Big changes are coming to NASCAR. On Wednesday afternoon, the sport formally unveiled its new race car, called the Next Gen. It makes its racing debut in 2022, and it’s a radical upgrade for a series that has earned a reputation—unfairly, as it happens—as a low-tech zone.
As I found out in 2018, stock car racing is no place for luddites. But a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that, based on the specs of the sport’s current Gen6 car. Transmissions with only four speeds, wheels with five lug nuts, and a solid rear axle all seem highly anachronistic to fans of most other types of motorsport. But from next year, all that stuff is gone.
Now, that actually looks like a modern race car
At its core, the Next Gen car sticks with a steel tubeframe chassis with integrated roll cage. But it’s clothed in composite body panels, not aluminum, and the bodies are now symmetrical. At the front, the most noticeable difference is that the cars from Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota really do look like Chevys, Fords, and Toyotas.
“One thing I noticed with that, if you look at the cars from the ’90s and ’80s, and what not, you could tell what type of car it was,” said Denny Hamlin, who races for Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota. “If they were all white, you could tell that’s a Pontiac, whatever. These, if you weren’t here, they look different. Like, it’s not just the same car with Toyota headlights and tail lights. These cars are a lot different. All three of them have a very distinct and different look from the front and back,” Hamlin said.
If prizes were awarded based upon appearance, the championship would probably be Ford’s for the taking. “This car is true to the Mustang brand, and we have to thank the Ford design team for working hand in hand with our aerodynamic engineers to ensure it is competitive on the track, while maintaining unique Mustang styling,” said Mark Rushbrook, head of Ford Performance. “That requires a lot of give and take on both sides, but with the new smaller greenhouse area and shorter rear deck, we were able to do a lot of things to make sure there’s no mistaking this is a Mustang.”
As Rushbrook mentioned, the greenhouse (the bit with the windows and windshield) is smaller than that in the Gen6 car, and the cab is pushed back, which gives the Next Gen car much more modern proportions. Moving to a more current corporate look probably doesn’t have a huge effect on the car’s performance (in the absence of all the other changes), but Ford, Chevy, and Toyota go racing to sell cars, and all three have been asking for a NASCAR Cup car that looks more like the vehicles they sell for some time now.
The changes are even more noticeable at the rear. When you look at the back of a Gen6 car, you see the fuel tank and plenty of daylight. But the Next Gen car features a large rear diffuser, which works together with a flat underfloor to generate aerodynamic downforce. NASCAR says that the Next Gen should suffer less from running in disturbed air, as well as in traffic.
“We spent decades, multiple decades, of trying all types of different aero packages, drag level, trying to improve,” said Eric Warren, head of NASCAR programs at General Motors (Chevrolet’s corporate parent). “Eventually you get to a point where a lot of it was how close the cars run to the ground, really getting some airflow under the car. As you start looking at it, we were like, ‘Alright, we got to kind of start over,'” Warren said.
However, a recent interview with seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson gives me pause for concern here. Johnson, now an IndyCar rookie, mentioned that high downforce race cars like IMSA’s DPi machines are much more difficult in traffic and dirty air than the stock cars he spent so much time driving. I’m also curious to see how the Next Gen cars cope with yaw as they negotiate the long and fast corners of a NASCAR oval, and in particular whether those new rear diffusers might cause everyone some headaches. And more downforce is not always a good thing, as Formula 1 has found out to the detriment of its racing.
“It’s going to take time to learn about it. First time we run together, there’s going to be a steep learning curve for everybody. First couple years are going to be exciting to see who rises to the top. Ultimately the good teams and drivers will always come out on top,” Warren said. That first multi-car test is scheduled for August at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.
Faster wheel changes
Although highly choreographed, there’s no denying that current NASCAR pitstops are slow. Each wheel has five lug nuts that have to be unscrewed before they can be removed, and each replacement has another five that have to be tightened before the car can leave. From 2022 that’s all over, because the Next Gen car uses 18-inch wheels with a single centerlocking nut, like every other racing series that features pitstops (and quite a few that don’t). But NASCAR President Steve Phelps isn’t concerned that faster pitstops would diminish the show.
“Other than hitting the five lugs, the choreography of the pit stop is going to look exactly the same. Putting the one lug until it’s tight and locks is going to be the only difference as part of this,” Phelps said. “The choreography is exactly the same. The number of folks over the wall, jacking up the car, taking the lug off, taking the tire off, putting the new tire on, hitting the lug. It’s exactly different, just hitting it once instead of five times. I don’t think the fans are going to really notice a significant difference. I really don’t.”
Under the skin
NASCAR is sticking with its 5.9 L pushrod V8s, but much else under the skin is new. The transmission is now a transaxle, instead of being bolted to the engine. And it has five sequential gears instead of an H-pattern gearbox with just four speeds. The steering is rack and pinion, there are bigger brake calipers, and it has a fully independent double wishbone suspension at all four corners. That may make a big difference to the racing when NASCAR visits a road course (something it’s increasingly doing).
“One thing I did realize right off the bat, the brakes are ridiculously good. You can’t smoke the brakes off this thing,” said Joey Logano, who races for Team Penske and Ford. Protecting the Gen6 car’s brakes on road courses was important, Logano said, “especially before they overheat. You can’t stop as good. You had to kind of be smart in that area. I’m not sure that will be like that anymore. I think you’ll be able to hustle the heck out of this car for a while before you start paying penalties. Maybe the penalty you pay is in the tire. I don’t know. That’s the thing that’s going to make this fun. I’m sitting here saying I don’t know, because I really don’t. If someone is telling you they know at this point, they’re probably lying to you. I don’t see how you can possibly know at this point,” Logano explained.
NASCAR has even made provisions for a future hybrid system. “The ability to have hybrid in there very easily in the very near future was important to us, something that NASCAR and the industry has already worked on,” said Ford’s Rushbrook. “We’re able to do that. That’s going to be important so that we can continue learning the technical innovation of hybrid systems, and beyond that, to full electric cars, too.”
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