The curtain rose, the smoke billowed, and three NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen cars made a dramatic, roaring entrance onto the display floor at the unveil.
The first impression was obvious. When reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott drove the Chevrolet Camaro, Joey Logano the Ford Mustang and Denny Hamlin the Toyota Camry roughly 30 yards in the Wednesday afternoon unveiling of the much-anticipated Next Gen car, the most striking aspect was how much the new race cars resembled their production counterparts—and how easy it was to differentiate the new vehicles from one another.
“This is a significant moment for our sport,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps said during his introduction of the Next Gen cars. “This car is more relevant and includes more innovation than any car in NASCAR history. The styling of the car is clear. I mean, they look unbelievable. Just so incredible to finally be here.
“We really wanted to get back to a promise that we had made to the fans, which is to put the ‘stock’ back in ‘stock car.’ That was something extremely important to us and our fans. But just as important to our fans is the racing on the race track. It's hard to believe that the racing could be any stronger than it is last year and the first 11 races this year, but this car has features that will make it even better.
“Simply put, this car will make our sport healthier and stronger. It's an exciting day for our industry and our fans, and I'm proud of all the work that went into bringing us to today.”
Based on data gleaned from simulations and from limited testing of small numbers of Next Gen vehicles, NASCAR expects the new race car to be more challenging to drive and more exciting to race. As Elliott put it, it’s a clean slate for the best stock car drivers in the world.
“I'm excited about the product that we came up with and a lot of collaboration with all of our key partners at Chevrolet within the NASCAR teams to have a product that looks as good as it does and is much like the car and the Camaro you can go buy at your Chevrolet dealership, too,” Elliott said. “Excited about that.
“Selfishly, as a driver, I'm excited about the challenge. I think it's going to be tough. There's going to be things with this car I haven't seen as a race car driver yet. Until you get on track and work through it, it's going to be tough. I'm looking forward to all the things that come with that, trying to reinvent yourself as a driver to see what you have to do to be good.”
Fans in attendance at the unveiling were greeted with a race car that exhibits a lower roof line; a longer, sleeker hood area; a smaller, racier rear deck lid area; and more effectively protected wheels that feature a single central lug instead of the five lug studs currently in use.
Hidden from view are additional features that bring the Next Gen car closer to modern production vehicles.
“The car itself, first of all as an engineer, racer, I love everything underneath it which you can't see today,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “The new architecture moving it forward, making it more modern—the independent rear suspension, the (rack-and-pinion) steering system, the driveline, the opportunity for power train advancements as our world changes for future power trains--that's all built into this. We're really excited about that.
“The biggest thing is what you can see today and what the fans will see on the track. As a racing fan, I can't wait to see 40 of these out on track. It's the body, what we are able to do by coming up with new proportions for it. This screams ‘Mustang’ to me, just the proportions of the car. With the low roof, the long hood, the short deck—those are Mustang proportions. That jumps out immediately.”
The debut of the Next Gen car was originally slated for 2021 but was delayed for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Even though the car won’t race competitively until Speedweeks at Daytona in February 2022, it already has had an impact on attracting new ownership to NASCAR’s premier series.
“I think you've heard it from the likes of Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin with 23XI Racing,” Phelps said. “We've heard it from Trackhouse Racing from Justin Marks and Pitbull, and from Live Fast Racing with Matt Tifft and B.J. McLeod. There's an eagerness for ownership to come to this sport. I think this car and the importance of this car, what it represents, is at the heart of what that would be.”
Hamlin affirmed Phelps’ assertion, noting that the prospect of simultaneous development of the Next Gen car by definition fosters parity between organizations.
“It's an attractive time to come into the sport, obviously,” said Hamlin, a who partnered with Jordan this year to field cars for Bubba Wallace. “This was a big factor in our decisions, will be part of our decisions going forward.
“We have a reset in technology and resources that are going to be going into this car. We're not at a 20-to-30-year disadvantage by coming into the sport. We'll all be developing it at the same time in its early existence.”
The Next Gen car, however, is not yet a fait accompli. There’s testing to be done with large numbers of cars on the track, with an eye toward analyzing the aerodynamic aspects of multiple cars racing together. There are decisions still to be made about such vital racing aspects as horsepower and spoiler size.
“We have tests coming up in August (that) will be the first time that we'll look at Daytona with multiple cars on the track,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “And then as you fast-forward towards the end of the season—October, I believe—we'll have both the (Charlotte) Roval and the oval with multiple cars on the track from each of the race teams.
“And then following that up post-Phoenix (in November), we'll dial that in with the race teams as well, with a number of cars out on the track. Don't have anything concrete yet for Daytona around that January time frame, but those will be what will be in place towards the end of this year, with multiple cars out there.”