NASCAR Sprint Cup: The 10 Biggest Technological Innovations of the Last 10 Years
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series falls victim to a common misconception when the uninitiated take a look at it.
They often have the impression that the teams are just a handful of shade tree mechanics souping up the family car in the backyard and taking it racing on Sunday afternoon.
It couldn't be farther from the truth.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series features some of the world's most exotic automobiles.
They'll never have a dashboard like KITT on Knight Rider, but the technology that goes into the cars allows the teams to milk every last thousandth of a second in speed out of the car while keeping the drivers safer than they've ever been.
Here's a look at ten technological advances that have changed NASCAR in the last 10 years. They've made it safer, more competitive than ever, and a little more attractive to the sponsors necessary to keep the sport moving forward.
1. The Car of Tomorrow (or Today)
It was dubbed "The Flying Brick" by Tony Stewart, but it's been gliding along for more than three seasons.
The Car of Tomorrow was in part a result of the investigation into the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt in 2001, and it made it's debut in the spring of 2007.
More than anything, Earnhardt's crash changed NASCAR and how it viewed safety. It revealed flaws in the design of the car and exposed weak points that could be bolstered to make the car much more secure.
The redesigned car had a number of innovations designed to increase survivability in an accident.
The driver was moved inboard from the door behind a layer of energy absorbing foam and the greenhouse area from the bottom of the side windows to the roof was expanded creating more headroom for the driver.
The chassis was designed with crush zones and the drive shaft was placed inside a protective sleeve to keep it with the car should the shaft mounts fail.
That's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of safety innovations, and the car also changed the sport from a competitive standpoint.
The conventional nose was traded for a splitter, designed to utilize air from underneath the car in front of it to provide more front downforce and eliminate the dreaded aero-push.
A wing with sideplates replaced the conventional blade spoiler on the deck lid to get air under the wing and to the trailing car's nose and cowl.
The inspection process for the car is much more exacting than with the old car, making each team operate essentially within a common body template.
That template is the same from race to race, which was intended to cut the cost of construction of the car since the same car could be used anywhere without the body modifications that became part of the aerodynamic arms race during the years of the "twisted sister" car.
The teams could decrease the number of cars in their fleet, since they became interchangeable.
Since the body of the car has been minimized as a place to seek an advantage, teams have looked elsewhere to find an edge.
2. Shock Technology
With the cars getting more and more standardized on the outside, the teams have been forced to find their edge somewhere else.
Mechanical grip is a good place to start.
The shock technology in the Sprint Cup series has become one of the places where teams are now on the cutting edge of the evolution of the sport.
Most every team now employs at least one shock specialist who is charged with finding the combination that will allow the car to get as low to the ground as possible without dragging the splitter on the nose of the CoT.
One of the ways to do this is by employing bump stops that hold the shock up and keep it from completely compressing and dragging the front of the car.
The delicate balance between getting the car to ride low in a "hound dog" position without dragging the nose and lifting the front tires off the ground has become one of the critical points on the car.
It's gotten so advanced now that NASCAR is issuing shocks for restrictor plate races, much the same way as the sanctioning body does with the plates themselves.
3. Shaker Rigs
The seven-post shaker rig has been around for a few years now, but it's more important now than ever since testing at tracks on the schedule has been ended to cut costs.
The shaker rig allows teams to use a complex computer program to simulate any track on the schedule, right down to every bump and load on the car.
The car is placed on a platform that just just as the name implies: it shakes the car while mounted on pedestals under the wheels.
Data harvested from the actual track allows the team to see how the chassis moves as it covers the track.
The results give teams a very good baseline as to how their cars will respond over time and how the suspension components will endure over the course of a Sunday afternoon.
4. Complex Fluid Dynamics Simulations
It was often said that the late Dale Earnhardt could see the air. Now all the engineers can too.
Complex Fluid Dynamics simulations have allowed teams to see how their cars will behave in the air without actually going to the wind tunnel.
The programs require the construction of a wire model of the car in the computer.
Aerodynamic engineers can then put the car in any situation they want. They can have it trail another car, run inside of it, outside of it, or ahead of it. They can also simulate how changes in in the body profile will impact downforce or drag.
CFD applications have given teams much greater insight into exactly how air hinders the speed of the car, but it also shows teams how they can use the air to make the car better.
5. The Spoiler (Again)
One of the long standing fan criticisms of the Car of Tomorrow was the wing on the back.
In a move during the 2010 season, NASCAR issued a technical bulletin calling for teams to remove the rear wing and replace it with the traditional blade spoiler on the rear deck lid.
The change came in concert with an extension of the quarterpanel downward behind the rear wheel to compensate for the absence of the side plates on the wing. This was intended to give the car back some of the sideforce that was lost with the removal of the wing.
The change befuddled some teams for a time, and some have speculated that the return of the spoiler caused problems for Hendrick Motorsports during the middle of the season.
The season ended with a fifth straight title for the No. 48 team. They figured it out.
6. HANS Device
The HANS device was another piece of equipment that became part of the NASCAR lexicon in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident in 2001.
Following the accident, NASCAR mandated the use of some sort of head and neck restraint by all of its drivers.
The HANS device is by far the most popular of those systems.
Shaped like the letter U, the device goes over the shoulders and then sits underneath the shoulder harness in the cockpit.
The back of the unit goes around the neck like an upturned collar. On either side are hooks which allow the HANS to be tethered to the helmet.
In practice, the HANS limits the forward movement of the head by stabilizing the helmet with the tethers. It prevents catastrophic injury by removing the load from the spinal column and transferring it to the tethers.
HANS devices are now the industry standard for personal safety equipment when it comes to preventing deadly neck injury.
7. Carbon Fiber Seats
Carbon fiber and other high stress materials have become the norm in the last decade for driver safety.
The seats are made of all different materials, but carbon fiber is the most common.
The seats are form fitted to the driver, and keep the driver secure in the event of an impact. They have headrests to keep the driver's head from moving from side to side and they have fins on either side to prevent the torso from moving in a side impact.
Before Dale Earnhardt's fatal accident, the high tech seats were hit and miss in the Sprint Cup Series. Now, they're readily visible any time you see a driver in the cockpit.
8. SAFER Barriers
SAFER barriers are everywhere in 2010 NASCAR.
In just about every corner where there is the possibility of a head on impact the energy absorbing walls have been installed.
The SAFER barrier is square steel tubing backed up by energy absorbing foam that is attached to the concrete retaining wall.
Energy from an accident is transferred along the tubing and backward to the foam and makes the wall much more forgiving than its concrete predecessor.
In 2001, SAFER barriers were like unicorns. Everyone loves them, but you don't see them much.
In 2010, there's not on oval corner in NASCAR without them.
9. Vinyl Vehicle Wraps
Wrapping has become the method of choice for cosmetically preparing a car for race day.
In an era where full season sponsorships are harder to come by, teams can change a car's look in just a few hours from one part time sponsor to the next.
It also allows a sponsor to target specific products as part of a larger program with a team, such as Kevin Harvick going from Shell/Pennzoil to Pennzoil Platinum during the season.
The car doesn't have to be painted, since the whole thing is done with what is essentially a giant sticker.
It also allows for more complex schemes to be created since it doesn't tie up the car during a lengthy painting process and for quick touch-ups if the car is dinged up in practice with on site wrapping facilities.
An added benefit of more paint schemes is more die-cast replicas. If you're a collector, every time your driver drops a new paint scheme, you're dropping fifty bucks on a new die-cast to keep the collection complete.
That's not to mention the commemorative t-shirts for the occasion.
10. Loop Data
Loop data has given NASCAR what all stick and ball sports have.
NASCAR now has lots of numbers for comparison.
With transponders on the car and receivers embedded in the race track, teams, fans and journalists can now monitor almost every aspect of a driver's performance.
Loop data programs have made it possible to see where exactly passes are made and keeps constant track of how many passes are going on.
It's also made it easier for NASCAR to implement double-file restarts and the green, white, checker finishes since with the loop data every driver's position is electronically monitored.
The use of the data by journalists is still catching on, but it's an invaluable tool to quantitatively track a driver's performance.