The Updates That Could Drag NASCAR Out of the Dark Ages in 2021
Sequential transmissions and single lug nuts are only the start.
Compared to motorsport's ever-evolving, technologically thriving flagship Formula 1, NASCAR has always been one (or two, or three) steps behind. To some American fans, though, that's okay—simple's how it should be, and truthfully, they'd rather things go back to The Way They Were™. In the past decade, however, this approach has hurt NASCAR with painfully low viewership numbers and frantic sponsorship searches. Now, it's playing catch-up to entice new fans while still including the antics that older ones love. The most straightforward way to change things for the better, of course, is to develop an improved car: Enter the next-gen NASCAR Cup racer.
This vastly different, admittedly handsome template is what could pull NASCAR away from its simpleton reputation next year. Not to worry, old-schoolers, it still has a raucous V8; that said, it's the other bits that we're most interested in. Compared to the current on-track offering, this next-gen machine is miles ahead and, if the infamously stubborn regulating body can play its cards right, it might save NASCAR from its ongoing viewership disaster.
It's Got a Gearbox From This Century
Despite what traditionalists might shout at you, a sequential gearbox
is still a manual. Sure, it might not have the usual four-speed H-pattern, but it requires driver action to put everything in its place. What's more, it's far quicker and has proven its worth in plenty of series, including NASCAR's Australian quasi-cousin, the V8 Supercars.
NASCAR hasn't explicitly mentioned which sequential it'll use in 2021, though it's reasonable to assume that it could be related to Xtrac’s six-speed P1293 transaxle unit. That's what they use Down Under for their top-tier stock cars and it'd make sense to partner with Xtrac given the company's industry-wide presence.
Additionally, since a sequential 'box with more gears could actually force drivers to shift while driving on ovals, it could present more opportunities for passing.
Independent Rear Suspension Marks NASCAR First
To this point, NASCAR stock cars have famously featured solid rear suspension setups. This makes the car bounce around and become susceptible to losing control at-speed, helping the equipment earn its "live axle" nickname.
Photos of the next-gen car have shown the rear wheels cambered in slightly, which wouldn't be possible with solid rear suspension per Hagerty's write-up on the matter. It's also believed that the old "spring and bucket" damper design could go the way of the dinosaur (it's been in use since the 1960s) in favor of coilovers, another modernized approach that's already been adopted across racing.
Essentially, more grip will be available as one wheel's movements don't directly affect the other's. The new suspension configuration will aid cars in staying glued to the track, a benefit for both safety and performance.
Centerlock Wheels Ditch Tradition for Single Lug Nut
This news was only confirmed on Monday, though many had suspected the change was coming. It's part of NASCAR's transition to 18-inch wheels from its long-used 15-inch rollers, and it's meant to speed up pit stops while securing the wheel in a tighter fashion. NASCAR is one of the last premier forms of motorsport to use the five-lug setup, so view this as another measure that helps bring them up to speed.
Carbon Fiber Bodies That Hold Up Better on Impact
At present, NASCAR's steel bodies do what's asked of them and not much more. When they get hit, they crumple and continue on their merry way, oftentimes puncturing a tire or two in the process. This leads to more pit stops that are also lengthier as teams work to straighten the panels out with whatever tools they have handy.
Switching to carbon fiber means body pieces will be pre-defined, which results in lower development costs for manufacturers and less time in the wind tunnel. It's different, for sure, but there seem to be more pros than cons with the switch.
New Aero Calls for More Driver Skill
No matter who you ask, they'll tell you NASCAR is past-due on new aero regulations. The current package forces cars to race together and "lean" on one another to pick up pace around superspeedways, causing massive pileups if anyone goes a hair to the left or right. If we learned anything from Ryan Newman's horrific Daytona 500 crash, it's that cars should be able to operate more freely of one another.
This is a department that, realistically, still needs work. Drivers Erik Jones, Joey Logano, and Austin Dillon have all tested the next-gen package on track and largely agreed it needs tweaking.
“I think a lot of the aero changes they’ve done are going to help as far as racing goes, especially racing in a pack," Jones explained after testing at Fontana this weekend. "Other than that, as we were working on things, some driving characteristics are similar. I think there is definitely more grip to be had as far as what the car is capable of. I think as far as development goes, there is going to be a lot more mechanical grip available than what we currently have.”
Already-tested packages have included a two-part front splitter that channels air under the car, which then exits through a rear diffuser. As a result, there'll be no way for teams to tape off the front of their cars next season. Theoretically, clean air will instead be pulled through and dumped on trailing vehicles, improving drafting.
It's still to be seen how this will affect multiple cars running the same aero package.
Hybrid Powertrains. Yes, Really.
The idea of transitioning to electrified powertrains is a novel one for NASCAR, as it's particularly divisive among fans but intriguing to manufacturers, including but not limited to Toyota. It's vital that the regulating body maintains healthy relationships with its manufacturers as there are only three—Toyota, Chevrolet, and Ford—with others like Nissan supposedly interested in joining in.
Reports claim this move could happen as soon as 2022, meaning we won't see the tech on-track next year. Still yet, don't be surprised to hear an announcement from NASCAR about an electric power-adder headed to the Cup Series before long. It'll likely be a spec part, meaning no one team or manufacturer will gain an advantage over the other with around 50 extra horsepower expected to come from the component.
"Trying to do [all the potential updates] at once would be overwhelming," said NASCAR Senior Vice President for Racing Development John Probst.
This would be the largest departure from NASCAR's roots yet, and just maybe, it could be the aspect that makes fans out of younger viewers.