One of the most significant decisions NASCAR officials will face in the coming weeks will not just be about a revised season schedule.
With COVID-19 forcing all professional sports to a halt, NASCAR will likely be full steam ahead through the end of the year when it can start holding races again. However, the sport was also deep into a massive project that has also paused: the development and testing of Next Gen.
The new car is scheduled to roll out in 2021, although the question now, is should that timeline be adjusted?
Clint Bowyer was scheduled to have Next Gen on track in Atlanta earlier this month for its fifth test, but that was canceled when race weekend was called off. The car’s next two appearances were to be at Bristol next week and Dover next month. Both of those races have also been postponed, and with stay at home orders having been handed down all across the country, the car remains idle.
On that basis NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick said last week on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show the rollout of the car should be shelved until 2022.
“Just to take the load off of the teams that we’re currently going to have when we go back racing,” said Harvick.
On March 17, the day NASCAR announced the postponement of five additional races, NASCAR President Steve Phelps said it was too early to speak about any potential Next Gen delays other than that officials were working diligently to stay on schedule.
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told RACER that the practical reality points toward there being a delay. A stay at home order began in North Carolina on Monday, March 30, and will last at least 30 days. Which is at least 30 more days of work not being done in the sport.
“Candidly, I think as an industry, our priority right now needs to be in salvaging and recovering our racing season that we’ve pressed pause right in the middle of,” said Wilson.
While Wilson noted that in 2007 the Car of Tomorrow (COT) ran in select races before a full rollout in 2008, he said running two cars in one year would be tough and expensive. As a manufacturer that also builds engines, TRD would have to manage two different engine pools at the same time, which is also expensive.
“We prefer to see (Next Gen) pushed a whole year, and it be introduced in a clean fashion,” said Wilson, who noted that NASCAR has begun soliciting feedback from teams about the idea. “This crisis that we’re all a part of and as an industry, whether it’s from an OEM perspective, from a team perspective, sponsor perspective, all of us are going to have to go through a recovery period, just naturally speaking.
“Most every business that’s attached to NASCAR in whatever fashion is under a tremendous amount of stress to varying degrees, so there’s always a cost associated with change, and again, it seems to me that we’d be better served to make sure we get to the other end of that recovery period and not overburden us from a near-term cost perspective. We are not certainly suggesting that Next Gen still isn’t critical to the long-term sustainability of the sport. It is. And we absolutely continue to be supportive of it. It’s just making sure we collectively do this in a manner that’s smart and efficient.”
Like any other OEM, Wilson said Toyota is going to suffer because of the impact the coronavirus is having on businesses, and Toyota’s and sales have already been massively impacted. But while Wilson feels confident it will survive the crisis, he is worried about other companies associated with NASCAR because it is unknown how long the recovery period will be.
“The switch doesn’t just turn right back on,” said Wilson. “The country, globally, there’s going to be a naturally expected period for us to get back to where we were. We don’t know what we don’t know. Again, right now the focus needs to be just on making sure that NASCAR and this sport that we love so much can come out the other end of it with as many partners intact as possible.”
Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus agreed that the new car needs to be delayed, even while recognizing the effort that has been put into it already.
“We can race at least a portion, if not all of 2021, and get it ready for 2022,” said Knaus. “That would make a lot of sense to me, but that is not a decision for me to make by any means.”
William Byron drove what was dubbed the P3 car at the two-day Fontana test. The third prototype in the Next Gen development process, the car was said by NASCAR to be nearly 100 percent complete, and the same specification that the series intends to race in ’21.
Go Fas Racing general manager Mason St. Hilaire that the Next Gen car is something fans deserve to see, and what the sport needs to move into the future, but he, too, admitted that a decision has to made about the timeline for its rollout.
“Would it be smart to delay the project back a few months and debut the car at, let’s say, five tracks in 2021 and then all onboard in 2022? Possibly,” said St. Hilaire. “Can the timeline still be met and we debut like scheduled? Possibly.
“We had it slated to see our first cars in July with the intent on having several tests between delivery and Daytona, so all these things need to be taken into consideration. When NASCAR and the teams get together in regards to our plan, you can rest assured it’ll be the right decision. We want to see this car as badly as the fans do, but we want to make sure that the final project is a full and complete one not only for the race teams but for everyone watching.”