It started with NASCAR and its manufacturers developing a new car. Since then, it’s been tested, re-tested, and tested some more, had a grand public reveal, and teams are now beginning to learn how to build them.
As Next Gen gets closer to becoming a reality, drivers need to do their part in preparing to drive the car. A radically different vehicle, as it’s been described, requires time and attention to learn, right?
“It’s still going to be a race car,” says Team Penske’s Joey Logano. “It still has four tires; it still has an engine. It’s not as different as everyone is making it out to be. It’ll be different, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like you’re jumping into an F1 (car) from a Cup car. It ain’t even close to that; it’s still a stock car.
“The car is still going to slide around. You’ll have to slow it down a lot to get through the corners. It’s still heavy. There is not that much changing if you look at it from a global view.”
The Next Gen will be a test in adaptation. Those who do their homework ahead of the 2022 season will likely be the first to succeed.
Cars have changed before: look back to 2008 with the Car of Tomorrow. But the COT had many of the same suspension pieces, whereas Next Gen is new from the skin all the way down to the nuts and bolts. Changes include independent rear suspension, rack and pinion steering and larger brakes, along with a sequential shifter.
“When those cars start coming around a little bit more, it’ll be a lot easier to learn more about them,” says Ryan Blaney. “I was able to test one of them in Texas (in May), and it was nice to get behind the wheel of it. You have to be prepared for that car and learn as much as you can about it. At the same time, it’s still this year, and you have to focus on that. So, it’s kind of a balancing act.”
For Blaney, the best he can do is pay attention to the immediate future regardless of whether that means the upcoming race at Watkins Glen, or another run at testing the Next Gen.
“You have to work all sides of it, but yeah, that’s something you have to really put a big emphasis on,” Blaney says of Next Gen. “We’re putting a big one here at Penske already, trying to learn these cars, and everybody even working on them, not only the drivers racing them. They’re a whole new beast to work on for the mechanics and things like that. Obviously, the setups are going to be way different. So, that side you have to be aware of, but you have to focus on this year, too. Those who do both the best will be good.”
Approaches to preparation vary from driver to driver. Reigning series champion Chase Elliott has not tested the car and admitted to not talking about it much. Elliott seems prepared to worry about the car when it’s here.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of JTG Daugherty Racing has a similar mentality. Stenhouse is focused on 2021 and believes a lot of the preparation for Next Gen will be on the team side when testing starts. When that time comes, he hopes to get a handle on the car: what it drives like, what a driver needs to feel to go fast, race well around others, and make passes.
“We all get in and show up and drive now, and I don’t think it’s any different,” Stenhouse says. “I do believe that the teams and drivers that have driven it probably have definitely a leg up on everyone. Us at JTG, we haven’t run the car, and we haven’t had anybody at a test session, so you don’t know exactly how it’s going to be, and there is only so much you can do outside a race car. Obviously, simulators and things like that, but we don’t have access to that, so I will be using iRacing, I reckon, and go from there.”
Next Gen made its iRacing debut in May and wasused in multiple races for the eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series. With the lack of practice and qualifying since the pandemic, OEM simulators and iRacing have become a popular prep tool.
“You can talk about iRacing and this and that all you want, but the teams with the stronger OEM support are going to jump off to a better start with this Next Gen car,” says Corey LaJoie of Spire Motorsports. “I think we’ll have to take whatever information we can get and be efficient with it, and try to get those things dialed in, because it’s a little bit more moving parts to the Next Gen car than what we have right now.”
There are two things Stewart-Haas Racing rookie Chase Briscoe wants to learn about the Next Gen: its safety and feel. Crash testing was a popular topic of conversation, and Briscoe talked to William Byron about the hit Byron suffered when he crashed the car last year at Fontana. So first off, Briscoe wants to ensure everyone is safe. Other than that, he is “wide open” with the car because he’s not one to sit there and say how to set it up.
“For me, I just want to try and figure out specifically that feel that we need to look for, that feel that we have with independent suspension and all these things and the smaller sidewall,” admits Briscoe. “I was trying to talk to guys that have run these cars before and kind of what makes them successful, whether it’s V8 Supercar guys or whatever – even IMSA guys – it’s kind of a similar style of car. So, just trying to figure out that feeling you kind of look for specifically on a road course because that’s what they do.
“The ovals, I think, it’s kind of an open book. Nobody knows what that feel is yet or what to look for, so I think that’s just the biggest thing is the safety side, and then just that feel that you need in the race car to go fast.”
Richard Childress Racing has been involved in the development of the Next Gen since the beginning, as the organization began working with NASCAR on the prototype. With Next Gen on the Childress campus, the teams and engineers have had the opportunity to look at it up close and personal for quite some time. Between that and the diverse racing backgrounds and experience of those who work for Childress, Tyler Reddick hopes it translates to good ideas with the car.
However, Reddick also admits everyone is limited in the homework they can do. Ultimately, he says the hope is that it suits your driving style, or you’ll have to be a quick learner.
Austin Dillon thinks it’s a good thing Childress has been involved from the beginning. Dillon’s engineer Billy Scott has been present at most of the tests, “so that’s been helpful getting the knowledge of the car, getting the different adjustments and what people think of it. He’s very knowledgeable, and I think that’ll help us, hopefully, to be on the forefront of one of the teams that figures it out fastest.”
Two of the drivers who have tested the car, Byron and Logano, didn’t get too attached to what they learned because the car was still in development. Both are equally interested in seeing how different the Next Gen is now.
The Next Gen is the first time Byron will adapt to a newly developed car. Byron plans to try and get to know as much as possible about the Next Gen the rest of the year and into the offseason.
“I think I’m going to have to keep different tabs on my phone and my computer with my team on what’s Next Gen, what’s (going on) this year as we get into the playoffs because we’re going to have to compartmentalize,” Byron says. “I’ll do a mix between iRacing and the sim we have at GM and try to find out if those are the same or different.”
Byron will also spend time around his Hendrick Motorsports team as they get their hands on the car. Different vendors will supply the parts and pieces, and teams will bolt them together to go racing.
Logano also wants to be in tune with what’s going on and understand the adjustments and options that come with the car. The former series champion says he doesn’t need to be wrenching on it, but that it will be important understanding how it works.
In the end, being as prepared as possible is all that a driver can do, and no-one will show up to Daytona in February 2022 without having done some type of homework.
“I think we all have a way of maybe exaggerating how different things will be, how crazy this will be,” Logano says of the hype. “We have a way of making things way bigger than what they are. It’s the same thing (with Next Gen). We’re going to say, ‘Oh my god, this is such a big change,’ and it is a big change, but we’re all going to figure it out.
“There’s going to be a winner and a loser, right? It’s life, and it’s a challenge, and we just have to figure it out. But there is no sense in making it more than what it is either.”