CONCORD, N.C. — There’s plenty of “new” to be found in the new flange-fit composite body that will be phased into the NASCAR XFINITY Series starting later this season. New technology, new cost-cutting measures and conveniences, plus new officiating fail safes are on tap.
But it’s also worth noticing what hasn’t changed, NASCAR’s senior director of team efficiencies Brett Bodine explained in a Thursday walk-through with a Toyota Camry test mule at the NASCAR Research & Development Center.
The car, Bodine said, retains the same dimensions as its steel-bodied predecessor. Plus, at a casual glance either 50 feet away or from the middle of the grandstands, the car offers no obvious visual cues that its body is composed of 13 interlocking laminate panels.
“It doesn’t look any different,” Bodine said, noting that the basic shapes and surfaces carry over from car to car. After those first-blush appearances, the differences become clearer.
The car received its first close-up for the media Thursday at the NASCAR R&D Center, just two weeks before the first of this season’s three scheduled races for the technology. XFINITY Series teams will have the option of racing the composite bodies at Richmond (Sept. 8), Dover (Sept. 30) and Phoenix (Nov. 11) as the season winds down. The current plan is to introduce the new body style at all tracks except Daytona and Talladega next year, with a full-fledged implementation in 2019.
GMS Racing tested at Richmond Raceway last week, using a rookie test for Spencer Gallagher to allow the team to get accustomed to the new body style. Bodine said the team reported a “virtually seamless” transition, keeping the timetable for a gradual phasing-in on a steady track.
“The decision process was really all on the teams,” Bodine said of the timing. “We presented them with several options through the collaboration throughout the process, the timing of when the panels would be ready out of production in a large enough supply. Certainly, the teams wanted to run it a few races on smaller tracks to get an understanding of how durable the car was going to be. All of those factors went into the teams’ and industry’s decision on this rollout plan.”
Wisconsin-based Five Star RaceCar Bodies produces the composite-material panels, which are all implanted with an RFID transponder, similar to how pets are micro-chipped. That feature helps NASCAR competition officials track inventory.
Savings in time and cost come with the design. Instead of a steel body welded onto the chassis, parts lock and bolt on, making it far easier to replace damaged panels. Today’s crash in practice that might be an automatic decision to unload a backup car could become tomorrow’s repair or replacement for an individual panel, a process that could lead teams to keep fewer cars in stock. Furthermore, the process to hang a composite body will take far less time — an estimated two days versus the nearly two weeks to form, shape and weld the current steel-body style.
A closer inspection reveals a built-in anti-tampering detail, a raised honeycomb pattern on the surface of panels in the most aero-sensitive areas. If a team tries to sand or otherwise massage the aerodynamics, blemishes to the pattern will reveal the infractions.
While the new body style won’t stop crew chiefs from pushing the boundaries of the rules to gain an advantage, Bodine said the project was developed with fair play in mind.
“That’s their job,” Bodine said, noting crew chiefs’ long history of experimentation. “Their job is to try to be better than the other team. Our responsibility to the industry is to be stewards of the sport, create as level a playing field as possible, and we feel this flange-fit composite body will provide the officials with more tools to ensure that level playing field.”
Bodine said he expected nearly 85 to 90 percent of the field for the XFINITY Series’ trip to Richmond to be using the flange-fit body. There are competitive incentives for doing so; the steel-body cars will be 150 pounds heavier than their composite-bodied counterparts and they will also race without the aero benefit of a radiator pan.
Those decisions and others were reached through collaboration among NASCAR competition officials and team technical directors.
“They asked us to make sure the flange-fit body was the body of choice,” Bodine said, noting that teams wanted to concentrate their resources on a single body style.
Teams in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series have used the Five Star composite bodies since 2015, providing a time for competition officials to learn the ins and outs of the body style before elevating them to a NASCAR national series. That evolution raises the question of whether composite bodies are in the development pipeline for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
“Right now, our main concern is making it successful in XFINITY,” Bodine said. “We’ve got to get them on the race track, get them running side by side, we’ve got to understand the durability of the car, and then we’ll evaluate the future of a project like this once we’ve got all the information we need.”