Jim Salisbury | In racing, tomorrow arriving in a new car

Posted: June 02, 2007

DOVER, Del. - In the late 1930s, when they first started racing stock cars in Daytona Beach, Fla., a guy named Marion McDonald decided it was better to be safe than sorry.

So Mad Marion, as he was called, tied himself into the driver's seat with a piece of rope and taped a knife to the dashboard in case he needed to make an emergency exit.

All these years later, folks still are trying to make race cars safer.

The latest attempt will hit the concrete tomorrow at Dover International Speedway as the Monster Mile hosts the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series and the Autism Speaks 400.

The race will mark the sixth time this season that competitors will drive what has become known as the Car of Tomorrow. NASCAR is easing in the car this season. Next year, the Car of Tomorrow will become the Car of Today and will be used in every race.

For something so seemingly well-intended, the Car of Tomorrow has endured its share of criticism and complaints.

It doesn't handle well.

It's not as fast.

It's ugly.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke for all the critics earlier this season when he said, "With all the knowledge and technology we have, it's ridiculous that these cars are so bad."

Junior softened up a little yesterday when he qualified second with a time of 152.387 m.p.h.

NASCAR drivers aren't big on change, so the complaints about performance will continue, of course. They probably won't stop until the day someone hits the wall and walks away saying the Car of Tomorrow saved his life.

"I think it's the right call," said Jeff Burton, who appreciates the safety the new car offers. "I think it's 100 percent the right thing to do."

"I didn't think it was necessary," Denny Hamlin said. "But it's the wave of the future, so you've got to deal with it."

NASCAR continually is trying to make its game and equipment safer. The head and neck stabilizing device that might have saved Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s life six years ago is now mandatory. Jeff Gordon walked away from a terrifying wreck at Pocono last summer thanks to the track's cushioned safety walls.

The Car of Tomorrow has an enlarged cockpit, which has allowed the roll cage to be strengthened. The driver sits four inches closer to the center, taking him farther away from any driver-side impact. The roof of the car is 21/2 inches higher.

But safety is only one reason for the development of the Car of Tomorrow.

NASCAR is trying to standardize the race car so that teams won't need to design different cars for different tracks. Drivers will be able to run the same model on a super speedway like Daytona as they do on a shorter, tighter track like Dover, or a road coarse like Watkins Glen. The car has a front-end splitter and a rear wing, both of which allow crews to tune the aerodynamics of the car to a certain track.

In the end, fewer cars will have to be built, thus saving owners money.

The standardizing of the cars, in theory, also should level the playing field, thus making the competition better. However, that hasn't happened yet. Powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports has won all five Car of Tomorrow races, with Jimmie Johnson and Gordon taking two apiece and Kyle Busch winning once.

There is always great excitement surrounding the race at Dover because it's a great track. As its moniker suggests, the Monster Mile lends itself to action. It's long enough to do some real racing and tight enough to put a premium on handling and maneuvering. When the drivers speak highly of this place, they're not blowing exhaust.

This trip to Dover has even more intrigue because of the Car of Tomorrow. The mystery is even greater because testing of the car at the track was canceled after weather problems disrupted the schedule. Drivers used the car there for the first time yesterday.

"This race will be the biggest test so far for this car," Hamlin said.

The biggest test will be the handling. Yesterday, veteran driver Mark Martin said the car was more of a challenge to maneuver than the regular Cup car. That could be an issue at Dover.

"Dover is one of the toughest tracks we go to," Johnson said. "It's very intense. It's also narrow, so if you spin out, you hit something."

Johnson didn't have any disparaging words for the new car. Of course, he drives for the team that has dominated Car of Tomorrow races.

Johnson's teammate, Gordon, said that most of the resistance to the car has come from teams still trying to win with it.

"The guys that are beating everybody up real bad are loving the car," he said. "The guys whose cars aren't working are hating it."

We'll get to see what all this fuss is about tomorrow, when the Car of Tomorrow comes to Dover.

Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.

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