This week, NASCAR formally introduced its “next-generation” racer. Set to debut in 2022, the series promises these cars will be a return to proper stock car racing—and that, most importantly, these changes will make for a hell of a lot better racing. But will they really?
NASCAR’s current mission, to put the “stock” back in “stock car,” is exactly the same slogan the series used when it introduced its Gen-6 cars back in 2013. So the whole schtick sounds familiar, you’re not just experiencing deja vu; you’re running smack into NASCAR’s eternally divisive upgrades that promise the world but that return criticism from both drivers and fans. NASCAR has high hopes for its next-gen machines, and it’s a worthwhile endeavor to see if they’ll actually make it happen this time.
We’ve had the opportunity to chat with drivers and series personnel about the new machines that will take on next year’s challenges. We’ll run you through their thoughts as well as the specs and biggest changes to watch out for. And while we won’t know exactly how these changes impact racing until the cars get on the track, we’re going to make some predictions based on what we know.
The biggest change you’re going to notice here is the symmetrical bodies. In the past, NASCAR machines have been designed asymmetrically; after all, if you do a majority of your driving on ovals at high speeds, you might as well optimize the shape of the car’s body to make the most of the forces you’re experiencing.
Largely, a symmetrical body will eliminate side force, which is the sideways force produced by a vehicle during cornering. Basically, if you’re turning in a circle (or in an oval), you’re going to have a side force that pushes the car to the side. If you have an asymmetrical car body, you can manipulate the side force in such a way that it creates more speed.
When you get rid of that asymmetry, you lose the forces that help stick cars to the race track. It also removes the cushion of air that currently exists around the car, which often helps keep drivers from scraping the wall when they run high.
“With what we have now, you can just drive it up into the corner as hard as you want. Normally, the first thing that gives way is the front end, the tires,” Tyler Reddick told me regarding his April test at Darlington. “And how this Next-Gen car is, it’s totally possible to drive into the corner too deep, lift too quick, give it too much brake and too much steering input, and you’re going to back it straight into the fence. It’s going to, from my experience at Darlington, challenge the drivers from our generation.”
He added, “The biggest thing about it, I’d say, is that this car has a lot more mechanical grip, and it’s taken away a lot of the side force that really stabilizes these heavy 3400-pound cars on corner entry. That being taken away really makes mechanical grip into the corner—and how drivers turn into and lift in the corner—much more sensitive. It’s much more important to keep the car under control.”
For the first time, the bottom of the car will be sealed with an underwing and rear diffuser. The goal here is to reduce the impact of dirty air, which makes cars more unpredictable when running close in traffic. With a sealed underbody, the hope is that it’ll be easier to run behind another car.
That being said, it does raise a new issue. With fewer places for air to enter the cockpit, driver temperature has been a concern. When asked about concerns of drivers being too hot, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said it’ll require further testing.
The NASCAR Cup Series has joined the Xfinity Series, one of its driver feeder categories, in implementing a composite body as opposed to a composite hood and trunk with sheet metal sides. Composite parts are lighter and stronger than their metal counterparts, and by using a series of interlocking composite panels that are held together by flanges, it’s much easier to replace those damaged bits.
When the composite body was introduced to the Xfinity Series, it came with a shocking statistic: instead of two weeks, it only took two days to hang a body made of pre-fabricated composite panels on a chassis, Brett Bodine, senior director of team efficiencies at NASCAR Research and Development Center, said. And in racing, saving time is saving money.
And that’s the goal here, to save teams both time and money in the development and repair of its cars. Instead of having to fabricate a chassis, they can be assembled from kits.
As you can imagine, with a drastically different car—one that’s going to drive and crash much differently than what drivers have grown to expect—there are going to be necessary changes to safety mechanisms to keep the drivers protected.
Both the front and rear bumpers have been redesigned to bolt onto the center section of the car for easier damage repair. There are foam inserts between the chassis and the nose to absorb crash impact, and the center section has been designed with extra roll bars to improve crash protection and to bring the driver in closer to the center of the car. And yes, there will also be the roof and hood flaps that are designed to keep the current Gen-6 cars on the ground during high-speed spins.
Both Steve O’Donnell and John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of racing innovation, were hesitant to talk about any safety specifics during media availability after the Next-Gen release, as the safety tests are ongoing. O’Donnell did note, though, that there’s a high level of adaptability in these cars, so any safety concerns can be easily rectified.
These are only a few of the big changes NASCAR made. The tires for 2022's machine are wider and are secured to the car via a single lug nut instead of five, which will drastically change the look and speed of pit stops. The new transaxle combines that transmission and rear gear into a single package, which will help NASCAR ease into a hybrid era that uses more electrification. There’s a lot more street car technology, like rack and pinion steering, a sequential gearbox, and independent rear suspension. And fans will benefit from more in-car connectivity via cameras and real-time data.
In addition, more parts are supplied by vendors, which means teams don’t have to fabricate them in-house. NASCAR execs shy away from the term “kit car,” but the principle of kit cars applies here. You just have to assemble your parts and go. It’s part of that “bringing the ‘stock’ back to ‘stock car’” mindset: these cars are supposed to look like the ones you see on the road.
Now, let’s talk specs.
- Length, Width, Height: 193.4 inches, 78.6 inches, 50.4 inches
- Wheelbase: 110 inches
- Weight: about 3,300 lbs
- Body: Composite symmetrical body with OEM-specific design elements
- Underwing: Full carbon undertray with center-stepped splitter and rear diffuser
- Chassis: Steel tubing with bolt-on front and rear clips and front and rear bumpers
- Transaxle: five-speed manual sequential with ramp and plate differential
- Front and rear suspension: double wishbone billet aluminum control arms with adjustable coil-over shock absorbers
- Steering: rack and pinion
- Front Brakes: six piston monobloc calipers with 15-inch rotors
- Rear Brakes: four piston monobloc rear calipers with 14-inch rotors
- Engine: naturally-aspirated 358 cubic-inch
- Fuel cell: about 20 gallons
All those specs are great and all—but how is it going to impact the racing?
As you can imagine, the answers here have been vague, both because no one wants to make any negative predictions and because there really hasn’t been any chance to get a sense of what the racing will be like. But we can start to piece things together based on what drivers have been saying.
We had a chance to talk to Tyler Reddick before the official next-gen release to grab some impressions of the car from someone who has not only tested it but who also pushed it to the limit. At Reddick’s early April test in Darlington, he lost control and spun. Then, after recovering, he brushed the wall, largely because the car had spun in a much different way when compared to the current generation of NASCAR machines.
“With this car, if you lift too hard or try to do too much on corner entry, you’re not just going to get tight or a little bit loose. You’re going to spin it out,” Reddick told me.
“And that’s what happened. I was trying to push the issue, try to find some more speed in Turn One by driving in deeper and using more steering and brake inputs to turn the car. I just over-rotated it. Without the side force being there to hold it in place, the thing just completely came around. It came around so fast that it caught me off-guard.
“Normally if you spin out like that, the side force built into the cars really guides it up the track and all the way down to the apron. It’s a real slow spin. Where with this Next-Gen car, it spun around and was almost facing completely backwards before I could even blink. So I did like a 360 up by the wall, but as the smoke was clearing out of the cockpit, I thought I was down by the apron, but I was still right up by the wall where I had spun. So the front of the car was still coming back around, and the right front corner kind of clunked the wall as it finished doing the 360.”
Kurt Busch tested the car on the Charlotte Roval in November of 2020 and noted that it “was much more agile with its acceleration, deceleration, and primarily, it’s maneuverability to switch back, left to right” but that there were still aerodynamic issues to be addressed.
Most drivers are more vague, noting that the car will require a learning curve but that it isn’t impossible to drive. We also don’t yet have any data about what the cars are like running in traffic, with the exception of NASCAR’s iRacing Pro Invitational event that utilized the new machines in a simulated race on May 5, 2021. But hard horsepower numbers and downforce packages are still up in the air, which makes it tough to really judge these cars for all they’re worth.
“If we go to bigger tracks with this downforce and horsepower package, I think it could be a really good fit,” Reddick said of his test car. “I didn’t get to drive or personally experience what this car is like to drive with less horsepower and more downforce, but from what I saw in my test, I feel like less downforce would be good for this car, and keeping the horsepower in the 650 area is a good deal. Because they are challenging to drive, for sure, as the grip wears away. And I feel like they should be.”
Reddick also noted that, with higher levels of downforce and no side force, it may be a lot harder for drivers to catch their cars when they lose control in traffic.
NASCAR has tried to develop its next-gen cars to be “future proof,” meaning that the base the series has developed can be adapted to suit varying needs as they arise in the future. That means safety upgrades, competition upgrades, and even the possibility for some degree of electrification in the near future.