Kevin Harvick remembers being wedged in so tightly, that during superspeedway races the roll cage was touching the left side of his helmet. Elliott Sadler remembers his head rubbing the against the ceiling, and knowing that any impact on the driver's side was probably going to hurt. Jimmie Johnson remembers being crammed up against the steering wheel, in a cockpit so claustrophobic that he worried about what might happen if he flipped over.
"I remember actually being afraid if I got upside down," the five-time NASCAR champion said. "I thought the roof would smash into my head."
That was the reality for drivers who competed in the sport's premier division between 1992-2006, in a cramped fourth-generation Cup car that was built for speed and little else. All that changed in 2007, with the introduction of a vehicle known grandly as the "Car of Tomorrow," which ushered in a new era of safety that's being carried over to the more brand-identifiable 2013 cars that make their debut at Daytona in February.
The Car of Tomorrow was polarizing from the very beginning -- it was derided by the first driver to win a race in it, and traditional fans blanched at the sight of the rear wing that initially topped the deck lid. And yet, what it lacked in aesthetics it made up for in functionality, particularly in a greenhouse that offered the driver vastly improved amounts of space and protection. No, it didn't win any style points. But designed in the wake of Dale Earnhardt's fatal crash, it served a much higher purpose, allowing driver after driver to climb out following accidents and walk away.
Now, the book on the CoT has been closed -- the vehicle competed for the last time in November, at the finale in Homestead. Snazzy 2013 cars, which look much more like their production counterparts and have earned rave reviews from fans and drivers alike, have already hit the track for testing. But within each new machine are innovations and advancements born from its predecessor, tried and true safety systems hidden beneath a new skin. The Car of Tomorrow is gone, but it leaves a legacy that helped NASCAR become one of the safest motorsports series in the world.
"I think we moved the needle quite a ways, comparing that car to its predecessor," said Brett Bodine, NASCAR's senior director of racing for research and development, who played a major role in testing the CoT. "We can look back now and look at all the incidents that took place that, the outcomes were favorable. And I think that alone speaks well from its performance on the safety front."
The Car of Tomorrow ushered in a litany of safety improvements: a higher and wider roll cage to give the driver more room, a seat positioned more toward the center of the vehicle, double frame rails and plated door bars on the left side, a more substantial floorboard, an enclosed driveshaft tunnel, protective foam outside the door bars, and on and on and on. All of those advancements are carried over to the 2013 cars, with the addition of further upgrades like an extra roll bar in the windshield area -- dictated by crash analysis and lab testing, Bodine said -- and additional window netting in the left front A-post area.
"It had a huge safety advancement in the beginning, and it clearly accomplished that," NASCAR chairman Brian France said of the outgoing vehicle. "It had a cost benefit. And those are all good things, and we'll transfer those into the new car."
Those things clearly made a huge difference to drivers, who remember being jammed into the vehicle that preceded the CoT. Taller drivers in particular could feel very uncomfortable behind the wheel. "It was getting to the point where we were building the car so small greenhouse-wise, for aero, that my head was almost rubbing the ceiling everywhere," recalled the 6-4 Sadler, who now competes on the Nationwide Series. "And mentally, you feel like you hit the wall driver's-side, it's going to hurt."
Taller drivers weren't the only ones who felt that way. "Speedway races, the roll bar would actually be touching the left side of your head because you couldn't get the seat down low enough with where the truck arms were," Harvick said. "Just from a driver's standpoint as far as room in the car, it's a remarkable difference."
Even Bodine, who stands 5-7, remembers feeling cramped in the vehicle during his racing days. "I could not imagine Michael Waltrip or some of our taller drivers, David Reutimann, racing in those cars," he said. "I see the difference, and it's just amazing. I know when we were developing the Car of Tomorrow back then, the roominess -- because I did all the test-driving in the NASCAR vehicle -- I was just like, 'Wow. I'm not crowded. I don't feel claustrophobic, there's a lot of room, I can see out of this car.' It was a huge difference."
Ensuring that all the new safety systems were installed correctly also brought a new method of inspection. Prior to the Car of Tomorrow, NASCAR officials didn't see race cars until they arrived at the track. But with so many safety advancements added, NASCAR began the process of pre-certification, by which teams would bring a car's skeleton -- frame, roll cage, floorboard and firewalls -- to the Research and Development Center. The process was eventually extended to the Nationwide Series, which uses the same chassis as the Sprint Cup tour, and will continue to be standard procedure with the 2013 cars.
"That was new. And it was a big undertaking to change an inspection process that had been going on for years and years, which was literally only done at the race track in a short period of time," Bodine said. "Most schedules were, you opened the garage at 7 on Friday morning, and cars were on the race track by 11. Well, that was not enough inspection time to ensure that all these safety elements would be in play and used correctly. So the first stage of that process had to take place here at the R&D Center."
It's yet another example of how the Car of Tomorrow lives on, even though the vehicle has now been resigned to yesterday. All those safety improvements will still be there, concealed beneath bodies that more closely resemble those of production models, when the new "Generation 6" cars roll out at Daytona. What to do with their predecessors? Carl Edwards has an idea.
"I've got some acreage out in Missouri," he said. "We could get these things out there and tear some splitters off. That would be a lot of fun. They'd probably handle pretty well in a bean field."