NASCAR’s Thursday test of wet-weather tires in damp short-track conditions may have drawn the most intrigue heading into an off weekend for the national-series schedule, but another test that preceded it at Martinsville Speedway also represented a crucial step forward.
Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota — the sport’s three original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) — each brought prototypes of their Next Gen models for the 2022 Cup Series to the track for the first time this week. Cars were fitted with wheel-force transducers for data collection at the closed test, which ran Tuesday and part of Wednesday until rain halted the second session at the .526-mile track.
“That was the first test that was not NASCAR-led. That was led by the OEMs so it’s sort of the transition, if you will, of the car, continuing out of the development phase and now into the implementation phase with the teams,” NASCAR’s Senior Vice President of Racing Innovation John Probst said. “The OEMs are the last step in the process, and as far as them prepping the cars, the feedback was pretty positive. Obviously, there’s little things that we’re working on and we’ll continue to work on, but none of the cars missed any track time due to mechanical problems or anything. Some of the best feedback that we get is, ‘it’s a race car.’ ”
A mix of current and former drivers participated. Hendrick Motorsports’ Alex Bowman represented Chevrolet, veteran David Ragan drove Ford’s prototype, and test driver and spotter Drew Herring was on hand for Toyota.
All three Next Gen cars had the automaker-specific bodies that they’ll use in the model’s 2022 competition debut, but with busy, patterned wrap designs intended to obscure details of their appearance before their official public debut. Even with the car bodies somewhat cloaked by their paint schemes, Probst said he liked what he was able to see.
“With all of the branding now that the OEMs have put on those cars, we’re very happy with how that first test went,” Probst said. “Obviously the cars are heavily camouflaged right now, so it’s hard to see all of the detail that’s gone into it, but I think when the fans get the opportunity to see all of the production characteristics that have gone into these race cars, they’re going to be really happy with the end result.
“The first on-track test was a massive success from our perspective. The focus was on collecting data and making laps, and it wasn’t on trying to sort the car out. So I feel like from that perspective, it was a home run on our first test with the OEMs.”
It’s another part of the process for the Next Gen project, which was delayed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago. On-track testing resumed last August, and NASCAR officials announced in a preseason competition briefing Feb. 1 that the development stage of the car was complete.
What remains is more testing for Goodyear tire configurations, wheel-force data collection and organizational test sessions. A full unveiling of all three manufacturer-specific cars is set for late spring.
“I think it’s 100 percent still on schedule. We feel really comfortable with how the car’s performing and we continue to learn, but I would say now it’s smaller tweaks,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “The focus for the remainder of the year is getting more and more cars on track, more and more drivers out there getting a feel for how the car performs — not only on their own, but with some other cars out there on the track. That’ll be the focus as we continue throughout the year, and then parts and pieces will start to be distributed and we’ll be ready to roll for Daytona.”