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Designers leave mark on 2013 Sprint Cup cars

January 04, 2013, David Caraviello,

Generation-6 cars have balance between functionality, organic look

His job is to take the canvas of a production vehicle and instill it with character and emotion, with the goal of stopping a potential buyer on the showroom floor. And yet, Garen Nicoghosian follows road racing, quotes motorsports innovator Colin Chapman and slides behind the wheel of a sports car himself on test days.

He may be an artist whose medium is glass and steel, but the top Ford designer can still appreciate the things needed to make a race car go fast.

So when the opportunity arose to help craft the manufacturer’s 2013 entry on the Sprint Cup Series tour, he didn’t pass up the chance.

“It was a choice assignment, and not one that comes around very often,” Nicoghosian said. “… It gave you a good feeling. It made you feel warm and fuzzy that you worked on a pivotal point in the sport’s current time. And if you end up doing something pretty great, everybody wins as a result of it.”

Brand identity is the hallmark of the 2013 Sprint Cup cars, which will debut at Daytona in February and include physical features closely resemble their counterparts on the street. From Ford’s grille to Toyota’s side creases and Chevrolet’s vents behind the front wheels (non-functioning, in this case), it will be the details that connect the race cars to their production brethren and make them stand out from one another more than they have in decades.

To a large degree that stems from the involvement of manufacturer designers, which Ford NASCAR operations manager Andy Slankard called “a unique thing that probably hasn’t happened since the ’70s.”

Indeed, very little design went into the previous Sprint Cup vehicle, which was built primarily with safety in mind. Although those safety innovations will be carried over to this next-generation car, NASCAR opened up several parts of the body to manufacturers who wanted fans to see the difference between a Fusion, a Camry and an SS.

In came the designers, the same ones used to create the look of their respective passenger cars, in some cases using tools like clay modeling that had never been employed in race car construction before. In each instance, they were tasked with striking a delicate balance -- give the car enough character so it’s identifiable to fans in the grandstand, but also ensure all those design elements don’t detract from performance.

“To (paraphrase) Colin Chapman, a race car is only as good as its finishes. Only then are all the blood, sweat and tears worth it,” Nicoghosian said. “Otherwise, it’s nothing more than a failure. If it can’t compete for overall top honors, then it’s failed in its primary goal. … For that, we were very open to the idea of being able to blur the line between performance and design. That was the challenge: to not get too designy and looped out on the fact that it’s a race car. It needs to win.”

All of which led to the occasional nervous moments for the racing executives involved in the process. Andy Graves, Toyota’s Sprint Cup program manager, can still remember the first test of the new Camry at the AeroDyn wind tunnel in Mooresville, N.C., in January. Anxious?

“You have no idea,” Graves said. “We had our fingers crossed. … If it has bad aero characteristics, you have to start over. And then you have to get into their uncomfortable zone, pushing them to redesign and put character in places that they didn’t want.”

Thankfully for the Toyota camp, that didn’t happen -- they had the opposite problem, Graves said, with the new Camry performing so well they had to tone it down. But that didn’t mean the task was simple for the designers, who couldn’t touch the common areas the manufacturers and NASCAR had collectively decided would be off limits, not to mention “hard points” that needed to remain intact for aerodynamic or performance reasons.

“It was a challenge, there’s no doubt,” said Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s Calty design studio. “I think the one thing that surprised us was all the hard points we had to keep for performance issues and aerodynamic matters. Given that environment, trying to capture the essence of the Camry production car was a pretty big challenge. I think in the end what it really boiled down to was trying to capture … the brand identity and the character of the front. So we spent a lot of time on the front end trying to capture it the best we could. It was the area where we had the freedom to actually capture the production car most accurately.”

Each designer had to make sacrifices, and each had to find the right characteristics to carry over from the production model. At Toyota, that meant tightening up the character line that runs from the back of the front wheel to the rear of the street Camry. There are smaller flourishes, like the rocker panel, where the sheet metal folds out. And then there’s that distinctive, snarling front end.

“From the A pillar forward, the car looks really terrific,” Hunter said. “There’s no doubt it captures the Camry image.”

Similarly, Ford’s Nicoghosian fought to protect areas like the front end, the hood, the sides and even the headlight design. “You go for a feeling,” he said. “You’re not going to bring anything verbatim, because the packages are so different from one another proportionally, dimensionally, layout-wise, it doesn’t matter how you look at it. There’s nothing common between a Fusion road car and Fusion race car, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that looking at our version of the race car next to a production car. There’s a closeness that you can’t deny. And the way we did that was, we took the essence of what made a Fusion a Fusion.”

Most notably, the front grille, which thrills Ford Racing chief Jamie Allison.

“The fact that we have truly a grille element, with the grille bars, designed into a car that’s going to do 200 mph on the race track goes to show you that you can indeed have design features in a car that comes from production, and yet without impacting the performance of the car on the race track,” he said. “That to me is one of the symbols of success. Because we’re going to have fans that say, ‘Wow. It has a grille. Which is what cars have.' ”

Chevrolet faced an additional challenge in building the SS from a production model that won’t be launched until February, but whose development began ahead of the race car. The racers were assisted by John Cafaro, lead designer on the production SS, who had worked on previous motorsports projects involving the Camaro and Corvette. Cafaro solicited sketches from Holden, the Australian GM subsidiary that makes an almost identical vehicle, and was at Hendrick Motorsports to help fine-tune the first prototype.

“We came in a large part of the way with the passenger car, and from there we just had to keep up,” said Pat Suhy, NASCAR group manager for GM Racing. “As they changed things, changes in the grille detail, headlight details, things like that, we just had to stay in close touch with them. And as those things evolved, we just had to evolve the race car to keep up.”

Suhy said Cafaro is a race fan who was “fully engaged” with the project. That seemed the case with every manufacturer, whose designers clearly relished the assignment. Nicoghosian called working on the vehicle “one of the highlights of my career at Ford.” Hunter, who is also developing a new Toyota funny car and Camping World Truck Series entry, said he plans to be in Daytona for the vehicle’s first race.

“It was a thrill for us to be involved in the whole project, because we’re a bunch of car nuts and race enthusiasts,” he said. “So for us to be involved was crazy exciting.”