The next-gen era is perhaps the greatest paradigm shift in NASCAR history: a confluence of owners grappling with rising competitive costs, a complete reimagining of the race car, and COVID that is putting everything from pit stops to practice back on the drawing board.
After eight races of the 2022 season, the car – and the Era – is still a work in progress. With minimal practice, the “run what you brung” approach means Denny Hamlin wins one week in Richmond and then struggles to finish on the lead lap the next week in Martinsville.
The next generation car should put racing back in the hands of drivers. But if you make a driver’s race so dependent on coming onto the track with the most perfect setup possible, is that really what you’re doing?
NASCAR is expanding while it is contracting
NASCAR, like many companies, has consolidated over the years. That’s more than just going from 43 cars per race to 40.
In 2000, 43 different owners ran at least one race at cup level. By 2021, that number had dropped to 20, with each owner driving more cars. Computer simulations of tires, suspension and aerodynamics became a requirement for victory, and teams hired engineers. When NASCAR started sharing massive amounts of in-car data, race teams hired data scientists.
Vendors were able to see redundant effort across their teams and find ways to centralize their support. Today, manufacturers play a much more prominent role in NASCAR.
Nowhere is this role more important than in preparing for races without much practice.
COVID proved NASCAR could do with less practice — but not zero practice. The teams have to walk the track at least briefly to eliminate obvious problems.
Cutting practice sessions makes sense. Shortening race weekends cuts costs for everyone, including fans. Less practice time reduces the likelihood that a team will need a replacement car, saving owners money.
But I’ve always enjoyed listening to a team’s radio during practice. It watches a science experiment in real time. The driver explains how the car feels and the crew chief translates this into a softer spring, higher tire pressure or more shock absorption.
That’s gone now. At most routes, teams receive around 15-20 minutes of training. Qualifying follows without a stop in the garage.
“It’s really not practice,” said Andy Graves, Executive Competition Engineering, Technical Director for Toyota Racing Development. “It’s just a warm-up. It gives you a little idea and you can walk away from it and get some work done overnight.
But, he explained, even if you can gather information from a short time on track, there’s not much that teams can do with it. Most of the furnishings are enclosed in the shop. If you make too many changes, you’ll start the race from the back.
“You certainly don’t have as many adjustment knobs as you did back when we had two and three workouts,” said Ford Performance performance engineer Richard Johns.
Not everyone misses these extended practice sessions.
“I love it,” said Eric Warren, Chevrolet director of NASCAR programs. “I see it as a challenge. It puts a lot of emphasis on getting the right performance from the start.”
Of course, Chevrolet has won five of the eight races so far in 2022. They won 19 out of 36 races in 2021, when there was even less training. The changes at Chevrolet, including the hiring of Warren in 2019, were driven by owners and team members who had developed personal connections despite tough competition.
The growing role of manufacturers
With Ford and Chevy each running 15 full-time cars, you’d expect them to have a huge advantage in developing the next generation. But more is not always better.
“There comes a point when there are too many teams and you divide attention and resources,” Warren said. On the other hand: “Different people look at data from different angles. We need these other perspectives.”
The single-source parts of the next-gen car facilitate collaboration between teams from the same manufacturer.
“There’s a lot less mystery in the chassis and bodywork,” Johns said. “Communication is much more open.”
Toyota’s support model has always focused on fewer teams and more focused attention. But with just six cars and two teams in the Cup, Toyota faces the same challenge as its rivals but with a third of the data from each race.
“I think with the old car,” Graves said, “it was more of an advantage for us to have fewer teams. But right now everyone’s drinking out of a fire hose and you’re so desperate for any data you can get.”
“The first half of the year was character building,” Graves said. “But I don’t really feel like I need any more character.”
Manufacturers’ most important contributions to their teams lie in areas that are simply too large and expensive for a single team to pursue alone. First on this list are driver simulators. And that brings us back to putting racing back in the hands of drivers.
Simulators attempt to replicate the feel and response of a specific vehicle setup on a specific track. A manufacturer’s driving simulator is to a video game what the Mona Lisa is to a stick figure.
Building the physics simulator is not that difficult. The real power is in the ones and zeros driving the machinery.
“It’s moved away from doing a lot less work on hardware,” Graves said, “and into software warfare.”
This “warfare” also extends to engineers creating computer models of their “soldiers”. Most develop a generic driver model that can be specialized to incorporate each driver’s specific preferences. The data for these virtual drivers comes from the real drivers behind the wheel of the simulator.
Drivers use the simulator before and after a race. The pre-race sessions prepare the driver for the race and help the engineers determine optimal setups. The post-race sessions tell the engineers what worked and what didn’t so they can modify the simulation software.
“They (the drivers) understand that the more time they devote to helping us, it pays off in the long run,” Graves said.
And here the drivers play an even bigger role than they did when they dialed cars during multiple practice sessions on the track.
“I think it puts it back in the hands of drivers,” argues Johns. “It’s just a little bit different.”
Drivers can make even more important contributions to determining this initial setup. Their work takes place only on a simulator on the track.
“Our guys are stocking it up while we improve our tools,” Johns said. “The driver really needs to know what he feels and what he needs.”
Johns suspects that so many younger drivers won early in the season because they are more experienced at transferring what they feel in the simulator to the real car.
Toyota’s Graves agrees. But he expects the veterans to catch up.
“Maybe some of the younger guys adjusted a little faster or quicker,” he said. “I think in the second half of the year you’re going to see a combination of youth and experience that’s going to form the top group of riders that are starting to pull away.”