Next Gen deep dive: Ford engineers answer basic questions about NASCAR’s new car

·8 min read

NASCAR and the sport’s three manufacturers, Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet, on Wednesday unveiled the new car model teams will run starting next season. The industry is highlighting showroom relevance for manufacturers and cost savings for teams as the benefits of moving to the Next Gen car.

On the surface, the new cars look sleek. Underneath, they’re complicated machines, so allow us to simplify the changes.

The Observer visited the Ford Performance Tech Center in Concord, N.C., on Thursday and asked their team of engineers 10 basic questions about Next Gen’s technical updates. (We promise, you don’t need to be an engineer to understand!)

These interviews have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Alex Andrejev: Next Gen is moving from 15-inch wheels to 18-inch wheels. Why the bigger wheels?

Tommy Joseph, Ford Performance aerodynamics supervisor: I think that’s just road car relevance really. A secondary target was just to have more grip so the tires are supposed to be bigger and softer. Most road cars (points to GT500) have 19-, 20-inch wheels and NASCAR was running tiny wheels, so it just looks better. You see that in a lot of series. Formula 1 is doing that next year and it just kind of got written in the rules decades ago (in NASCAR) and stuck that way and now we have an opportunity to change it. The primary reason is looks and relevance to the road car.

AA: Next Gen is symmetrical the whole way through the body. Why was it asymmetrical before?

TJ: For aerodynamic performance reasons. Because the cars only turn left, if you angle this (right rear) to the right, this (left front) side has more pressure and this side has less pressure so there’s a force going the way you’re turning. So the aerodynamic force that points to the side helps you go around the corner.

AA: So that advantage is lost now that it’s symmetrical?

TJ: It is, but you can gain it back other ways. In the end, the driver can’t differentiate between better tire grip, more downforce and more side force. They all make the car faster, and there are little differences, but what they’ve done is compensate for the loss of side force with more downforce or more tire grip. You can always adjust things like spoiler. ... The (spoiler) height doesn’t really dramatically affect the look of the car, but having a crooked rear-end from a studio styling aesthetics perspective was not good, so all the OEMs agreed to straighten it up, make it look symmetric.

AA: There’s supposed to be more parity between manufacturers with Next Gen. What is a very basic example of a difference you could see between manufacturers in the cars that could also be a competitive difference?

TJ: It could be for instance that our headlight looks different than Toyota and that maybe gains or loses us some downforce, and then if that puts us outside of that limit, then we have to make some other changes elsewhere in the car to add or remove downforce, whichever direction you need to go to be in that box.

AA: What’s your favorite design element of the car?

TJ: It’s actually the rear, because if you look at a Gen-6 Mustang but it’s very flat rear, and when they sent me the design for this, I thought they sent me the production car by mistake because it looks so much like a real Mustang, kind of curved on the back. And that was such a big difference from the previous car. I love it all, but that was the biggest surprise.

AA: When do you prioritize testing Next Gen over Gen-6?

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance: That’s the balance. Every team wants to win every race this year and win the championship this year. And as long as they’re in contention to do that, they’ve got to keep doing that. But they have to work in parallel because they also want to win the Daytona 500 next year with the new car, so there’s a lot of extra work on the teams to do that. Some teams might get to a point where they say, ‘All right our drivers didn’t make the playoffs and then they can start ramping down on the Gen-6 earlier and make sure they’re ramping up on Next Gen, but if you’ve got a driver in contention for the playoffs, or drivers, you’ve got to go full throttle with Gen-6 until the end of the year.

AA: How is this Next Gen model more cost effective for teams?

MR: Today, every team builds their own chassis from the ground up. So Roush Fenway, Stewart-Haas and Penske start with tubing and they cut it, bend it, weld it and they have a chassis. That’s all done by them. That’s not done by us, but the problem is exactly that: Roush has their own, Penske has their own, Stewart-Haas has their own. So everybody is doing a lot of manual labor in their shops. Now when it is centralized for the sport and there is one company building the center section and the front clip and the rear clip and they build it all the same, that’s just a lot more efficient than every race team building their own on the team side.

AA: How much are teams going to have to start from scratch next year? Will anyone have an advantage?

Pat DiMarco, Ford Performance Motorsports Engineering Manager: I look back to the Car of Tomorrow when it came out, and Hendrick got it right and they won 13, 15 races that year. And I think whoever gets it right at Daytona next year is going to have an advantage for a while. Everybody will catch up, because they always do, but it’s about whoever gets it right at Daytona.

AA: Teams won’t be allowed to put tape on the grille anymore to get more temperature and downforce. What does that mean for teams?

Tommy Joseph, Aerodynamics Supervisor: The teams are going to have to be a little bit smarter and work really diligently with the engine shop and set their cooling, because once you get on the racetrack for a race, you’re not gonna be able to adjust your cooling.

AA: Why is this new car supposedly safer?

TJ: With the Gen-6, there’s no underwing, so as soon as air starts getting up under the car, there are big voids to fill and air just fills in there. So with the flat body, there’s nowhere for the air to go. It goes into the flat body and it’s going to come out somewhere. So the diffuser helps to alter the pressure as the air’s coming in. Then with the roof flaps up, that’s altering the pressure as well, all trying to keep the car on the ground. That’s on the aero side. On the chassis side, the driver moved to the right and down.

AA: Why’s that safer?

TJ: It’s much safer because you have a lot more room between the driver and the door bars, so one change that’s been made recently is the door bars moved outward and up. There were a lot of lessons learned from the Ryan Newman crash at Daytona that we rolled into this. ... Moving the driver down and over has been something they’ve been trying to drive to but with the current architecture of Gen-6 it’s just not possible. You have a big transmission on your right hand side. You can’t move over. ... Now we have a four-inch prop shaft, so you’re able to move the driver over a few inches. I know they dropped the driver a couple of inches, so from the engineering standpoint, that’s great to drive it really low. It gives the driver a little more ability, so that a tall driver like (Joey) Logano or Austin Cindric, they don’t have to be so high.

AA: Kurt Busch said the other day that with Next Gen, there was the ability to save more of the car after a wreck and that the pieces bolted together. Why is that?

TJ: You’ve got three sections. The center section, the front clip and the rear clip. And all of those sections bolt together, so if you have a crash and you damage your front clip, there are four pieces, you just unbolt ‘em, pull your front clip off, plug your new clip in and you’re ready to go.

AA: Are there cost-saving benefits to that?

TJ: Yeah, absolutely. And you don’t have to have as many chassis in the shop. ... You don’t have to have a specialized road track car, speedway car, it’s all the same. You might have your suspension geometry different, but your center section is the same, so you can have less center sections and one or two spare clips and you can just come back from a race, take that old clip off, and bolt the new clip on. Saves time, saves money. It’ll save a lot of money because you don’t have to take the car completely apart and send it to the chassis shop, fix it, come back, build it again.