Steve O’Donnell, the latest guest to join the “Stacking Pennies” podcast with Corey LaJoie, had plenty to share.
O’Donnell, the sport’s COO, offered candor on a multitude of pressing topics surrounding the sport at the forefront of the offseason, including potential upcoming changes to the Next Gen car, possible international events and ongoing discussions with manufacturers.
The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season saw the Next Gen vehicle debut and bring with it plenty of upside – 19 different winners, compelling racing and more parity. But criticism remained around the on-track product at both short tracks and road courses. O’Donnell conceded those areas need work and will be addressed ahead of the 2023 season.
“I agree with the fans,” O’Donnell told LaJoie and Co. “Small body of work, right? We didn’t have that many races [on short tracks]. But you take Martinsville, for instance, and the thing that caught my eye – and you heard this from BJ [McLeod], a good race car driver, right? But he’s a lap down, and he’s able to hold off the leader, I think, for what, 50 laps, right? Just kind of shifting and getting off the gas. And that’s a problem for us.
“So if you’ve got a good car and you’re out there and you’re able to pass guys, you should be able to do that. And so we’ve looked at what’s happening in short tracks. You look at the brakes on the road courses, they’re so good. So this car is different for sure. But it presents some challenges on both short tracks and road courses. So we’re looking at a lot of things around the aero. Certainly looking at some things around the tires, but you know that’s going to be our big focus in the offseason is both road courses and short tracks for sure.”
Some of that work has already begun, thanks in part to NASCAR’s partnership with Hendrick Motorsports as the team fields a Garage 56 entry for the 2023 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The company’s first test car hit the track Monday at Virginia International Raceway, and some of that data is already proving notable as NASCAR officials work to improve the Next Gen product on the sanctioning body’s traditional circuit.
“There’s a lot of things we’ve looked at in the wind tunnel that we found on that car that I think we can try for [a] fairly inexpensive way to go about it, particularly on the short tracks,” O’Donnell said. “So you’ll see us most likely go test something up in Richmond. … But I think there’s gonna be some good things. At least from what we’ve seen already in the wind tunnel and a lot of the sim data, it looks really good in terms of getting rid of some of the challenges as we’ve seen, particularly on the short tracks.
“And then, ultimately, we’ve got to look at shifting. Do we want to eliminate that? How can we work with the engine builders to improve upon that also?”
Power components also remain a hot-button topic as manufacturers consider moving further toward electric or other power sources for their vehicles. NASCAR continues to look at those options, O’Donnell said, but all factors must make sense too.
“For us, we’ve got to be all things to all people. And at the end of the day, we got to be entertaining,” O’Donnell said. “And people want to show up, and they want to go to an event, and they want to have fun. And what I’ve seen at least around [electric vehicle] racing so far, there’s maybe some fun off-track, but the racing is not that. And so we’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to be in that space. How do we do it? What’s the look and feel of the car?
“So we’re building kind of a mule car, so to speak, and we’ll beat it up a little bit, see what we can learn. But we’re also going to be looking at hydrogen space, alternative fuels, all kinds of things because we’ve got to be on the forefront of that and not just put all our eggs in one basket.”
NASCAR has not seen a new manufacturer enter the sport since Toyota joined the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 2004, eventually leaping to Cup in 2007. O’Donnell stressed talks are ongoing and have gotten close, but added it remains difficult to say whether a new manufacturer will join in the next five years.
“I think there’s certainly interest,” O’Donnell said. “We are having conversations right now with an OEM, so I’d like to say likely, but it’s tough. … But again, when you go back to looking at how soon is electrification going to come? Or where do you want to be? And at the end of the day, for us, it’s great if you want to be in the electric space, but we want to be entertaining, right? We’re a sport. We want to make sure our fans come out there and love what they see, and we’ve got to balance that.”
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Interest is also stemming from cities around the continent that don’t yet have Cup racing on its doorstep. The NASCAR Xfinity Series’ inaugural visit to Portland (Oregon) International Raceway in June — highlighted by full grandstands despite considerable rain — emphasized an appetite for racing in America’s Northwest region. But calls are also being made from across both sides of the United States’ borders.
“We haven’t necessarily brought the Cup Series to Canada or the Cup Series to Mexico,” O’Donnell said, “so there’s a lot of interest from both those places — Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, they’re all talking to us. Montreal, Toronto. So there’s a lot of interest.
“I think the key for us is going to be how do we balance this? I mean, you grew up on short tracks. Our fans love short tracks. So we don’t want to turn it into a 30-race road-course schedule, right? So we’ve got to balance where we’re going to take a race and what kind of race track we’re going to migrate that to.”
For more details on O’Donnell’s conversation with LaJoie, tune into this week’s episode of “Stacking Pennies.“