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Ingram: Hello Spoiler, Good-bye Rear Wing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 22 2010

Rear spoilers will be back on the Sprint Cup cars for a test this week and for racing this weekend. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

The switch to a spoiler on the COT chassis, which will help make it more of the car of yesteryear as well as the car of tomorrow, is a bit like team owners changing crew chiefs when things aren’t working right for one of their drivers. Why not try something different?

There’s no single fix that will send NASCAR’s TV ratings soaring again or start selling out Bristol once more. But the switch to a rear spoiler is another way for the sanctioning body to demonstrate a commitment to keep the NASCAR franchise and the Sprint Cup appealing, especially to fans who prefer a spoiler to a wing.

The rear wing has been a lightning rod ever since the COT’s designer Gary Nelson first put on a wing, which was derived from those used on Top Fuel dragsters. An uproar ensued after the first wing appeared in a test. Stung by the criticism, Nelson was then called in by the late Bill France Jr., at the time the chairman of NASCAR, for a discussion. France Jr. told Nelson to do what he thought would work.

Of all the changes NASCAR could make to the COT, replacing the rear wing with the spoiler is the easiest technical adjustment and certainly the most visual and symbolic. But will it work?

Testing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway this week is likely to help teams learn more about the spoiler than prove that it will make the racing better. If nothing else, a technical change helps the rivals of driver Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports believe they might be able to find an edge against the four-time champion due to a change in the technical package.

The way Johnson keeps coming out ahead of his Hendrick teammates, who have access to the same information, it seems unlikely the advantage is purely technical.

Will the return of the rear spoiler lead to the same kind of controversy as the change back to a “Have at it, boys” mentality?

I think the nature of the current racing in the Sprint Cup has much to do with the quality and depth of the front-running teams more than anything else. Given a standard body, whatever device is used to add stability at the rear of the car in traffic or otherwise isn’t going to change the depth of talent behind the wheel and the engineering skills now employed by the top teams.

Double-file restarts and late-race pit strategy will, as at Bristol, continue to play a major role in whether a race has some drama in it.

The days of watching a driver come back from 30 seconds down to catch and pass the leader are long gone. Those were also the days when roughly seven drivers had a chance of winning any given race and spent most of the day lapping the rest of the field. Not necessarily bad days, they’re not going to be repeated, whether teams use standard bodies or not, because of the success of NASCAR and the resulting resources available to the teams.

On the safety front, the familiar formula still applies. Speed is the crucial element when it comes to cars lifting off. Cars that are at the limit for takeoff which are subsequently rammed will tend to lift off if they get turned sideways. Assuming top speeds remain the same at the fastest tracks, one hopes the rear spoiler will be less likely to provide lift and may help the roof flaps deploy more quickly. Maintaining the rear deck fin may be the most important development by “dirtying” the air across the rear deck lid in the case of a spin.

One of the more interesting stategies of Nelson when it came to the COT design was moving the center of aerodynamic pressure toward the rear of the car, accomplished by relocating the “greenhouse” and extending the rear. That tended to make the cars almost self-correcting when at yaw – especially with world-class drivers sawing on the wheel. Kyle Busch, among others, quickly became known for tremendous saves in the COT when his car got out of shape at Daytona and Talladega.

It was only after cars got turned around by contact that the vulnerability of the COT to liftoff came into play. That plus the higher speeds at Talladega occasioned by bump drafting, itself facilitated by the new bumpers on the COT. Those bumpers were designed to keep one car from submarining another. That, too, would tend to lift cars off.

The jury is still out on the issue of “aero push,” one of the major factors that led to use of a rear wing in place of a blade-type spoiler. NASCAR officials believe the shape and placement of the spoiler and an upright position will help overcome the problem.

In the larger scheme of things, NASCAR faced the same problems as every major sanctioning body in the world when it came to advances in aerodynamics that have resulted in less overtaking.

Compared to Formula One, IndyCar or sports cars, I think NASCAR attacked the problem of dependence on aerodynamics far more successfully. And, they did it without substantially reducing lap times, which really would have dulled the appeal of the COT. (The speeds in the turns were sustained by adding the sideforce from the rear wing’s end plates and the extended rear quarterpanels, which replaced the downforce taken out of the bodywork. NASCAR anticipates replacing the sideforce from the wing end plates by extending the rear quarerpanels lower and by use of the rear deck fin.)

In the long run, keep an eye on the new cars in the Nationwide Series, which could well become a hothouse for other possible changes to the COT. The front end of those cars look very interesting… .

Quote of the Week: The following conversation took place between Gary Nelson and the late Bill France Jr. shortly after Nelson, the designer of the COT, first began experimenting with a rear wing in place of a blade spoiler.

“Mr. France said to me, ‘You’re getting a lot of controversy with that wing, aren’t you?’

I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He says, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’

I said, ‘I’m not sure.’

He said, ‘Do you think it will work?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

I’ll never forget his answer. ‘Put the goddamned wing on the car and if it doesn’t work don’t be too proud to take it off.'”

See ya! …At the races.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 22 2010