Building a brand-new race car is a challenge unto itself. But when it comes to building a vastly different car than anything the sport has seen before, it’s a whole new ballgame.
“Everything. Everything is a challenge,” David Wilson, Toyota Racing Development president, told RACER of the development process for Toyota’s NASCAR Next Gen race car. “The good news is everything that we’ve done has been intentional, has been well thought out, and behind the scenes, we had some tense conversations because we didn’t all necessarily arrive at the same place for every part of this car. But the starting point was refreshing in that we said, ‘Let’s not just take a baby step here, let’s take all the pent-up frustrations that we’ve shouldered as an industry for decades really and fix all of it.’ And that’s kind of fun.”
The Toyota TRD Camry Next Gen has the most styling characteristics of its production counterpart. Andy Graves, executive engineering technical director, TRD, said it is closer to a GTD or Australian supercar than a traditional NASCAR stock car. In that regard, experience competing in the sports car world with Lexus was helpful for Toyota in the Next Gen process.
Much of what makes Next Gen different can’t be seen as it’s all under the skin of the car. What is noticeable is the single lug wheel, and on the Toyota TRD Camry, the overhang off the rear or tail of the vehicle is noticeably shorter. Toyota also loves how the car is symmetrical from left to right.
“TRD works so close with Toyota Calty Design and styling department, and we’ve always taken the approach to try to put as much character and production attributes in all of our vehicles,” said Graves. “By doing that and having a process by which Calty puts the styling in the way they want it, they give it to TRD’s aero group, and we try to see if we can make as much work as possible. What we can’t make work we kick back to Calty, and they take another shot at it to hit our aero objectives and submissions parameters.”
Next Gen is a revolutionary change for NASCAR and its teams. In building a new car, Wilson admitted not only is there a healthy bit of anxiety that comes with it, but everyone is still wrapping their heads around taking the current vehicle and throwing it out.
“We’re pulling the seat out, maybe the steering wheel, I’m not even sure, but we’re throwing the rest of it away,” Wilson said. “Mind you, this is a car that we’ve had good races on, that’s reasonably durable, and we know what we have. And we’re starting from scratch.”
Wilson described the process as an engineering-based exercise. Logically, they believe they have a sound race car, but there are still many thoughts about what they haven’t anticipated could happen.
“We came across a situation in Martinsville (at the OEM test) where we had a bolt come back out, but we were off track for 90 minutes to two hours because we had to take half the car apart to get to the bolt we had to put back,” said Wilson. “And we were like, ‘Oh crap, that’s going to be a problem.’ So, it’s learning about those types of things and what we can do to mitigate them.
“The good news is it’s because of our experience on the sports car side, one of the very first things we came to appreciate particularly for endurance racing it’s not good enough just to have a car that has good performance. You have to have a car that you can service expeditiously. While technically speaking, we don’t endurance race in NASCAR — although sometimes it feels like we do — if you have an issue during practice or the race, you need to address it reasonably. So, those are the things that are difficult to anticipate ahead of time. Those are the things you just want to get out there and pound miles and mix it up with a few other cars and see how the bodies are going to deflect and bounce back or not — and, I hate to say it, but see how the car crashes and what the repair-ability friendliness is going to be.
“We’re optimistic. We have a book of experience with carbon composite bodies on the Xfinity side that should play out well, but again, everything is new. So, certainly, we’ll find things before this year is out that we’re going to have to fix, that we’re going to have to send back to the supplier with a design change. To be perfectly realistic, it shouldn’t surprise us next year as we’re racing if we’re having to make some tweaks here and there. That’s to be expected. We have to just kind of ground our expectations in a reasonable manner.”
Drivers will have to adjust to driving a new car, and the ones who can learn and adapt — like they are having to with additional road course racing in the Cup Series — will rise to the top. Next Gen, according to Wilson, is going to be more in the driver’s hands, and some will like it, and others won’t.
“Change can be very uncomfortable,” said Wilson. “You can get used to doing things a certain way. I think NASCAR’s been kind of trapped in that for a couple of decades, and we’ve rationalized why we don’t need to change. I’m impressed, and I’m optimistic about this strategic process that has been required to get to where we are and how today’s NASCAR has embraced a strategic mindset.
“If we as business people don’t pay enough attention — not to next week or next month or next year, we don’t pay attention to three, five years from now, we put ourselves at risk, and that’s what as leaders one of our chief responsibilities is. And more so now than ever before, I think the leadership at NASCAR, starting with Jim France, have really embraced that, and the courage they’ve demonstrated through this has been well regarded and well-received on our part.”
There is still plenty for Toyota to learn about their new car. Yes, it’s completed, and the wrapping paper has been taken off with the public unveil on Wednesday, but there is still plenty of track testing to be done and honing in on the critical areas of the car for performance.
Aerodynamics and downforce will remain important. But where do teams want to run it as far as ride heights? With bigger wheels, the sidewall of the tires is expected to react differently, which will require different mechanical setups.
“The tires are wider in tread width, so because of that, the proportion of aero influence versus mechanical influence is going to shift a little bit, so we’re going to have to understand the tires a great deal as well,” said Graves. “And in all fairness, we’re still trying to learn and understand what are the hot spots, so to speak, for the car or where are the triggers and what’s going to make speed, because as of right now, we’ve had two track days and just a little bit of running.
“That’s really going to ramp up the second half of this year when we’re able to get a lot more track time and our teams get some track time, for us to work through this matrix of trying to understand what’s going to light this car up as far as making lap time.”
Wilson was very concerned about the timeline of rolling out Next Gen, which was supposed to have happened in 2021. The coronavirus pandemic pushed that off by one year, and if there was a silver lining, it allowed everyone to continue developing the car. But that doesn’t mean Wilson wouldn’t take another 90 days and have the organizational testing start in July and go July, August, September versus the schedule of October, November, December.
So far, there has been a lot of single-car testing with Next Gen. Only once has NASCAR put two on track together, back in November at Charlotte Motor Speedway. As such, questions about how Next Gen is going to race remain open.
“Yes, we have tools and wind tunnels and CFD and sim, but with the changes of this magnitude, it really does require us to get cars on track and mix it up a little bit,” Wilson said. “So, there’s a healthy level of anxiety and anticipation, but all in all, despite COVID NASCAR, teams, manufacturers have really worked with the spirit of collaboration that I think will assure that we’ve got a good product once we get to the racetrack.”
It is also a car that looks beyond 2022.
“One part that goes to this strategic thinking is the car we’re going to race is already pre-packaged to allow us to add hybrid (power) to it, should we choose to,” said Wilson. “We all in our day jobs, electrification, carbon neutrality is so important to all of us. I’d be shocked if we’re not contemplating adding some form of a hybrid system through these cars.
“The good news is, again, because we were strategic, we weren’t just looking at this myopically — we have an adjustable car, and we can add technologies to them as they become more readily available and affordable. It is about the future, and I think this provides us a great platform to build on.”