NASCAR Next Gen racer accelerates into new era

NASCAR has a new car.

America’s most popular form of motorsport, the NASCAR Cup Series, introduced its Next Gen race car Wednesday. The seventh-generation racer is a major evolution that embraces 21st-century technologies to improve handling, reduce costs, increase safety, and eventually transition the series to hybrid power.

While NASCAR’s roots lie in Detroit Three stock car battles, “stock” production chassis were replaced in the early 1990s by a bespoke racing architecture. Today, all three official NASCAR partners — Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota — marry a common, tube-frame platform to a body design intended to reflect their current Camaro, Mustang, and Camry showroom offerings.

Each manufacturer — represented by NASCAR drivers and performance chiefs — showed off their new Next Gen designs at a joint press conference Thursday in North Carolina where most teams are based.

“We’re very excited about the Next Gen car. It’s really a big step forward for the sport …  and to be more relevant underneath with the chassis, steering, and engine systems,” Mark Rushbrook, Ford Performance global director, said in an interview. The exterior “proportions (are) much closer to what we have in today’s street Mustang.”

Chevrolet touted the improved, more athletic appearance of the race cars to better reflect their siblings on the showroom floor.

“The Next Gen Camaro has a much stronger link to the production Camaro ZL1 in terms of styling integration, improved proportions and relevant technologies,” said Chevy NASCAR director Eric Warren. “From an engineering standpoint, this is a seismic shift.”

Desperate to continue growing the sport into the 21st century and expand its partners beyond the Chevy-Ford-Toyota trio, NASCAR hopes the Next Gen car will generate more affordable — and more competitive — racing.

“The economic model for the sport is not sustainable,” said David Wilson, Toyota Racing Development president. “The Next Gen model represents revolutionary change akin to what IndyCar is doing today. It’s a game-changer.”

Central to that revolution is sourcing the Generation 7, tube-frame NASCAR chassis from a single supplier: Jackson-based Technique. A model for cost control, the open-wheel IndyCar series also has moved in recent years to a single-source chassis supplier (Italy’s Dallara). Currently, NASCAR’s Gen 6 car is built from the ground up by race teams, requiring big investments in fabrication technologies and Computerized Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines.

Delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic, the Next Gen racer will make its track debut at next February’s Daytona 500. Its more efficient production already has attracted new teams to the Cup Series, including Trackhouse Racing, Live Fast Motorsports, and 23XI Racing — the latter co-owned by NASCAR racer Denny Hamlin and ex-NBA superstar Michael Jordan.

The Next Gen NASCAR also promises future powertrain changes that could attract more automakers.

While the 2022 car will continue to use NASCAR’s ol’ reliable, pushrod V-8 engine, the new chassis has been designed to accommodate electrification updates for a hybrid powertrain — or even all-electric. Ford’s Rushbrook — echoing Ford’s corporate ambitions — is bullish on electrification in racing.

“We wanted to have the new car with carry-over engines. But then flexibility in the future to go to hybrid — and potentially full electric,” said Rushbrook, who has unveiled prototype electric Mustang Mach E and dragster racers in the last year. “As we go hybrid and electric that will be an opportunity for manufacturers to get in because they will start from Ground Zero.”

TRD’s Wilson agreed, and said the new engine/chassis package could open up NASCAR to six or seven manufacturers — similar to the IMSA GTD field where Toyota’s luxury Lexus sports car competes against Porsche, Acura, Aston Martin, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren, and Mercedes.

For now, however, 550-670 horsepower V-8s (depending on the track) will power the Next Gen NASCAR. Wilson said he doesn’t expect a transition to hybrid until at least 2023.

For all the talk of electrified race cars that dovetail with government trends, Wilson acknowledges fans still like their engines loud and fast.

“The Next Gen hybrid engine is inevitable, but the hard thing is holding hands and jumping off the cliff at the same time,” he laughed. “Our fans want a big, powerful engine.”

Next Gen still boasts plenty of technological leaps coveted by drivers and teams.

The NASCAR model gains an independent rear suspension — common on production cars like Mustang, Camaro, and Camry — instead of a solid rear axle. The change will make cars more nimble — as will better downforce created by a flat underbody and rear diffuser.

Drivers also gain a five-speed sequential transmission which will enable more gear changes. A new rear transaxle design moves the transmission rearward, which — coupled with new side-pipe exhaust design — will better position the driver toward the center of the car, adding safety in the inevitable, high-speed wrecks where a car’s flanks are compromised.

Pit stops should look a lot different with the Next Gen NASCAR.

Wheels will be fastened with a single, center lug nut rather than five nuts. Fuel will delivered by a clamp-on hose familiar to IndyCar racers, rather than a more unwieldy gas cylinder. The changes will reduce crew sizes and speed up pit stops.

Wheels also will grow from 15 inches to 18 — mirroring the production world where low-profile tires proliferate and housing bigger brakes.

“The bigger wheels are more representative of what we sell,” Toyota lead engineer Todd Holbert said. 

Damaged bodywork should be easier to repair thanks to carbon composite tech that replaces the current steel panels. NASCAR’s junior Xfinity series already has been using composite bodies to good effect.

Don’t expect real headlights or taillights, though. The new cars will continue to slap on sticker graphics to represent details like lights, logos — even upper grilles. 

Manufacturers are thrilled with the new, more sculpted exteriors that better mimic their street cars. Wheelbase remains the same at 110 inches, but gone are ungainly tails and big greenhouses that robbed aesthetic beauty.

“It’s hard to understate the significance of this Next Gen. There is more change in this car than in the last 50 years,” Wilson said. “This is the best-looking Toyota we have ever raced.”

NASCAR is in the entertainment industry, after all, and fans want to see athletic bodies in close competition. Rushbrook said the Next Gen NASCAR should deliver, as all teams start from a clean sheet. This will put new teams like Live Fast and 23XI on more equal footing with legacy champs like Gibbs, Hendrick, and Penske.

“Settings from the Gen 6 car aren’t going to apply,” Rushbrook said. “Everybody starts from ground zero.”

Teams will begin getting new cars in July, with heavy testing expected this fall leading into the 2022 Daytona 500.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at [email protected] or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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Wednesday November 2, 2022