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July 10, 2024

Inside NASCAR’s first foray into electrification: ‘We want to be in the driver’s seat’


The ABB NASCAR EV prototype sits on a race track.
Photo provided by NASCAR

NASCAR’s electric dawn is here as the sanctioning body unveiled the ABB NASCAR EV Prototype Saturday at the Chicago Street Course.

The stock-car powerhouse’s first endeavor into the creation of a battery electric vehicle brings with it no series on the horizon and no concrete plan for what electrified racing may look like through the lens of NASCAR yet. But the prototype vehicle — created in collaboration with Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota by the same NASCAR engineers behind the Next Gen car that occupies the Cup Series and the Garage 56 entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans — indicates a glimpse at what is possible years down the road.

“If you look out across the landscape, one thing that’s for certain is that change is accelerating all around us,” said John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer. “We, from a NASCAR perspective, want to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to where our future is going. We certainly don’t want to be in the passenger seat and then someday get to the future and go, ‘Oh, where do we need to be?’ It’s not fair to the collaboration that we have with our OEM partners if we go down a particular route that they’re not interested in or is honestly not relevant to them.”

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What remained notable in a sitdown with NASCAR and manufacturer officials at the sport’s production facility in Concord, North Carolina, was the reiteration of the current stability of the internal combustion engine that remains synonymous with NASCAR racing. But with that comes an open mind toward different possibilities of what those power sources look like.

“One of the things you’ll see out of the Next Gen platform not just this year but over the years that come is you’ll see us experiment with a lot of different powertrains in that,” Probst said. “Today, obviously we have the combustion engine. There’s a long, long road ahead for the combustion engine, be it powered from sustainable fuel or hydrogen, for that matter. That’s something else that we’re very interested in. But then there’s obviously also the electrification side of that, be it hybrid (or otherwise).”

NASCAR’s extensive work in developing, testing and displaying such a radically different concept to the sport propels stock-car racing immediately toward the future.

According to the press release, the car has three STARD UHP 6-Phase motors (one front, two rear) supplying power directly to all four specially designed Goodyear tires. It also holds a 78-kWh liquid-cooled battery with a powertrain that can produce 1,000 kilowatts at peak power. Regenerative braking converts kinetic energy into power, making the car ideal for road courses and short oval tracks, the press release stated.

And while the powertrain was priority No. 1 on such an involved and complex project, that was not the only area of focus from a sustainability standpoint. The body of the crossover utility vehicle (CUV) that houses the new electric power is made from a flaxseed-based composite, sitting on a modified Next Gen chassis and utilizing the same steering, suspension, brakes and wheels featured in today’s NASCAR Cup Series.

The design of the vehicle and what went into it was led by CJ Tobin, NASCAR’s senior engineer of vehicle systems, and his team at the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina.

Working hand-in-hand with that group was Riley Nelson, who serves as NASCAR’s head of sustainability, a job that to outsiders before Saturday’s unveil may have sounded more like an oxymoron. But the effort their teams combined to perform significantly helps the sport pursue what realistic options exist in the years to come.

“Sustainability means a lot of different things. And for our team right now, it’s environmental sustainability,” Nelson told NASCAR.com. “And so that really starts with education and getting people to understand that this is what our role is. That what our team is doing is we’re trying to reduce NASCAR’s carbon footprint. And that happens in a variety of different ways.

“But the bulk of it is it’s not going to be just the NASCAR IMPACT team or the sustainability team that’s doing it. It’s the entire company and the entire industry that needs to think differently and think about some of these solutions and problem-solving ways to reduce carbon as a sport.

“And that’s why the education piece is so important because I’m not a car engineer or a car designer, CJ is. John is. So it’s important that they’re also thinking about the way that we’re thinking about sustainability and implementing that into their individual organizations and lines of business, and that’s slowly how then change happens across multiple departments and teams, which then affects across the industry.”

Pat DiMarco, Ford Performance’s manager of NASCAR and analytics, emphasized that if any change is to come, it will likely be slow, measured and reasonable.

“The Daytona 500 will (feature) an internal combustion engine for well beyond my (time),” DiMarco said. “So it’s going to be a balance, right? The experience may be good, may be bad, depending on how you look at it. It’s an unknown. We got to work through it. And that’s what this is. It’s educating and taking the feedback from the race fans as to, is this something that they want? Is this something that they like? And is this something that us as the OEMs want to pursue even further?

“But can we go race, you know, for 30 minutes, 45 minutes at a short track? Yeah. Is that a long enough race to go do something? Probably. Nitro Rallycross and some of the World Rally Cross stuff run short races to give people time to watch. Do you want to go to the Daytona 500 (with EVs)? No. A mile-and-a-half (track), you’re not gonna run for as long as you are. But you know, just seeing where the technology goes to dictate how we as OEMs in NASCAR roll it in.”

For now, just one prototype vehicle exists, which former Cup regular David Ragan has piloted across multiple test sessions and achieved similar lap times at Martinsville Speedway to the modern-day Cup vehicle. Whether anything more significant lies ahead remains to be determined.

“There’s no plans right now to have a series that’s electric,” Probst said. “But I will also say I learned a long time ago you never say ‘never’ or ‘always,’ so that’s a good life lesson.”

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