NASCAR appears to be in the final stages of development in the Next Gen racecar for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. A test session at Richmond Raceway was the first time on track for the new car; while NASCAR has said the new bodies will be a work in progress, it was the first look at what the future is likely to hold.
NASCAR has had a major opportunity to make wholesale changes to the cars and by extension, the races fans see. The current cars, while they’ve made a small step in the right direction this season, are dependent mainly on aerodynamics for speed and stability. The problem that has arisen and become more and more prevalent is that clean air—air not disturbed by other cars—is a major advantage to the race leader, one that even faster cars or better drivers can’t overcome.
Add to that that with restricted airflow to the engines at all tracks via the tapered spacer, drivers can close (sometimes too fast) on cars in front of them only to not have the throttle response to make a pass without that clean air on their side.
One difference between older-generation cars and more recent incarnations is that they relied on mechanical grip, which comes from things like tires and suspensions rather than on air. Downforce was a factor (because physics), but it wasn’t the only factor.
The bonus there was that by using different suspension setups to find the grip and feel the driver needed, teams had a way to manage their own destiny much better than they can today. A suspension that allowed for improved handling along with gear choice could give a team an advantage that didn’t rely on the body of the car. That’s all but gone in recent years.
NASCAR had a golden opportunity to bring all of that back with the new car. A less-aerodynamic car coupled with more choice for teams in suspensions and gears and an unrestricted engine? It could have happened. While it might have looked a little different from the showroom version, so do the current cars. They haven’t had to fit the street version templates since the mid-1990s.
There are reasons not to replicate the street versions completely, mainly that manufacturers are no longer interested in developing street cars around what would be best on the racetrack. But that gives NASCAR an opportunity to do things, like raising the cars off the ground and changing the greenhouse angle to slightly more upright.
But here’s the thing: they didn’t do any of that.
Unless there are major changes coming to the body, it’s as low to the ground as ever, with a splitter on the front and a low greenhouse angle. The side skirts look a bit different, turned slightly inward (outward produces more downforce which is why teams sometimes try to manipulate them during races). The angle of the photo NASCAR released is slightly skewed (by design, I’m sure), making it hard to gauge the actual length of the hood and rear deck lid areas.
“This is an important milestone for the Next Gen car and the future of stock car racing."
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) October 9, 2019
And all indications from within NASCAR point to opening nothing up to teams to work on, perhaps even restricting things further than they already are. Fans have made unflattering comparisons to the old IROC series, where top drivers raced in equally prepared cars, and while I always thought those races were fun in a frivolous way, the problem with equal cars is that… they’re equal.
Parity isn’t a bad thing. To a point. But that means one manufacturer’s body should not have a major aerodynamic advantage out of the box. Or that another’s engine design turns significantly more horsepower. It shouldn’t mean that teams can’t fine tune cars to suit their individual drivers and that nobody should be able to gain an advantage doing that. That, not completely equal cars, is what puts races in the drivers’ hands: giving each one a car they can drive to the best of their ability and then letting them prove it. Even the best drivers can’t overcome the compete equality we have now every week.
Now, to be fair, this isn’t all NASCAR’s doing. Team owners are asking for a lot of it. A lot of that is cost savings. If they all run the same shocks, teams don’t need a team of shock specialists. The same goes for all those other pieces and parts. They certainly want to gain an advantage, but not at the risk of someone elsegaining one first, and so they don’t ask NASCAR to give them more opportunity to work on their cars.
Also, there’s supposed to be a new engine package for the Cup Series coming along with the new car. There was no mention of that being a part of what was tested at Richmond this week. If they can find an engine package that allows for full, unrestricted power at all tracks but the superspeedways (or a separate engine for Daytona and Talladega that can eliminate spacers but keep cars at a reasonable speed), that would make a major difference in what happens on track as well. Yes, there’s a risk of one engine builder finding a little more power than another. That’s racing, folks. A few weeks later, another will catch up and another will find something else. Yes, you’ll see gradual, incremental increases in power over the years, as happened with the current engine. That shouldn’t be a problem if NASCAR is willing to change the engine rules every ten years or so, as needed to keep speeds safe.
Finally, all anyone really has to go on as far as the test is concerned is what Austin Dillon has said about it. This was a single-car test, and while there’s a lot of data to be gathered and analyzed from that in the upcoming weeks, there is still no data on what it will really look like in traffic and, most importantly, how well it will be able to pass other cars. All we really know is more or less what it looks like.
But does it really look different enough to make a difference in the racing fans see? That’s the only thing that matters in the end. And it looks like the focus is aerodynamics, not mechanics.
NASCAR has such a great opportunity right now, but are they making the most of it or throwing it away?
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