Friday, April 6, 2007

Episode 3 of Innovation in Sports: NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow (CoT)

This is my third blog entry regarding innovation in sports (I'll call it my Innovation in Sports Trilogy). I’ve written about the failure of NBA Basketball and the better faring for the new NHL uniform. I talked about the processes employed and their user involvement. These were redesigns of equipment used for generations that had become visceral. NASCAR has joined these other sports and has redesigned their race car, dubbed the “Car of Tomorrow” (“CoT” for short).

They have taken 5 years to develop the CoT by an internal R&D team. The key features are:
  • Safety improvement
  • Performance upgrades
  • Cost reduction
  • More efficient to tune and produce

In the other redesigns I questioned the impetus to make such dramatic changes. Here we know it was mostly due to the death of Dale Earnhardt in 2001. They are debuting the car this year on short tracks and adding longer tracks in 2008. The plan is to have the entire 2009 schedule raced with Cars of Tomorrow. The effort is collaborative with manufacturers, teams and suppliers contributing to the process. Feedback from racers has been key. Even so there have been problems.

There is feedback from drivers who say the car is ugly, boxy and too slow. One fan, Todd Nesbit, is a professor of economics at Penn State Erie. He says that by making the car so much safer, drivers may be more reckless and take more risk. I wonder if this was anticipated by the design team.

Being more boxy eliminates “aero push,” which is something that makes it harder for one car to pass another. They say that this will make the races more entertaining. Was that in their business requirements or was that view added after the negative feedback?

Dow utilized a rapid prototyping process when designing the layer of foam protection inside the car that you cannot see. They iterated very fast and outdid what 200 other competitors couldn’t do. They created a low-cost, lightweight and energy absorbing material that made NASCAR happy. This wasn’t about profit but more about the prestige to Dow. This was all before they put it on the racetrack however. Since it has been tested by actual drivers in actual Cars of Tomorrow on actual racetracks, the foam seems to melt and release noxious fumes and sometimes even cause smoke and fire.

Clearly this underlines the importance of testing after a commercial product is launched. This also illustrates Google’s fifth notion of innovation in that it is not instant perfection. How you manage the discovery of imperfections through listening to customers and usability testing is what distinguishes them. As with the NHL uniform, the jury is still out here. I'm sure I'll circle back in the upcoming months on both of these as they are used more.

NOTE: I've had to rewrite this entry 3 times now because Blogger keeps deleting sections and merging the last 2 paragraphs. Blogger has done this to me on 4 blog entries now and it is really frustrating. Grrr!

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