In the coming weeks, the next-generation NASCAR Cup Series car will be revealed to the masses, nearly race-ready and replete with individual manufacturer stylings from Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota.
The Next-Gen will debut during Daytona Speedweeks and carries the hopes of an entire industry with it. To imply a great deal is riding on this platform would be a massive understatement.
“In my opinion, the importance of this car can’t be overstated,” said NASCAR president Steve Phelps last month in Daytona. “There are many things that Next-Gen will do for us as a sport when it rolls out in 2022. The styling is going to be amazing. I think the racing is going to be better based on the aerodynamics of the vehicle.”
The Next-Gen is a revolutionary machine, especially by NASCAR standards, featuring independent rear suspension, 18” wheels with lower profile tires and a single-lug assembly. It features an Xtrac 6-speed sequential shifter instead of the traditional H-pattern unit. The body is completely symmetrical, too.
It will even sound different, thanks to a split exhaust instead of a crossover pipe.
Next-Gen serves two primary purposes: Cost containment through single source parts suppliers and manufacturer relevance. The latter is without a doubt the primary driver as OEMs are the lifeblood of any healthy racing platform, and NASCAR intends to attract more of them.
To do so, the sanctioning body must navigate its trickiest turn in 73 years — the shift to hybrid, battery-assisted engines.
“I would be surprised if a new OEM came in without some type of electrification,” Phelps said. “I’m not talking about all-electric. I’m talking about a hybrid system. I think it’s something, obviously something that we’re exploring now with our existing three OEMs. The question is, what is it? What’s the timing of it?”
There’s also the question of how it will be received.
No fanbase is more attached to nostalgia and aesthetics than NASCAR, meaning Phelps must strike a balance between continued relevancy while remaining true to the sport’s roots. This has been a challenging undertaking in recent years.
NASCAR has alienated many traditional fans in its pursuit of mainstream appeal over the past two decades. In 2005, the Cup Series was arguably second only to the National Football League in weekly popularity and was christened “America’s Fastest Growing Sport” by Forbes Magazine.
Since then, its television numbers have plummeted from 8.4 million per race to 3.06 million in 2020. That trend prompted Phelps to admit that NASCAR had “probably lost our way” at some point over the past decade.
“I think we were trying to search for that next-generation fan … and I don’t think we listened to what the hardcore fan wanted,” Phelps said.
The past two years has presented a mixed bag of which audience Phelps has rewarded the most.
No longer christened the Chase for the Championship, the Cup Series Playoffs are still around, but has evolved into an elimination format that crowns champions in the most convoluted and controversial ways imaginable.
On the other hand, the 2020 Cup Series schedule, with its seven road course events are reflective of a longstanding rejection against similarly constructed 1.5-mile intermediate tracks. Bristol Motor Speedway has been covered with clay for an event next month — the first race on dirt at the highest level of the discipline since 1970.
Meanwhile, two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Southern California will soon be reconfigured into a high-banked half-mile.
There’s also the continuing matter of the polarizing high downforce, low horsepower NA18D rules package. It was designed to prevent cars from spreading out on the remaining intermediate tracks but has stifled passing due to the gigantic rear spoiler and drivers barely lifting off the throttle.
NASCAR has long claimed its 550 HP rules package is a bridge to the next-generation engine platform. Phelps and his senior competition officials have been reluctant to say words like electrification and hybridization, and for understandable reasons.
Like the country at large, there’s a subset of the fan base who inherently reject any attempts to replace internal combustion, pushrod V8. To that audience, the rumble and the roar is embedded in their DNA as racing enthusiasts.
Any version of the sport where cars go swoosh like Formula E across the frontstretch at Daytona International Speedway is anathema.
Fortunately for them, Phelps and representatives from each manufacturer say that distinctive rumble and the roar is here to stay for generations to come.
“Sound is a huge part of who we are as a sport,” Phelps said. “It’s going to continue to be.”
In the short term, NASCAR will continue using the legacy internal combustion V8 from the current generation Cup Series platform. A hybrid was planned to follow in 2022 or 2023 but the pandemic placed that project on pause.
The world has changed a great deal over the past 12 months.
By 2040, it is expected that 60 percent of global passenger vehicle sales will come from electric vehicles, and that EV will comprise around 30 percent of all cars on the road. General Motors has targeted a complete zero emission lineup by 2035. Ford has targeted a zero emissions lineup in the UK by 2030 with a U.S. plan soon to follow.
For the entire NASCAR industry, that means accelerating its own hybridization efforts.
“We are excited about what is in the NextGen car in terms of architecture of the car and improving the relevancy with the independent rear end suspension and the steering system,” Ford Performance Global Director Mark Rushbrook said. “We are futureproofing the car to enable hybrid in the future as well. We think that is important as our road car cycles changes to be able to race hybrid in this car.”
Phelps doesn’t anticipate the Cup Series going fully electric, but an electric companion division is something that could excite both the sanctioning body and the global OEM community.
“I don’t foresee a time in the future where we would go, with all of our series, to an all-electric,” Phelps said. “I don’t see that. Could we have an exhibition series potentially? We could. That would be something that we might explore.”
Rushbrook echoed that sentiment.
“We have four national series in NASCAR with Cup, Xfinity, Trucks and ARCA, so not every series needs to be (internal combustion) or hybrid or electric,” Rushbrook said. “That is certainly an opportunity for NASCAR with such great depth that there could be some discussion or consideration of leaving some of those (internal combustion) and switching some to Hybrid and maybe introducing electric at the right time.”
In the meantime, conversations are beginning anew about the timeline and direction of the hybrid powerplant, but the sound is a priority for all involved.
Toyota Racing President David Wilson asked Phelps to leverage the NASCAR Fan Council to provide data on what aesthetics were important as the sport began this process towards electrification.
“Not many of them could tell you the displacement of the engine,” Wilson said of the feedback. “Yeah, most of them knew it was a V8, but to the fans … the engine represented something that was very visceral. They, they knew it made a lot of power and it sounded great. That was the most important thing to them.
“So that caused all of us to take a step out and pause because first and foremost, we’re in the entertainment business: The fans are the filter that we should drive every decision through, because without the fans, we don’t have a sport.”
While it remains an open-ended question just how electric the next-generation engine will be, it will sound exactly what is expected of a Cup Series powerplant for the foreseeable future. NASCAR fans can look no further than the rest of the motorsports community for how that will be accomplished.
Formula 1 uses a Motor Generator Unit hybrid system. The MGY-H recovers energy from the exhaust via the turbocharger and the MGU-K recovers it in braking, adding power and increases fuel efficiency by 35 percent. The system produces 750 horsepower with its 1.6l gas engine.
IndyCar is also moving towards a single-source hybrid system by 2023 that is expected to eventually produce 1000 horsepower. Honda and Chevrolet will provide their own 2.4l twin turbocharged V6 and an additional kinetic energy recovery system will immediately push the overall package to produce over 900 horsepower.
The Next-Gen platform is designed to evolve over the next decade, starting with the current internal combustion, pushrod V8, and becoming as electric as the industry dictates.
“With the NextGen architecture with the car we are going to be racing in 2022 we have the ability to add hybrid without changing the internal combustion engine part of it,” Rushbrook says. “It allows you to put an electric motor into the system to drive the transaxle in parallel to the internal combustion engine.
“What is most important for us is being able to learn about hybrid technology in the motorsports environment and we can do that with the NextGen chassis and the current internal combustion engine we are racing today.”
The day will eventually come that nearly every road car will be electric. When it does, the next decade and NASCAR’s upcoming hybrid platform will be the building blocks on that future.
“Yes, we are an entertainment sport and we have to put on great races,” Rushbrook said. “Everybody understands that, but it also needs to be relevant, not just to us as manufacturers, but also to fans and customers.
So, 15 years from now, if everybody is driving fully electric cars, are we still going to be racing (Internal combustion engine) cars? No, we won’t. But when do we make that transition to hybrid and full electric needs to be something that the sport is planning for. It isn’t going to happen tomorrow but there needs to be a plan and vision, so we are ready for it because it is coming quickly.”
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