It's NASCAR's dirty little secret. Even as stock-car racing draws capacity crowds, gobbles up millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships, and garners record TV ratings, the main attraction - the cars - could use a tune-up.
Next week, after 200,000 fans file out of Sunday's 600-mile race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, a dozen drivers will return here for two days of testing in a new prototype vehicle. Dubbed the "Car of Tomorrow," it aims to increase safety while spurring a return to the side-by-side racing popularized during the 1960s and 1970s.
"This is probably the biggest thing we've done in the competition area in 20 years," says NASCAR Chairman Brian France. "We're anxious to get this done and get it done correctly."
In short, the new race car, developed by NASCAR's research-and-development arm, includes a number of safety innovations (the driver's seat moves four inches closer to the center of the car; protective cages are taller and wider) and offers a possible solution to the endless engineering and body types that turn tracks into no-passing zones. By employing a more upright windshield and a thicker, boxlike front bumper designed to create drag, the new car should ensure that no lead is safe.
"Competition is going to get better," says Humpy Wheeler, a longtime racing promoter and president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., a publicly held operator of NASCAR tracks.
"Purists don't like it, but purists only buy 20 percent of your tickets," he says. "I need the other 80 percent, too. And they want to see cars passing each other on the track. This new car will give us that."
Veteran observers say the current cars have become so aerodynamically efficient that even when rivals have a superior car, they often can't slingshot around the leader. Without such back-and-forth maneuvers, many races, as Wheeler says, lack sufficient drama.
Take the sport's signature track in Daytona, Fla. For decades, the lead car was in peril on most laps because others in the field would draft behind one another, gain additional momentum, and whip past. "If you were first, you were a sitting duck," says Benny Parsons, a retired NASCAR champion who now serves as a race analyst on NBC and TNT. "Now you're [an automatic] winner."
NASCAR plans to have all teams using the new car in 16 races next season, 26 in 2008, and for all 36 events the following year. But many drivers - and others in and around the sport - say they don't like change. And there can be no bigger change for NASCAR drivers and teams than adjusting the physics - and physical composition - of their race cars.
"They're looking for [the Car of Tomorrow] to cure a lot of problems that they have, and I think it's only going to create new ones," says FOX Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip, who won three season championships during his NASCAR career. "It's going to be one of those rules of unintended consequence. They can't foresee all that is going to happen with this car."
Some NASCAR owners have already grumbled about the infinite variables and costs associated with the new prototype. Since the teams bear their own competition costs, the prospect of retiring portions of their fleets isn't appealing.
NASCAR officials promise safer and more competitive cars. They also tout the reduced costs for teams by removing the need for seemingly infinite (and costly) tinkering.
Last season's champion, Tony Stewart, says little about the prospects of the new car, but, in both brevity and body language, he conveys the ambivalence many drivers share. "I really don't know," Stewart says. "Without seeing it and being in it and driving it - it's hard to talk about something you haven't seen yet."
A few drivers, such as Kyle Petty and Kevin Harvick, have participated in early testing and offered more optimistic perspectives. Still, as Parsons and others attest, the pervasive mood in the garage is skepticism.
"Don't ask Tony Stewart or anybody who's doing well [in races]," Parsons says. "Why in the world would you want to change when things are going well? Besides, we don't need a car that 43 [drivers] like. We need something that millions [of fans] like."