The culmination of a seven-year project by NASCAR's Research & Development Center, NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow will compete in 16 of this season's 36 NASCAR Nextel Cup events. Branded as the Chevy Impala SS, Ford Fusion, Dodge Avenger, and Toyota Camry, the new car was designed with improved driver safety as the primary concern. In addition to significant safety enhancements, the car offers performance and competition improvements, as well as cost management for teams.
With the progress the car has shown on the racetrack so far this season, the car is likely to go into service full time next year rather than the originally planned 2009 timetable.
Brett Bodine, NASCAR director of cost research, described the car at its unveiling to media in January at NASCAR's research and development center in Concord, N.C.
"Undoubtedly, the Car of Tomorrow is a safer race car, and here's why," he said. "First, we have expanded and strengthened the roll cage by building a double frame rail on the driver's side, with steel plating on the outside of the roll cage door bars, to help prevent intrusion during car-to-car or car-to-wall impact."
"Dimensionally, the greenhouse is 2½ inches taller and 4 inches wider, with another 1 inch in width achieved by widening the tread width of the car on the left side. All of this provides for a safer and roomier driver's compartment."
"Through extensive testing and research, we've shared technology with a new partner, Dow Automotive, to develop an energy management material that is installed between the roll cage door bars and door panels to attenuate the energy upon impact," Bodine added.
"The relocation of the driver is another key safety feature," he said. "The driver has been moved to the right of the current location closer to the center of the car and further away from effects of a left-side impact."
The car has already demonstrated its durability on the racetrack in March, with Dale Jarrett's No. 44 Toyota being T-boned on the right side at Bristol. While obviously not happy about being hit, the 1999 Cup champion recognized the strength of the car.
"The car is very good and obviously does its job," Jarrett said.
Other drivers are also pleased with the safety performance of the CoT.
"I think the general concept of the Car of Tomorrow is a fantastic idea," said Kurt Busch, 2004 Cup champion. "It has quite a few safety implements that have been added that will help drivers feel safer in the cars."
Other safety improvements include increased side window size for quick egress in an emergency, something Dale Earnhardt Jr. was quick to notice.
"Absolutely, I really do feel safer," he said during CoT testing. "The car has a lot of room in it."
But no amount of testing beats driving the car under race conditions, and Earnhardt emerged from his Chevy Impala after Martinsville with a smile on his face.
"It was real funny," he said. "When you hit [other cars], it just throws them forward. It was kind of cool. I would have gotten spun out in that other car."
"I could lean on people real good," he added. "You could bounce off the wall. I think it's a good car."
"The matched-up bumpers seemed to help as far as the race goes, where if you got tagged in the rear or you hit somebody, the lead car didn't get jacked up and loose and come around," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition. "So that's something we knew from a safety standpoint would be better."
Additional improvements include a steel floorboard underneath the driver and an enclosed 360-degree steel tunnel to contain the driveshaft should it become disengaged, thereby preventing the possibility of flying metal. The importance of that was not lost on Robbie Loomis, executive vice president of racing operations for Petty Enterprises.
"Probably the biggest area that I noticed that people don't look at is the driveshaft area," he said. "They've really strengthened that up. If a driveshaft flies out of a car, that's one thing I always worry about most with these race cars. With the tunnel, the way they've constructed that, even if the driveshaft comes out, the driver should be completely safe."
Loomis' boss, Richard Petty, is also pleased.
"It's about time," the seven-time Cup champion said. "We've been running basically the same car since 1981, and all they've done is refine it. The big deal is safety. You're never going to make it 100 percent safe, but you put safety in it and then you just throw the car around it."
The fuel cell has also been altered. Its capacity is now 4½ less, while the thickness of the steel that surrounds it has been doubled from .031 inches to .062 inches. The cell is surrounded by energy absorbing honeycomb material as extra impact protection.
Finally, the engine exhaust system has been routed to exit underneath the right side of the car to keep heat away from the driver in an effort to prevent heat exhaustion.
It was the routing of the exhaust system that caused overheating problems in the right door panel for some drivers at Bristol. NASCAR quickly stepped in to correct the problem, issuing a bulletin instructing teams to reconfigure the area around the protective foam to allow more air to circulate.
"Safety is the No. 1 priority of NASCAR," said spokesman Kerry Tharp. "NASCAR continues to focus on doing all it can in making it as safe as possible for our competitors. That is a never-ending process."