NASCAR Confesses How Badly It Screwed up the Next Gen Car

Doing right by drivers over the weekend didn’t cost NASCAR president Steve Phelps anything. He met with Cup Series competitors in Charlotte and promised to communicate with them more frequently regarding how NASCAR will make the Next Gen car safer.

On the other hand, NASCAR is about to run up a seven-figure tab as it tries to make amends to team owners who thought they bought superior cars and now wonder if they were sold a bill of goods.

Nothing says, “We goofed,” like writing a check does.

The Next Gen car isn’t meeting expectations

Kurt Busch spins after an on-track incident in the No. 45 Toyota during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series M&Ms Fan Appreciation 400 on July 23, 2022, in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
Kurt Busch spins after an on-track incident in the No. 45 Toyota during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series M&Ms Fan Appreciation 400 on July 23, 2022, in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Justin Marks has alluded to it several times while most other owners have remained mum publicly, but the Next Gen car is more expensive than promised. The Trackhouse Racing co-owner expected start-up costs associated with retooling the garages and stocking shelves with replacement parts, but it’s been worse than projected.

The tradeoff should be lower future costs. Rather than fabricating sheet metal and engineering components to make their cars faster, the theory had teams saving money by buying NASCAR-approved stock front and rear clips that would fit neatly over relatively indestructible frames and safety components.

Unfortunately, it’s not working out that way. Other than toe links that break if you so much as stare at them cross-eyed – it’s supposed to work that way because it’s a cheaper fix than swapping out entire suspension systems – the Next Gen car might be too durable.

Mounting evidence suggests unforgiving crumple zones may have caused Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman to suffer concussions. Other drivers have complained the hits this year have felt worse than any in the past.

And none of this even considers the Next Gen car has been a lemon on short tracks and road courses, which constitute a third of the Cup Series schedule.

NASCAR vows to foot the bill for significant changes ahead

Kurt Busch waves to fans onstage during driver intros prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 26, 2022. | Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images
Kurt Busch waves to fans onstage during driver intros prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 26, 2022. | Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

NASCAR notified its Cup Series teams on Tuesday of changes to the Next Gen chassis that they expect to deliver safety improvements next season, particularly in incidents involving hits to the rear of the car. Drivers heard about the changes on Oct. 8, Road and Track reported.

The strategy emphasizes introducing more internal parts that will bend, thereby absorbing energy during a wreck rather than transferring the force to the driver compartment. This will be accomplished in part by reducing the thickness of certain support bars, resulting in more twisted metal.

That will have the effect of requiring more frequent replacement of those parts in order for the cars to pass scrutiny in subsequent pre-race inspections.

Most interestingly, the website also reported NASCAR has committed to pay for the parts required for the initial updates. If that ends up including front and rear clips and is applied to an average of two cars per driver, the total cost for NASCAR would easily exceed $1 million.

An example of what NASCAR intends to do

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When Kurt Busch’s car got loose in qualifying at Pocono over the summer and the Toyota’s back clip slapped the outer wall, damage to the car was minimal. Within hours, 23XI Racing knew fixing the car was not problem No. 1 on the list; Busch was showing the effects of a concussion, and the team had to bring in Ty Gibbs to replace Busch in the next day’s race. Gibbs has been filling in since, and there are strong indications Busch will announce his retirement this weekend in Las Vegas.

Concerns have mounted since about the Next Gen car, and the rear clip of the car has been an area of particular interest. It explains why that part of the car was addressed first in documentation NASCAR has released to its teams regarding improvements for 2023.

NASCAR will move to thinner triangular struts connecting the bumper to the rear clip, which will have two longitudinal bars removed and two others redesigned to allow for crumpling in rear-impact wrecks.

Those changes alone should make a significant improvement in safety. The tradeoff, of course, is that cars that have been surviving contact with the wall with nothing more than a broken toe link and possibly a cut tire will be vulnerable to more damage under the sheet metal that could take the team out of the race.

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