Opinion: The new manufacturer NASCAR really needs

And the next manufacturer in NASCAR is…? Until recently, that question could be answered by another – ‘When is Dodge coming back?’ But a revised NASCAR technical ethos, and some broader-minded thinking about what the future of the sport should look like, has opened up its game perhaps like never before.

Opinion: The new manufacturer NASCAR really needs

There’s plenty of intriguing strands around NASCAR right now, with the new Gen-7 platform coming on-stream for 2021. As we’ve written before, it opens the door for new manufacturers to jump in at the ground floor of what promises to be a lower-cost and more attractive version of America’s most popular racing series. NASCAR would like to double the amount of manufacturers involved.

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But which brand is most likely to make that move; to join Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota (below)?

NASCAR Cup action

NASCAR Cup action

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

Let’s join six dots…

1: Adam Stern, highly respected motorsports reporter for Sports Business Journal, reported that a group of high-powered NASCAR executives – including Steve Phelps and Steve O’Donnell – spent time in the Honda Racing hauler at the Indianapolis 500.

2: I was sat in the hospitality seats at Indy for the start of the race when a group of Honda bigwigs happened to sit next to me. Not the regular Honda USA guys – who were of course also present – these gentlemen were motorsport high-ups from Japan (with the requisite fussing over who should sit next to who). Coincidence that they were in town at the same time as the NASCAR folks? Perhaps.

3: We know NASCAR has been courting manufacturers outside of its trinity of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota. We also know that those current manufacturers have been requested to be more accommodating to ‘outsiders’ – to drop their guard when they’d normally be saying ‘having skin in the game is costing us a lot of dollars, why should we help anyone else?’

Honda Racing HPD engine

Honda Racing HPD engine

Photo by: IndyCar Series

4: Over dinner with a marketing chief of a current NASCAR manufacturer earlier this year, I casually posed the question: “If you had to bet which manufacturer would be most likely to join NASCAR for Gen-7, which would it be?” His reply, without hesitation, was “Honda”.

5: Jim France is at the head of the NASCAR table, pulling the levers. You only have to look at the number of manufacturers (including Honda’s performance/luxury brand Acura) he’s attracted to his pet project – the IMSA sportscar series – to realise that he’s a very savvy player. And who won the DPi and GTD IMSA titles this year? By another coincidence, it just happened to be Acura.

6: It’s not just the car design fundamentals that NASCAR is changing. Also on the table is the powertrain – which is the number one area of competition between the manufacturers. As Brad Keselowski very eloquently outlined this time last year, the stakeholders are very keen on hybrids being introduced to NASCAR in the non-too-distant future, to ensure its ‘road relevancy’. Many purists might throw up their hands in horror at the thought, but a simple KERS-style system could bring a lot of benefits to the racing show.

Chevrolet NASCAR V8 engine

Chevrolet NASCAR V8 engine

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Speaking recently, NASCAR’s Phelps said the new engine’s introduction will likely come down to whether the sport’s current manufacturers would prefer 2022 or 2023.

“We do have some time and I think with the existing OEMs and the opportunity to bring in new OEMs with the new engine, they are all aligned with finding some electrification to that engine,” he said. “What the rest of it looks like, we have some time to develop.”

Open development of a homologated, road-based, 500bhp-plus engine with a KERS hybrid system would be a night-and-day change for a ‘new’ manufacturer, otherwise faced with building 300 or so technically-outdated motors every year, each fitted with F1-standard, $30k-a-go valvetrains! The plan is for the number of engines required to be slashed significantly, taking out a huge part of the costs of competition.

But that’s not to say NASCAR wouldn’t remain a V8 racing engine formula – NASCAR simply has to make a mega noise. But even the DTM touring car series in Germany stepped away from V8s this year, and have plans for hybridization in the pipeline (which they just happen to be collaborating with IMSA about).

Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford are NASCAR's current manufacturers

Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford are NASCAR's current manufacturers

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

Conclusion

So those are the strands that can be tied together to make it logical for Honda to be amenable to entering NASCAR in a few years’ time. NASCAR’s timeline to facilitate such a move appears set like this: Get the Gen-7 car rules right in 2021, then address the powertrain from 2022. So the ‘lure’ to the manufacturer right now is this: have your say, sign up, join the party, then we’ll address the powertrain with your input, while ensuring our current manufacturers are on the same page as you.

And on the powertrain subject, I spoke to NASCAR’s senior vice president of innovation and racing development John Probst earlier this year, and he told me: “Our [current] OEMs want to compete using their engine technology. I think from the Cup standpoint for us it would probably make more sense to look at topologies that include probably a combustion engine of some sort in that 500-ish horsepower range, but then also use hybridization, which is now a pretty big topic for OEMs and the population as a whole, so we could see some form of added or incremental horsepower provided to the main powerplant through some electrification.

“But we’re early with that discussion. That is on the radar for sure.”

And who sells the most hybrids on the American car showrooms? Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota are all highly active in this segment – with the latter owning the lion’s share of the market. Meantime, Chevy and Ford have both been rumored in automotive circles to be considering adding hybrid power in the future to its Camaro and Mustang pony cars that it showcases in NASCAR.

Meantime, Honda’s Accord Hybrid is aimed squarely at Toyota’s similar Camry, which also just happens to be its Cup model of choice. Outside of Honda, I reckon Hyundai would also be attracted to this game, being a huge player in this market – and it joined IMSA’s ranks just this year. And don’t forget Dodge too! A lower-cost NASCAR could certainly tempt it back if market conditions are right.

So manufacturer interest in NASCAR could explode in the long term – and who doesn’t like increased competition? But the key to that, in my eyes, is NASCAR sealing a deal with Honda to set the ball rolling.

Honda Performance Development signage

Honda Performance Development signage

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

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