The first attempt at pack drafting with NASCAR’s new Gen-6 race car didn’t go well. The twelve car wreck took place in testing for the 2013 Daytona 500 next month where the Gen-6 will make its official debut. Since nobody was hurt NASCAR fans should be especially happy the mishap was caused in large part by a car that’s designed to bring a lost excitement back to the sport.
"You definitely have to be more careful pushing people," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said after the wreck, "The cars are real loose and more of a handful, especially in the draft where the air is dirty. You have to work on the car to get it hooked up. I saw a couple of guys get real loose in the draft.” (1)
NASCAR thinks the new car will eliminate tandem drafting all together. The most telling and obvious difference between the Gen-6 car and its predecessor lies in a much-needed visual makeover. In recent years NASCAR car bodies were nearly indistinguishable aside from their paint schemes and decal slathering; the only way to tell where Ricky Rudd was on your television was to hold a box of Tide next to the screen and wait for a match. Gen-6 cars are designed to clearly resemble their manufacturers.
“I think we now have three makes out here that my little boy at nine years old can tell the difference between,” Steve Letarte, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief, said. “And I think that’s the goal. That anybody can walk through the parking lot and see a Chevy, Ford and Toyota and know they’re different.” (2)
The easily identifiable body styles aren’t just eye candy. They’re also indicative of NASCAR’s overlying goal to reduce aero dependency. That’s a dressy way of saying they want the fastest car on the track to be determined less by down-force and more on driving ability and car setup. The focus should encourage a return to old-school wrenching on suspensions to milk the best handling out of cars and lead to more individualized track applications. To sweeten the deal the Gen-6 will run new tires.
“Moving into 2013 we've worked hand in hand with Goodyear and their engineers to get a plan together to build tires specifically for this new race car and optimize the grip,” said NASCAR's vice president of competition, Robin Pemberton. “We have built this car with the mind-set that we are going after more of a mechanical grip and reduce some of the aero dependencies of the car for 2013.” (2)
NASCAR hopes the emphasis on handling setup and driver ability the Gen-6 demands will produce more side-by racing and passing. The change would help move the sport away from the draft-heavy racing NASCAR has been criticized for in recent years. But despite the new emphasis on handling the changes to the car haven’t come at the expense of speed.
The Gen-6 car is actually running faster than its predecessor, in part because its 160lbs lighter. To compensate with safety a forward roof bar and center roof support bar were added to beef up the roll cage along with bigger roof flaps to keep the car on the ground in the event of a crash.
As showcased in the recent Daytona wreck the changes the Gen-6 is designed to spur in NASCAR racing are going to produce a messy learning curve amongst league teams as the 2013 season progresses. When the car makes its official debut at the Daytona 500 February, 24 we can expect a whole lot of action as drivers learn the hard way.
"It is unfortunate, but sometimes you have to wreck them to learn," said Brad Keselowski, the defending series champion. "The sport is rewinding.” (1)
(1) USA Today
(2) Bleacher Report