Going beyond Gen-6
February 21, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
When NASCAR Chairman Brian France first raised the possibility of “glass dashboards” on race cars a year ago and more recently tossed out the idea of live-streaming interactive technology, it immediately triggered the imagination of fans, drivers and the car manufacturers.
“I don’t think we should be worrying about tweeting while we drive,’’ three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart said jokingly. “But there’s a lot of neat things NASCAR is probably thinking of.’’
The reality is that even though the brand-new 2013 Generation-6 models haven’t yet turned a point-scoring lap, NASCAR Vice President for Competition Robin Pemberton and the sport’s best engineering minds are already asking themselves, “What’s next?”
“Now that we’re getting ready to launch the Gen-6 car we have some space to work on other things, whether it’s the dashboard or software or things that will take that Gen-7 car and move forward,” Pemberton said.
But that’s the way planning for the future works in NASCAR.
“If you go back six, seven years ... when we developed the (current) car, and before we were even done with that, we were already working on the new Nationwide car," Pemberton said, "and when it was almost done, we were working on the Gen-6.”
"NASCAR said nothing is off the table. So we will continue to develop it."
--Pat DiMarco, engineer, Ford Motor Company, on the Gen-6 car
When the competition debuts of the 2013 Gen-6 Ford Fusions, Chevrolet SSs and Toyota Camrys were still weeks away, the sport’s manufacturers -- Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota -- were formulating ideas on how to make the sport even better with the next new car.
“We’ve talked about it internally and with NASCAR about all sorts of different things to bring more brand identity to them,’’ explained one of Ford Motor Company’s top engineers, Pat DiMarco.
“One of the ideas is putting a representative dash(board) that’s in the production car into the race car. We talked about real headlights, tail-lights, things like that to make them even more like the cars off the showroom.
“NASCAR said nothing is off the table. So we will continue to develop it.’’
One of the benefits of NASCAR’s extensive research and development capabilities and the move back to manufacturer brand identity is that new or updated cars can move into competition more easily -- and more frequently.
“We have to take it in steps because these things are so costly to the teams,’’ Pemberton explained. “We’ve already had some preliminary tests and talks with manufacturers about the software and dashboard. What it will bring we don’t know.
“We do know things change quickly. The things that you would look at today for today, by the time we would implement them we’re already behind. So, we will take the time to be engaged with the proper manufacturers and companies so we can launch something that will be current. It will take a lot of work, but it’s something we’re up to in the R&D center. Other than looking at the safety aspect and competition, we are looking at things that can help our fan engagement.’’
It’s a theme embraced by the sanctioning body and drivers and fans alike.
“I’m not saying it’s about Twitter -- but about helping the fans be more engaged in our racing,’’ Pemberton said.
“You can’t take the drivers’ attention away, that’s the first thing. But you can do things that get out there via their (driver) pages (on NASCAR.com) -- lap times, things they are doing, the technological arena of their car -- for fans to log on and appreciate what their driver is doing and how the race is unfolding.’’
Although he stops short of suggesting fan ride-alongs, veteran driver Jeff Burton thinks improving fan engagement is the most significant opportunity presenting itself. By embracing technology and using it in innovative, interactive ways, Burton is convinced NASCAR can win over a whole new generation of fans -- without alienating the longtime loyal legions.
“I think every car should have in-car cameras; it shouldn’t be a select few,’’ Burton said. “I think every car should have in-car audio and video making it very interactive so fans can watch the race, have a computer next to them or watch on the smartphone and see it from a lot of different angles.
“Anything to make the races more interactive, that’s where our sport is going.’’
It’s more than just keeping up with the times. It is about setting new, higher expectations and creating a different fan experience as the sport introduces a new era in race cars.
“Fans like technology, they like to know how a wind tunnel works, how fuel injection works,’’ Burton said. “We don’t want to alienate our core fans but at the same time we have to grow new ones, too.
“Look, I’m a 45-year-old that watched the very first live broadcast of a race flag-to-flag. I wouldn’t have been offended if I could have watched that race on cell phone, listened to a bunch of drivers talking on the team radios and heard NASCAR officials call the race.
“These are things we can do that don’t impact our fans in a negative way. If they don’t want to use things like that, they don’t have to. They can embrace it or not. Just offering it is a win-win. ... Cool dashboards don’t mean anything if no one can see it."