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Ingram: The Push Is On To Fix The COTs

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 4 2010
The COTs are back for another year and the debate rages on whether that is a good thing.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The COTs are back for another year and the debate rages on whether that is a good thing. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

When Smokey Yunick brought his Chevy to Daytona in 1968, the year after his little ol’ Chevelle beat the mighty factory teams of Chrysler and Ford to the pole for the 500, he ran into some opposition from Bill Gazaway, the director of the NASCAR garage.

After an extensive inspection, Gazaway called Yunick into his office and gave him a long list of changes before his car would be declared legal. When Yunick protested, Gazaway’s answer was brief.

Fix it, he said.

An angry Yunick then stormed back into the garage, jumped into the Chevelle, fired it up and drove his racing machine out of the track through the tunnel under Turn 4. According to legend, Yunick drove his race car all the way down Volusia Boulevard and back to his garage near the Halifax River without any fuel in a tank drained by inspectors.

Perhaps what goes around comes around. Over the past several months and on New Year’s wish lists, the officials of NASCAR have been hearing much the same message from fans and the media about its COT chassis that Yunick heard that day in Daytona.

Fix it.

If only there was an easy list of things that can be done to change the COT for the better.

You won’t find a soul who believes the COT is a good-looking car, because of a front splitter held in place by brackets, a 2-inch-taller  greenhouse, a short front overhang and a long rear overhang that carries a wing. But appearance wasn’t at the top of the list of criteria established by NASCAR. Improved safety, lower cost and better racing because of changes in aerodynamics were the primary goals.

Is the COT certifiably safer? Yes.

Has it saved money for teams with smaller budgets? Yes. (But there’s an asterisk here. Most of the teams in the back of the pack have “used cars” from the major teams, who continue to churn out new chassis in an effort to get weight lower down in the top-heavy COT.)

Has the COT produced better racing than its predecessor?

That’s the tough question.

There are no longer any “cars of yesterday” in Cup competition to which to compare the COT, now entering its third full year. In some key respects, though, the COT has proven to be a better car.

The reign of the COT’s immediate predecessor included relatively few last-lap passes at Daytona or Talladega, for instance. On the intermediate speedways, there was a constant situation of a faster car catching the leader and then not being able to pass because of “aero push.” From the perspective of drivers, the old cars were finicky when it came to mid-race adjustments, because of the use of coil-bound front springs that made the cars so dependent on aerodynamics in the corners.

The COT has resolved the problem of overtaking on the superspeedways, at least. In 2009, three of the four races at Daytona and Talladega were decided by last-lap passes under green while the last race at Talladega ended under caution.  If anything, the chief complaint now is that it’s too easy to pass, which allows drivers to hang at the rear to avoid wrecks. Another complaint is that the COT’s ability to bump-draft so effectively has been curtailed by NASCAR.

On the intermediate speedways, there’s also been some improvement. You don’t hear drivers complain about not being able to pass because of “aero push.” Now that the asphalt has cured at places like Charlotte, Chicago and Kansas City, high and low grooves have created more side-by-side racing at those facilities with the COT as well.

The biggest problems with the COT remain the same as with its predecessor. If one team hits the combination correctly, then it’s tough for anybody else to catch the leader, much less pass him. The other problem: difficulty in making chassis adjustments on the pit road while maintaining track position, which reinforces the first problem.

Gary Nelson was the COT designer. His concept was to put an end to “aero push” by removing nearly 20 percent of the downforce with changes to the body and by the removal of the rear spoiler in favor of a rear wing. The extended rear quarterpanels and the end plates on the wing, meanwhile, provided enough sideforce in the corners to prevent a 20-percent drop in over-all lap speeds.

Nelson hoped that teams would need to rely more on mechanical grip to get through the corners. Teams have indeed resorted to many different tactics with anti-roll bars, bump stops, shocks and coil-bound front springs. But they continue to rely on aerodynamics for cornering speeds despite the considerable reduction in downforce.

It’s like the old adage about once the genie is out of the bottle and the difficulty of putting it back in. Despite the loss in downforce and an increase in right-side weight caused by safety features, the successful teams are still relying primarily on aerodynamics for cornering speed with little leeway for getting it right or wrong. Getting it right on the pit road during races also remains difficult.

The relatively abysmal records of Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing in 2009 underscored the problem even veteran teams have experienced in hitting the right combination with the COT chassis.

It’s worth pointing out that the racing in mid-pack – where the aerodynamics are unsettled by so much dirty air – is incredibly furious and full of overtaking as drivers fight to get back to the cleaner air up front.

If this year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was any indication, more teams (particularly Roush and Childress) are figuring out how to make the COT work in order to get to the clean air at the front. The double-file restarts and pit lane tactics have helped contribute to more competitive racing as well, although to some extent they disguise the technical conundrum.

Tire development from Goodyear, which has come up with a more durable yet softer left side tire, and drivers who have gotten used to a car that is more difficult to turn in the middle of the corners, have also helped the COT, if only by reducing the verbal complaints about it from the cockpit.

In the end, much of the perception of the COT comes down to just that, perception.

Given it’s ungainly appearance and the arrival of what is regarded as an attractive new generation of Nationwide Series cars, appearance alone could be the biggest hurdle of them all for the COT to overcome no matter how well it performs.

Quotes of the week: We caught up with NASCAR President Mike Helton shortly before the end of the season and asked him about the COT and overtaking.

RacinToday: The teams seem to be getting better compliance out of the front end of the COT by doing things with the anti-roll bars, bump stops and so forth. Do you think that’s led to better racing and will we continue to see more of that?

Helton: I would say the continuity of this car has allowed the teams to do things within the regulations that we allow them to do, which is a small band. The box we’ve built around (the regulations) was done on purpose. The continuity with this car has given teams the time and the ability to learn the chemistry and architecture and the tastes of the drivers, which differs. That along with earlier this year giving them the ability to implement the adjustments around the sway bar, those things have helped a good deal with the latitude it takes to customize the feeling of a race car.

RacinToday: Good teams will figure it out over time and will figure it out at different rates. That’s probably not a bad thing.

Helton: History shows us that the nature of our garage area is someone figures out something first and then everybody else catches up with it. That goes in part behind the philosophy of building the box very small  to play in. When somebody finds something, others can catch up with it much quicker.

RacinToday: We’ve seen that passing and overtaking have changed over the years in the sport. What’s your take on passing and overtaking in general across different tracks?

Helton: I think the level of quality in the garage today is much deeper, which puts most teams very close to each other. You see it in qualifying speeds and race speeds. There’s a wide range of tracks in the Sprint Cup Series. You will see the drivers’ ability play out at different levels at different race tracks. You also see at different race tracks the machine part of it making a much bigger difference and the parity of those machines. I think it starts with the fact that the parity is so much deeper. People say they liked it in the old days, but in the old days guys were winning by four or five laps.

Quick hit: During the holiday season’s multitude of college bowl games and NFL match-ups, TV cameras often caught sections of open seats. But you don’t hear nearly as much about attendance problems in college or pro football as in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup.

The opinion here: both football and the Sprint Cup are suffering from being over-built in the last 10 years, in no small part because both share a “big event” mentality.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 4 2010
4 Comments

4 Comments »

  • Brian says:

    I actually think the COT is a good looking machine…it gets away from the traditional Stock Car but I think that was gone long ago. Fix it but don’t change it completely…our sport can’t go through another change like the COT put us through.

    • phil stigers says:

      Trim down the front splitter so the ends can’t be used (intentionally OR unintentionally) to cut down competitors tires. Come on guys!! This is just plain, common sense. My nephew overheard one of the Gibbs crew say they had used it that way several times last year. It REALLY broke his heart to hear that. What’s next – no Santa Claus??
      And, they also need to do something about that stupid rear wing. I know it’s suppose to be a “safety device” but it really seems to be doing as much harm as good. The drivers can’t see through them (VERY important) and even my 78 yr old Grandma thinks they make the cars look like “TINKER TOYS”. Her words. Honest!

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