Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Barber: Gen-7 is NASCAR’s ticking bomb – Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Barber: Gen-7 is NASCAR’s ticking bomb – Santa Rosa Press Democrat
15 Sep

NASCAR hopes to debut the Gen-7 rides in 2021, or at least the chassis and body. The new engines are supposed to follow around 2023. Wilson calls the schedule “a very, very aggressive goal.”

There are a couple of factors at play here. The manufacturers would like the racing cars to look, and perhaps even to work like, their factory models. It helps sales, as you might imagine.

Wilson calls it “relevancy.”

The other angle is more sweeping. It has grown too expensive to own and operate a Cup series team. As Wilson said, “Today, very few of them can actually make a proper business and compete.”

One result is that NASCAR isn’t attracting new team owners. Wilson wonders why Andretti Autosports, which runs cars in six different classes, including IndyCar, hasn’t bought into NASCAR. He cites a current Monster Energy Cup driver, too.

“Why isn’t Kyle Busch pining to be a Cup team owner at the end of his career?” Wilson asked. “Because he’d be foolish.”

It’s always going to be pricey to own a NASCAR ride. These powerful, fickle machines require a lot of labor to maintain, and teams usually do a complete engine tear-down and rebuild after each race weekend.

Wilson also talks about the self-defeating nature of the garage. Under current guidelines, NASCAR teams fiddle and tinker with every aspect of the technology. If they don’t, they stand to fall behind the other teams. But it’s a huge money drain, usually for only minimal gains in aerodynamics and power.

“Sometimes we need help protecting ourselves from ourselves,” Wilson said. “Because if you give me a rulebook, my job as an engineer is to exploit every single paragraph.”

The answer to the red ink is standardization, but that’s kind of a dirty word in high-level racing. If every car is a cookie-cutter copy of the next, especially under the hood, the research-and-development costs will plummet. But that sort of eats at the spirit that has always guided the sport. That guides every sport.

So NASCAR officials, auto manufacturers and team owners have begun an intricate dance. They are working together to draw up cars that allow the most skillful engineers, mechanics and drivers to win races, while cutting down on the gap in competition. As Page put it, “How do you keep it from being ‘the rich guys always win’?”

The only guarantee is that the finished Gen-7 product will fail to make everyone happy.

“You hear drivers like Kyle Busch,” Wilson said. “He’s passionate about it, and he’s probably the best competing right now. And what he sees is his potential to compete being squeezed down. And it frustrates him to no end. … It’s just balancing that against the viability.”

The other problem with the economics is that they creates a barrier to new OEMs. There are currently three. NASCAR wants at least one more. Wilson would like more than that. When Toyota supports Lexus in its sports car racing series, they compete against eight other manufacturers.

“We need Ford and Chevrolet to succeed, as counterintuitive as that sounds,” Wilson said. “Because it is a fragile ecosystem with just three of us in the sport.”

This would all be a fun exercise, if there weren’t so much money at stake, and if big-business sports weren’t so notoriously impatient. Wilson is a team player, but he didn’t sound convinced that he’d have a new chassis on the track at the start of 2021.

“I’d like to believe as an industry that if we get to this fall, and we’re not where we need to be, that we have the courage, collectively, to push the date,” Wilson said.

Not that the mission will be over when the new car is on the track, and when things like the race calendar and the structure of a race weekend (there is talk of two days of activity rather than three) have been reconfigured. Wilson likened the process to painting a battleship. The minute they’re done, it will be time to start again.

Page said that NASCAR is much more collaborative and less top-down than when he got to Sears Point, and Wilson agrees. He noted that Jim France, NASCAR’s current CEO, visited Toyota’s North American headquarters in Plano, Texas, two weeks ago to solicit feedback on the Gen-7 project.

Wilson also knows where the rubber meets the road in this industry.

“This isn’t a democracy,” he said. “This is NASCAR’s sport. No one’s holding a gun to our head to participate.”

Only to, you know, hurry things along a bit.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.



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