Reality is biting hard in America’s most-popular racing category. The aftershocks from the major earthquake of Furniture Row Racing, which went from champions in 2017 with Martin Truex Jr. to shuttering its doors just a year later, are still being felt today. Sponsorship revenues continue to dwindle for teams in the face of ever-rising costs. At some point in the near future, Furniture Row wouldn’t be alone in closing its doors, in spite of how successful it was – this exceptional case risked becoming the rule.
With Jim France returning to the helm as CEO, NASCAR was given all the steam it required to railroad through a completely new car design, coupled with more flexibility in terms of the schedule and race formats in future too. France had hit a winning formula in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship that was his pet project, tailoring rules that satisfied road car manufacturers in terms of road relevance while performance-balancing key aspects, such as engines. Not everyone was happy all of the time, but enough were happy enough of the time to stick around and keep playing the game…
In a shrewd move, NASCAR also acquired International Speedway Corporation, which owns 13 tracks, in a $2billion deal. With a few years remaining on its very lucrative network TV deals, I believe this is called fixing the roof while the sun is still shining. Part of the Next Gen masterplan is also about shaking up race formats and the schedule, and this acquisition makes that easier.
With an ambitious target set of 2021 for the Next Gen chassis side of the equation, NASCAR plans to introduce lower-cost machinery for its premier Cup Series. It has already tested a ‘manufacturer-neutral’ prototype car on multiple occasions, and will continue to run this throughout 2020 to arrive at a solution that features a number of track-proven, common components.
With that in mind, NASCAR has not only involved its current OEMs – Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota in the scope of these design changes – but reached out to others in the American marketplace. Top of its wishlist is understood to be Honda, which currently races in IndyCar and IMSA.
The result of the Next Gen plan, according to NASCAR President Steve Phelps, is that “we are going to put the ‘stock’ back in stock car”. He explained: “I think [of the] reasons to go to this new car, one is to take what is great racing, and create better racing. I think this new car will do that. Another component certainly is around relevance. Our OEM partners are looking at the showroom car or the street car versus what our race car will look like. It’s going to be extraordinary.”
From a manufacturer standpoint, Ford Performance boss Mark Rushbrook said of the plans: “We want to be able to race a product that is similar to what we sell on the street. That doesn’t mean it’s the exact same parts but the architecture [is similar]. So, being able to update the chassis or the suspension architecture, the steering, the tires and wheels, the body dimensions – all of those things in the Next Gen car are taking a very big step forward in those areas to tie the relevance from our race car to our road cars.”
Beyond the new chassis in 2021, in either 2022 or ’23 the powertrain of the cars will be changed from the current breed of fuel-injected V8 engines, likely including an element of hybridization to make the motors more road relevant to the car manufacturers. In recent times, engines have become the key performance differentiator between the competing manufacturers – and costs have soared despite the governing body continually pegging back developments as power outputs have risen.
The trick here is to put the cart before the horse, and cease the vast numbers of engines that are being produced, and also end the crazy quest to find 3bhp that will only get taken away if you keep winning. That said, manufacturers will still insist on their ‘DNA’ in the powerplant – with some engineering leeway – so this is perhaps the trickiest part of the whole equation.
“I know for a fact we will not have a new OEM unless we change our engine,” added Phelps. “Ideally, creating a single engine package, as opposed to taking an engine and kind of choking the horsepower down, is something that I believe we will ultimately get to.”
When Motorsport.com quizzed former Honda Performance Development president (currently VP and business head of Auto Operations for American Honda) Art St Cyr, he made the need for change clear. “It’s a reality of racing these days, to figure out how to do it cost effectively,” said St Cyr. “It’s not the unlimited budgets we’ve had before. You have to make sense of what you’re doing.”
If a manufacturer like Honda does choose to bring its might to join the current trio in NASCAR (this is likely multiple years away) – coupled with teams having more financial stability due to fewer overheads – then the Next Gen project will have been a success. But NASCAR needs this process to work as a path to glory, as there’s simply no going back to the ‘unlimited budget’ days of yore.
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