitement as the next two weeks hold with Johnson and Keselowski battling like Ali and Frazier, what is happening in here has potential to produce more excitement for the sport in general.
It starts with cars that look like the ones we drive, with each manufacturer production different from the other, from having different roof dimensions to different lines on the sides and hood. We may be back to the day when they're so different that we'll have one manufacturer complaining that another has an advantage.
"They still complain today," Pemberton says with a laugh. "They just don't complain as loud as they used to."
Goodyear will play a role in this, too. No matter how much technology NASCAR and teams put into the development of the car, they need a softer tire to allow for more wear that gives crew chiefs and drivers more control over the outcome.
Taking 100 pounds of weight out of the body will help.
"Without a doubt, we've all expressed to Goodyear to try and produce a tire that has more lap-time decrement fall-off," Graves says. "It's definitely going to be a good thing for racing."
Excuse me for taking a break from the Chase to look into what is shaping the future of NASCAR, but it's important that we do.
It's important enough that Graves and many like him spend more time in the Windshear rolling wind tunnel than they do at the track these days.
"It's going to bring a lot of energy back in [to the sport]," Graves says. "When I first started in the sport, you used to see Chevrolet fans, and they didn't care what Chevrolet driver it was. And you saw Ford fans. You had manufacturer pride.
"A lot of that has died with the current car. I'm hoping this brings it back."
We all are.