May 2 was a landmark date for Dodge racing. The reason? It was the first time a Dodge Intrepid in Winston Cup form was allowed to stretch its legs on the track. Until that point, everything had been speculation. But finally, rubber was hitting the road, and the Dodge's extensive R&D team could finally see how the car performed under real-world conditions.
"What we're trying to do here is basically a shakedown test for the car and also a shakedown test for the team," said Kyle Petty, one of two test drivers along with Petty Enterprises' Craftsman Truck Series driver Steve Grissom. "As we've talked about from the beginning, this is an R&D car put together by Evernham Motorsports, Petty Enterprises, and Bill Davis Racing. This whole concept of developing a car as a team is new, and this is the first time we've had people from all the different teams and all the Dodge engineers together. Now that we've got that out of the way, we can get down to basics and start testing the car like we need to be testing it."
The Intrepid's top speed around Homestead-Miami Speedway was well off the best times from Winston Cup qualifying there last season, but members of the test team say it's too soon to be worrying about absolute top speed. Instead, the purpose for the two-day test was to look at individual components, like different variations of the nosepiece. Also, the Winston Cup engine is not yet complete, and the team tested the car with a version of the engine used in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
"One of the things we were trying to get a good look at," Petty continued, "is engine cooling. If you look at the Intrepid, it doesn't have an upper grille opening. The only opening is below the bumper. What we tried to do was take the car and run some laps, add some tape to the opening and run some more laps so we can get a good estimation of how much cooling we can get from the lower grille openings.
"Obviously, Ford, Chevy, and Pontiac all have upper grille openings, but we don't know whether we need one for sure. What we don't want to have is a situation where we do a motor test and the thing overheats right away because we aren't getting enough air to the radiator."
Clearly, the Dodge Winston Cup development team has a lot of work ahead of it, but at least the group has finally hit the track. For Petty, though, this day meant a little more than just a test session; to be the first driver in more than a decade to crawl through the window opening of a Dodge race car was pretty special.
"I am incredibly excited to be a part of this," he explained, "especially from a family perspective. My father and grandfather both raced Dodges. Remember, I started my racing career in a Dodge, and it looks like I'm going to end it in a Dodge, so that will be cool."