NASCAR: What Impact Will Proposed Gen-6 Changes Have?


Mar 23, 2014; Fontana, CA, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Larson (42) during the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

I wonder what a meeting with Brian France must be like. Or rather, how long it would take for him to get distracted and start fiddling with a pen. The guy just can’t seem to help himself.

Yes, more tweaks are afoot for NASCAR. But this time senior figures are focusing on the most important aspect of all – the racing, and the racecars involved. Director of Competition Robin Pemberton has previously hinted at it, and today Brian France confirmed that further changes to the Gen-6 racecar were coming in 2015. According to close sources and Pemberton himself, the main focus will be on the engine; up to 75-100hp may be cut to reduce top speeds and prolong engine life. Aerodynamic and tire changes are also on the table too.

Let me be clear: I’ve never been a big fan of the Gen-6. A NASCAR racecar should never be so reliant on aerodynamic grip that close racing renders it borderline undriveable. When NASCAR stock cars, the most rugged racecars on earth, spin out because air has been taken off the nose, something has gone badly wrong.

But for whatever reason, the racing has been better so far this season. Only Las Vegas has been las-klustre (badum tish), and Daytona, Bristol, California and Martinsville were all races for the ages that left fans delighted. Which makes this latest announcement slightly perplexing in its timing. Why fix what (currently) isn’t broken?

More strange is the main area being focused on – the engine. Because the engines aren’t really the problem.

Mar 16, 2014; Bristol, TN, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kurt Busch (41) and driver Jamie McMurray (1) during the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR Sprint Cup racecars have always produced a huge amount of horsepower. But in years past, they relied more heavily on mechanical grip – i.e. tires, suspension and so forth – as opposed to aerodynamic grip and downforce. The COT and Gen-6 have both used aero parts such as the front splitter, shark fin, and larger spoilers to generate downforce. Couple that with the cars now running much lower to the ground, and the result is lots of downforce being produced, meaning cars can now go faster than ever; the downside being that when this airflow is taken away, for example when another car is close, handling is severely compromised.

Therefore, the reason why the cars are running faster than ever and becoming more sensitive is because of the aero allowing the cars to cut through the air quicker and grip harder in the corners. Hence why the decision to cut horsepower is puzzling. Part of the appeal of NASCAR historically has been watching drivers wrestle with heavy stock cars which have too much power for the chassis to handle. If anything, cutting horsepower and not tweaking the aero package will only mean overtaking is even harder with less power and top-end speed at the driver’s disposal.

Pemberton has also hinted that tire and aerodynamic changes, and these sound much more promising. A soft tire which offers lots of grip at the start of a run, but falls away drastically over a long run, adds interest. The car becomes harder to drive, and strategy becomes more important when the huge grip of fresh Goodyears waiting for you in the pits is on offer versus staying out to protect track position. It also gives drivers confidence to race hard on restarts – with a field full of guys on fresh tires, they can trust their machines and pull audacious moves, especially when that restart is a Green-White-Checker. We’ve seen at Bristol and California in particular the difference a tire which wears across a run makes to a race – the difference between that and regular races, where cars lose no grip across a fuel run and races are decided on fuel mileage, has been like night and day. So hopefully this is the direction Pemberton and his crew are going in.

Mar 30, 2014; Martinsville, VA, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson pits during the STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

As for aerodynamic tweaks? The logical step seems to be to shift the balance back to mechanical grip over aerodynamic grip. Trimming back the splitter, shark fin and rear spoiler should have the effect of reducing downforce and therefore slowing the cars down whilst also making them more stable in big packs.With aero being less of a factor, the leader will not be able to use clean air to power away into an invincible lead, and cars will be able to race close together without handling being severely compromised. Ride height is also crucial – the current Nationwide car has a similar splitter/shark fin to the Gen-6, but the higher ride combined with the boxy, less aerodynamic design means racing has generally been better. The snub-nosed Trucks have been consistently producing the best racing in NASCAR’s top three divisions with little to no aerodynamic efficiency. Surely this is the direction NASCAR has to move in with the Gen-6?

Perhaps another move should be to free up the technical regulations, putting innovation and setup back in the hands of the teams. In the pre-COT days, teams could build racecars with unusual body designs and chassis setups geared towards working at particular racetracks. The COT was introduced to cut the costs of building multiple racecars, but in fact it has had the opposite effect – tightening technical regulations means only those with the most R&D money can build their cars the best and have an advantage. With more open regulations and boundaries, the smaller teams have more leeway to try interesting setups and attempt to close the gap; notice how outside of the plate tracks, the top 20 has become generally more predictable lately. This has also been due to spiralling costs, and what the have-nots don’t need is yet another round of technical changes – i.e. more money for them to spend. Hendrick can afford to keep adapting to new rule changes – I doubt the same is true for Swan Racing.

I remain sceptical – the last time NASCAR claimed to be fixing issues with the racecars, the only change we got was a stupid perspex sheet on the rear spoiler. The solution to the Gen-6 problem seems so obvious. Why have NASCAR ducked the issue so far? And will they finally solve it now?

Time will tell.