In 2021, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will go to its seventh generation with the “Next Gen” car. This car will feature a number of changes that will allegedly get the cars closer to stock cars in addition to lower costs through use of spec chassis and bodies.
Pump the (Larger) Brakes on Costly Configuration Changes
On Tuesday and Wednesday (Oct. 8-9) at Richmond Raceway, Austin Dillon did some initial shakedown runs with the new Gen 7 – err – “Next Gen” NASCAR Cup Series car. The next iteration of NASCAR’s racecar will be rolled out for the 2021 season, with the 2020 package essentially being a carryover from the current low horsepower/high downforce package.
With NASCAR introducing it’s third generation of racecar in a decade (technically a fourth given the aero difference in the post-wing era), the natural question is if this is indeed the change that is needed at this point to “fix” what seems to be moving target in the racing equation for NASCAR.
The question isn’t quite as easy as yes or no – there’s a lot of moving parts to this question – no pun intended.
Mechanically, yes, a change is probably warranted. There are some limiting factors with the current racecar that arguably are ready for a freshening. While our engines are still based on 60-year-old origins, they at least now feature fuel injection.
The rolling stock however, while efficient and functional, does have some shortcomings. From a manufacturer standpoint, no car today has the kind of 15-inch wheels that the current racecars are sporting, unless it’s for a drag strip set up on a Coyote Mustang or Camaro SS. The wheels limit the size of brakes that can be run for more efficient and effective stopping and heat dissipation. This is technically a safety issue, although the first thought is this can probably get really expensive, requiring teams to invest in engineering new braking systems for larger wheels, different weights requiring additional cost in front suspension engineering and development, etc. Will a common wheel be mandated, or does this now open up the space to different manufacturer’s to supply different styles for teams?
While NASCAR originally said the test would not be open to the press or public, Dillon did a brief summation of the days events, while providing a glimpse of the car in its non-descript body configuration and Detroit paparazzi camouflage livery. The first thought upon seeing it was it looks a lot like a cross between an Australian Supercar and a NASCAR Pinty’s Series look. It’s decidedly more handsome looking than the Car of Tomorrow, which has forever scarred fans and made them perpetually apoplectic whenever there’s talk of a new car configuration being bandied about.
Rumored flange-fit bodies would be perhaps the most impactful change to the new car, leaving many to wonder about the future of fabricators and body specialists within the series. What once was a marriage of art and science, with hours spent shaping sheet metal with an English wheel and sanding Bondo, appears now to be a life-size Snap-Tite model.
What effect will this have on the racing community and infrastructure that supports it within the NASCAR community? A deeper dive with economic concerns aplenty that justifies its own piece for sure, but what effect does this have on the racing itself? From all signs, NASCAR is content to pursue the low horsepower/high downforce package it has currently.
Many veteran drivers have scoffed at this, expressing displeasure with what has turned into running wide open longer, with even faster corner speeds than before – which was originally cited as a detriment to close racing and competition. While the thought initially was likely, “Now every track is going to be like Talladega Superspeedway,” it has proven to be something quite different. Most passing is still done on restarts, and dirty air is still the dirtiest phrase you’ll hear outside of Bristol Motor Speedway radio chatter.
NASCAR has repeatedly said its desire is to bring more manufacturers into the fold, and the Next-Gen car is obviously the key to making that a reality. Flange-fit/common-piece bodies reduce the dollars and labor to build and launch a new car. The engine configuration of low horsepower means that any OEM should be able to field something reliable that functions, is competitive and won’t blow up, tarnishing a brand’s image with poor reliability.
But that also brings into question, what new manufacturer not named Dodge has a cam-in-block, 2-valve per cylinder V8 to submit for approval? No manufacturer is going to build an Eisenhower-era engine from scratch to race in a series that’s been battling a marketing and competition struggle since 2008. Does this open the door for unique manufacturer crate engines with a specific maximum power output? Or will it be an ARCA Menards Series affair featuring a non-brand specific manufacturer like Illmor using a Chevy engine for all?
I do hope this isn’t the path, as it was tried by ASA to eventual series contraction in the early 2000s and arguably contributed to the demise of the series. In ARCA, it might make sense given it’s fourth-tier status, but if Cup is supposed to be the pinnacle and win on Sunday/sell on Monday is a thing, then there should be other alternatives to try, such as manufacturer specific crate engines of a similar power output.
In summation, I don’t know if everything on the Next-Gen car is an absolute need right now from a competition standpoint, but may require some updating to stay relevant for manufacturers who need a business case – however flimsy – to invest the millions required to sell something that bears a passing resemblance or connection to what they’re selling. Sponsorship, after all, is a marketing function.
If I had a say in things, I’d say add 100 horsepower and lose a good bit of downforce. Early-mid 1990s Cup cars had 650-700 horsepower and less than 500 pounds of rear downforce, and that seemed to be a decent recipe for drawing crowds of over 100,000 people every weekend. Then again, there were also sometimes five cars on the lead lap at the end of 500 miles and everyone went home happy.
A peek around Dillon’s zebra-camo car revealed a pair of air boxes for rearward facing hood vents which would hint at an air evacuation intent, coupled with a rear diffuser under the rear bumper, which presumably is there to either evacuate additional air and/or redistribute it to address the perpetual dirty air complaints that have haunted all motorsports for the past decade. The wheels did look production-ready and were not the one-lug pieces similar to the NTT IndyCar Series that had been hinted at as well.
It’s a radical change given the ongoing economic realities of the sport, but how and if it actually reduces costs and barriers to entry for new owners will remain to be seen. Regardless, changes need to happen. – Vito Pugliese
Change Is Inevitable, But This Car Hasn’t Been Bad
I’m not opposed to changing things up, but I have liked what we’ve seen so far with the Gen 6 machine.
Starting with the surface level, I was a huge fan of the way the Ford Fusion cars looked. The Mustangs are also good-looking, but the Fusions were sleek and looked amazing. The Chevrolet SS and Toyota Camry body styles were also really aesthetically pleasing. While I’m nostalgic for the 2011-2012 body style for various reasons, the Gen 6 looked incredible and had a sleek look reminiscent of the body styles before the Car of Tomorrow took to the track.
Now, on to the more important feature – the on-track product. I have a lot of fond memories of the Gen 6. It’s produced some quality racing and memorable moments, and it has cemented its place in NASCAR history over the course of its soon-to-be eight years of competition.
A personal favorite for me is the 2013 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. Who could forget Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland rocketing to the lead on the final lap and Ragan notching his second career victory in a stunning upset? I sure can’t. That final lap (and entire race) is burned into my brain. I have the diecast of that memorable win and will never forget spending an entire Sunday watching that race.
That’s just one example, but I’ve enjoyed the on-track product that the cars have produced and enjoyed watching the very-aerodynamic-looking cars fly around the ovals and road courses around the country. Every style of car is unique, but the Gen 6 is better than what we’ve had in a while overall.
Let’s also consider what we’ve seen this week. Dillon’s tests at Richmond showed off the current look of the car for 2021 and beyond. No one has seen its on-track performance besides those present at the track, and the body style doesn’t look terrible, but the appearance of it doesn’t seem to be all that altered.
It still has a huge spoiler, the splitter is still present on the front of the car and the hood ducts don’t look great. Fortunately, if any of these caused or cause issues in future tests, NASCAR has about a year to make changes. We’ll have to see.
I know change is inevitable, and we have these changes once or so every decade. However, I’ve grown attached to the Gen 6, and its on-track product hasn’t been horrible. – Adam Cheek