BROOKLYN, Mich. — In 2007, Tony Stewart had a few choice words regarding a stock car design that NASCAR had unveiled for competition.
The car was wider and safer, and NASCAR designers and engineers believed it was the type of car that could adapt to every Sprint Cup Series track.
Stewart had another description for it: a flying brick. And Jeff Gordon remarked at the time that “it was not a sexy car.”
Substance reigned over style during the six-year life span of the “Car of Tomorrow,” but another car already was being visualized for the Sprint Cup Series, one that had been in the works since the fall of 2009. NASCAR, manufacturers, and drivers wanted a car that had a balance of speed, aerodynamics and safety, but also was more identifiable than its predecessor.
Introduced before the 2013 season, the Generation 6 is the newest iteration of the Sprint Cup stock car. It hasn’t won any beauty pageants just yet— though Stewart earned his first Sprint Cup win of 2013 two weeks ago at Dover — but it continues its inaugural tour when it makes its Michigan International Speedway debut for today’s Quicken Loans 400.
Its aesthetic changes are immediately noticeable.
“Instead of trying to do a major overhaul, we looked at the cars and said, ‘Let’s take a shot at doing a lower nose and a couple small tweaks,’ ” said Andy Graves, vice president of chassis engineering and the NASCAR program manager for Turner Racing Development, U.S.A. “And let’s look at something at the future, something that’s going to get everyone excited, and put ... more manufactured character back in the cars. Let the fans relate to what is on the race track and what’s on the showroom floor.”
So are its mechanical changes.
In testing sessions at the MIS, Sprint Cup drivers took note that like any prototype, the Gen-6 has its benefits — and it still has some kinks that need to be ironed out.
“One of the good improvements was adding mechanical grip on the housing,” Trevor Bayne said. “They changed the camber [wheel angling] on the rear tires, and that added a huge amount of grip, and the downforce on the cars. But you’re so limited to how big those race cars are and the hole they punch through the wind. There’s only so much you can do with the air when you get a car in front of you, and that changes how you drive. So I think they’ve done a good job of making that better and they’ll keep improving on that and keep improving on the mechanical grips out of it. That’s all you can ask for.”
Need for more speed
The Gen-6 car that will run in today’s Quicken Loans 400 is 150 pounds lighter than the Gen-5 car that ran in two Sprint Cup races last season at MIS, and is three inches wider and less than two inches shorter than its predecessor. It also comes with an updated aerodynamic package, as well as a roof structure that provides more safety for a driver.
And, yes, it’s faster.
Since the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23, drivers have set eight Sprint Cup qualifying records, including seven by tenths of a second — most notably three weeks ago, when Denny Hamlin set a qualifying record of 195.624 miles an hour, besting Elliott Sadler’s 2005 record of 193.216.
Ironically, Hamlin criticized the Gen-6 car in March in Phoenix and received a $25,000 fine from NASCAR.
“[The Gen-6] did not race as good as our Generation Five cars,” Hamlin said after the Subway Fresh Fit 500. “This is more like what the Generation Five was at the beginning.”
As the season progressed, the speeds increased.
“I look at some of our qualifying stats, some of our running positions at some of the nonrestrictor-plate tracks this season, and we’re a few spots better and more competitive this year than we were last,” Sprint Cup driver David Ragan said. “The Gen-6 car has not only provided for some outstanding races, but it has helped the Front Row Motorsports, the Tommy Baldwin Racings, the smaller teams of Sprint Cup racing, be more competitive.”
Yet one of the challenges that came with designing the Gen-6 was finding a balance between the aesthetic appeal of the car and an aerodynamic design that would enhance speed.
“That’s what teams want,” said Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, a West Virginia University physics professor who wrote the book The Physics of NASCAR: How to Make Steel + Gas + Rubber = Speed. “They look at rules and ask, ‘Within the rules, how do we make this as fast as possible?’ ”
Safety, she said, also was a prime factor in the redesign, an issue that initially came to light in 2001, when seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt died after crashing into the wall at the Daytona 500.
“If it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone,” Leslie-Pelecky said. “People started paying attention and thinking about that, and thinking, ‘We just can’t have cars that go fast, they have to go fast in races. And NASCAR has to legislate safety.’ ”
During practice sessions in February to prepare for the Daytona 500, Carl Edwards told USA Today afterward that with a new car, drivers had to focus less on speed and more on the handling of the new cars, but added that he endorsed the changes in the car.
So did other drivers.
“The competition is changing week to week, and you have to constantly evolve your program and work on your race cars,” Martin Truex, Jr., said. “You can’t say, ‘Oh, we’ll be pretty good throughout the season. You have to work on the car every week. But it’s more fun to drive. It’s faster. And it’s more comfortable to drive.”
Kurt Busch did find one particular in the car that he’s adjusting to so far this season — a front end that he labeled “finicky” when in race traffic.
“But the rear end is nice and forgiving, you have a lot of camber that’s built in, a lot of rear downforce. If we can find a happier spot with the front, that can allow us to race in better packs.”
Busch, however, doesn’t know if he’ll immediately be able to find a happy medium in competition.
“I don’t know if it’s able to be arrived at with this combination,” Busch said. “What I mean by that is the bump stops and the front splitter. If we can adjust to getting back onto coiled springs and without the splitter, as the splitter makes it very sensitive. So we might need exterior-type items for downforce, but that takes away the ability to bump and grind with other guys.”
Image is everything?
The move to a new car also brought about something else — recognition. Instead of a one-body-fits-all mold for each car, each car has more characteristics of a company’s showroom models. NASCAR fans are, after all, consumers.
Edwards’ No. 99 Ford Fusion has a wide grille on the front end of the car and Henry Ford’s signature encased in a blue oval. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet includes the manufacturer’s ubiquitous bowtie logo. Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota comes complete with a honeycomb grille.
“Manufacturers have lost a certain aspect of consumers and fans because of the previous design,” said Graves, who worked for Hendrick Motorsports for 10 years as a crew chief and for six years with Chip Ganassi Racing as a team manager. “When I first came into the sport in 1990, you saw people wearing Ford and Chevy sweatshirts to races. They didn’t care which driver won, as long as he drove a Ford or a Chevy. We’ve lost that aspect.”
The challenge in reaching the point of balancing the visual and technical elements was to make the Gen-6 cars competitively equal but not identical.
“You compare the two models of cars — the Ford Fusion and the Chevy SS — and the aerodynamics are very different,” Leslie-Pelecky said. “How are we going to retain a car so that it keeps the street style but doesn’t have one aerodynamic advantage over the other?”
Before Tony Stewart’s flying brick, the four previous car models NASCAR used in its top-tier circuit evolved because of the growth in specialization. Stock cars have gone from souped-up showroom cars to precision automobiles that require a crew of engineers to maintain its performance.
In that same vein, substance and style could ultimately define the Gen-6.
“From a fan and visual perspective, we’ve come full circle,” Graves said. “We’re right back at the point where we want to put the styling in. And that’s something that, over time, NASCAR has done a great job of trying to protect teams and owners, not just to ensure safety, but to ensure a level playing field.”