By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
NASCAR has made it clear that its boxy new Car of Tomorrow is practically untouchable when it comes to attempts at creativity by the teams.
With imbedded sensors, lasers to check on them, a new set of templates connected like a jigsaw puzzle and a steely determination by the sanctioning organization to keep the playing field level for all competitors, the big question is whether the arrival of the COT means the end to imagination in a sport known for its ingenuity.
Racing teams, particularly in NASCAR, always have taken pride in the fact that designers, mechanics and engineers have found ways to use the so-called gray areas on the cars to be creative and find at least a temporary advantage over other teams.
But the gray areas keep getting smaller and NASCAR is cracking down on even the smallest thing its inspectors see as a violation on its new car, seven years in development and intended to be safer, more competitive and less expensive to produce.
The new car, which will race 16 times this season, was scheduled to be blended into the schedule over a three-year period. But NASCAR has pushed it forward and the COT will run all 36 races in 2008.
Meanwhile, Chad Knaus and Steve Letarte, crew chiefs for reigning Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion and current points leader Jeff Gordon, are serving the second week of a six-week suspension as the Cup teams head for Daytona Beach and Saturday night’s Pepsi 400.
Two weeks ago at Sonoma, Calif., inspectors found illegal modifications to the front fenders of the two Chevrolets and NASCAR came down hard. Despite protests from Hendrick officials that the area modified was between the points where the template for that area is supposed to fit snugly, the two cars were held out of practice and qualifying on Friday at Sonoma and had to start from the rear of the field on Sunday.
The other shoe fell several days later when Knaus and Letarte were suspended and fined $100,000 each. The drivers also lost 100 points apiece.
These were the same penalties handed down several weeks earlier to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. after their COT was found to have illegal brackets on the rear wing of their No. 8 Chevrolet.
After NASCAR flagged Johnson and Gordon at Sonoma, Doug Duchardt, vice president of development for Hendrick, said, “We felt we understood fully the rules around the template. We felt that we could work between the points on the template, and it is now clear to us, and I think to everyone, that that is not acceptable.”
So where does that leave all the clever folks who work on these cars?
“They have taken almost all the creativity out of the bodies, which in my prior life was one of the biggest benefits. So that hurts a little bit,” said Ford NASCAR field manager Ben Leslie, a former crew chief.
“The bodies are locked down pretty tight, almost locked down completely,” he added. “The chassis is fairly tight. But there’s still a little bit of latitude here and there. I think there’s just been a shift. The creativity has to go into shocks, springs, bars, bump stops, pivot points and all of that stuff.”
But does that mean the excitement is gone for the people who work on these cars?
“I had a lot of enjoyment when I felt like I had thought of something that somebody else hadn’t, meaning other crew chiefs and the rules makers,” Leslie said.
“That’s the job I was given. My car owner gave me the task of making the (No.) 6 car as fast as possible, and NASCAR gives their inspectors the task of making sure everybody’s on a level playing field. Yeah, it takes some of the fun out of it. But some of it might have been getting out of hand.”
Team owner and former driver Richard Childress agrees that things might have been getting out of hand in manipulating the bodies of the cars in recent years.
“If you look at the current car, it had gotten so far out of the box – it’s twisted and looked like it had been wrecked before the race started,” Childress said.
“This (COT) is the car that NASCAR has given us and these are the set of rules and, even though I’m not in that job, it’s still our job as competitors to beat everybody else in the garage area,” he added. “You take pride in other areas now.”
John Darby, NASCAR’s garage boss, doesn’t believe the changes NASCAR is making should stifle creativity at all.
“I haven’t seen the toolboxes get any smaller, which tells me there’s still plenty of stuff to work on,” Darby said. “The real fact of the matter is the ingenuity and the things like the car body, which is what we’re talking about specifically, it’s still there.
“The (rear) wing has got over 16 degrees of travel in it to tailor your rear downforce to whatever you need to do to balance the car. Your front splitter is adjustable. They have a pretty full selection of what wing end plates they can put on the car. Changing all of those things represents the same result as when you used to go home and cut a whole body off and change something.
“It’s just a whole lot less work and a whole lot less expensive,” Darby said.
Robbie Loomis, a former championship crew chief with Gordon and now a vice president at Petty Enterprises, said he believes the penalties to Knaus and Letarte were too harsh and that the key to the situation is more communication.
“We’re going through a tough time because it’s a transitional period,” Loomis said. “Mainly, the communications from the teams to NASCAR has got to really get a lot stronger so that it’s defined very clearly what a gray area is and what it isn’t.”
Childress agreed with that, saying, “We all have to be on the same page and, sometimes, that just doesn’t seem to be the way it is. We all, NASCAR and the teams, need to work on that.
“I still enjoy (the sport) but, today, the competition, the responsibility, the microscope we’re under, it’s so much greater than it was. It never gets easier.”