CONCORD, N.C. - If all goes according to NASCAR's plan, sometime late next season Nextel Cup drivers will begin racing "a brick."
Not one made of clay, of course, but a big, bulky, aerodynamically challenged car. NASCAR wants something slower, safer for the drivers and less costly for team owners while still producing close, competitive racing.
"Some people do call it a brick," said Gary Nelson, who runs NASCAR's Research and Development Center. "We call it 'the Car of Tomorrow.' "
Nelson said the car probably will be worked into competition over two or three years, beginning at Daytona and Talladega, the longest and fastest tracks, where horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates slow the cars.
He said road courses and short tracks would probably be next, followed by 1 1/2- and 2-mile ovals that comprise the majority of the venues.
"The trick is you can't run this car on the track with the current car," Nelson said. "They won't mix in competition. It's not as aerodynamic, so it would be disadvantaged as far as running against the current car."
So far, the project that began shortly after Dale Earnhardt was killed three years ago in the Daytona 500 is right on schedule.
The death of stock car racing's biggest star has put many innovations on the fast track. There are mandatory head and neck restraints, energy-absorbing walls, escape hatches and an improved system to fight in-car fires.
But the Car of Tomorrow is perhaps the most far-reaching project.
It began with a push from then senior vice president Brian France, grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and now the organization's chairman.
"Brian's idea was to find out exactly where we are and determine where we wanted to go with the cars," Nelson said. "That's really where the R&D Center idea took hold, too.
"When you look at safety, competition and cost, if you say, 'Well, if we had a clean sheet of paper, we would do this and this differently.' Well, in doing that, you can't take the current car and raise up the rollcage or widen out the roof or straighten up the windshield angle without actually replacing the cage and the frame."
So, there's a prototype that already has been to the wind tunnel three times and was scheduled for it's first on-track test this week.
It has a roof two inches higher and four inches wider than the current car, with window openings also increased by the same dimensions. The driver's seat has been moved about 4 1/2 inches toward the middle of car and energy-absorbing materials have been added as "crush zones" to the front, rear and sides of the car.
"The biggest difference is the attention we've paid to occupant safety," said Nelson, a longtime Cup crew chief before he went to work for NASCAR. "When you make the cage bigger, the aerodynamics obviously change."
Also, the rear bumper is closer to the ground than the current one to prevent one car from driving under the back of another. Nelson said every part of the car has been scrutinized.
"The criteria we use is: if it's working, don't change it - unless we've tested something and found it is better," he explained. "Most of the things on the car have evolved over 40 or 50 years of racing and are pretty well refined."
Among the strong supporters of the project is team owner Cal Wells III, who brought his PPI Motorsports team to NASCAR from open-wheel racing, which has been more aggressive about safety in the past.
"I'm sure there will be evolution to it," Wells said. "One thing it does do is bring the car back a little bit more to what we drive on the street."
He sees no problem if NASCAR sticks to a three-year plan.
Don Miller, co-owner of Penske Racing South with Roger Penske and driver Rusty Wallace, also preaches patience.
"I think some of the stuff that they've come up with is good and some of it needs a lot more work," said Miller, who has seen the car. "The good thing about it is when they ask you to do something, they're serious about it and they're listening to what we say, and that is light years from the way it used to be."
Nelson agrees there is still much work to do, but the closer the project comes to fruition the more advantages he sees for everyone in the sport.
"Safety is the No. 1 goal," he said. "The other goal is eliminating the ability for money to buy speed."
Still, Nelson knows the teams will continue the quest to go faster.
"They're not going to stop working," he said. "We'd just like them work in areas that aren't so expensive for the car owner. We don't want to eliminate innovation. It's one of the core values of the sport. That's how this sport has gotten where it is."