Getting used to the Car of Tomorrow

Fifty NASCAR Nextel Cup teams descended on Bristol Speedway last week to take part in a rain-shortened test of the Car of Tomorrow.

NASCAR has specified the new design for 16 races this season, 26 in 2008, and the full Cup schedule for 2009. However, there were indications at Bristol that 2008 may instead be the year for full implementation of the Car of Tomorrow.

Bristol was not only an opportunity for drivers, crew chiefs, and other team members to get more familiar with the new car, but also for NASCAR officials. With the new design comes a whole new set of inspection procedures and tools. One major change is the template check: instead of multiple templates being fitted to the car by hand, there is a new station that applies several retractable templates to the car simultaneously. Hopefully this will speed up the inspection process.

The switch will be costly to NASCAR's teams initially, but the whole idea is to reduce costs in the long run. Because of the enhanced adjustability of the new car design, one car can theoretically be used for short tracks, superspeedways, road courses, and intermediate ovals, thus eliminating the need for a huge stable of specialized cars suited to only one type of track. It sounds good in theory, but I'm sure the law of unintended consequences will rear its ugly head at some point in the process. One beneficial consequence, intended or not, is that wanna-be racers will see a whole bunch of NASCAR stock cars coming on the market after this season. "Vintage" racing with retired Cup cars has become popular, and I can see a lot more people getting into the game as these cars become available.

No Cup cars will be running this weekend, but a number of Cup drivers will be traveling south of the border to join the Busch series regulars and a number of Latino drivers and road course ringers at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City for the third annual Busch outing there. Turn on ESPN2 at 10:30 this morning to catch the race (after the mandatory hype and ceremony, of course).

Checking into the open-wheel side of the racing world, construction began last Thursday on the Champ Car World Series Las Vegas street race, scheduled to be run on April 8. Construction crews began moving the first of almost 3,000 concrete barriers into place to construct the 12-turn, 2.44 mile long temporary road course that will wind in and around Glitter Gulch.

To alleviate the impact on Sin City's already snarled traffic, work will take place at night, as if that matters to a 24-hour town. When complete, some 12,000 tons of concrete barrier, 3,000 pieces of 9-foot tall debris fencing, and 800 tire barriers will line the course.

Unfortunately, there may not be many racecars to be seen. With a number of teams fielding only one car this season, and some teams without backup cars, Las Vegas could see the smallest Champ Car field ever.

At this point only 16 cars are probable barring any accidents that might take out a driver with no backup car. Panoz, the manufacturer of the new Champ Car chassis, has halted construction of any more cars with only 25 delivered. So the announcement of the course construction in Las Vegas is somewhat of a bittersweet moment in what may be the last season for Champ Car.

On the other side of the open-wheel divide things aren't too much better, car count-wise. Eighteen cars and drivers are listed for the season opener at Miami-Homestead on March 24. Media darling Danica Patrick has joined the four-car Andretti-Green team, and Sarah Fisher is back in the series driving for Dreyer and Reinbold. So Indy Car not only outdoes Champ Car in car count, but also has twice as many female drivers as Champ Car's Katherine Legge. The regulars in both series barely make up enough cars for the 33 starters in the Indy 500. I'm really afraid that if the two groups can't finally resolve their differences this season, we may have seen the last of big-time open-wheel racing in this country.

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