The significance of that sound wasn’t lost on the event’s honorary pastor. After praying for the drivers’ and crew members’ safety, he closed his pre-race invocation by thanking the Lord “for sunny skies and V-8 engines!”
As the NASCAR Cup Series’s 2020 season gets underway, starting with Sunday’s Daytona 500, the country’s most popular motorsport is gearing up for the trickiest turn in its 72-year history — a shift to hybrid, battery-assisted engines.
The stakes are enormous. Over the past decade-plus, NASCAR has alienated many core fans in its rush for nationwide appeal. Hailed by Forbes as “America’s fastest-growing sport” in 2005, NASCAR has seen its TV viewership plunge from a high of 8.4 million per race that year to 3.3 million in 2019. Attendance drops have forced tracks to remove grandstands, including at Daytona, which took out its backstretch seating in a remodel that pared capacity from 147,000 to 101,000.
It’s against this backdrop that NASCAR is working to woo a new generation of fans while maintaining ties with the loyal ones who remain. Tinkering with the internal combustion, push rod V-8 engine, which is embedded in NASCAR’s DNA, presents particular peril. What is auto racing, after all, if not a celebration of excess — excessive speed, exhaust, bravery and noise?
But the transition to hybrid technology, expected as early as 2022, is imperative if NASCAR hopes to stay relevant to Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota, the automakers that drive the sport.
NASCAR and the automakers believe they have found a way to incorporate hybrid technology without altering that iconic V-8 sound: by adding a battery-powered component that, on certain tracks, would complement rather than replace the current engines, which get roughly 6 miles per gallon. “The sound of the vehicle is going to remain the same, for all intents and purposes,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said.
That will make the arrival of hybrid technology to NASCAR more symbolic than substantive — for now.
Nonetheless, there are benefits, Phelps said. With a hybrid component, the cars would be closer to the more fuel-efficient models that automakers are adding to their portfolios. Ford is introducing an all-electric, zero-emission 2021 Mustang Mach-E. By 2025, Toyota plans to offer a hybrid, electric or fuel-cell version of every vehicle in its fleet.
NASCAR also believes that showcasing even limited hybrid technology might help attract younger fans who insist on driving hybrid or electric cars, if they drive at all. The change would also represent NASCAR’s 2011 pledge to reduce its carbon footprint, which it has tackled by planting trees and recycling automotive fluids.
“These are important things for the future of our sport,” Phelps said this week in NASCAR’s corporate office, overlooking Daytona’s fourth turn. “We have a mission to get younger and more diverse. It does not mean we are going to abandon our core fans. We will not do that.”
From the Prius to pit road
It was the passion of NASCAR’s fans that attracted Toyota to the sport in the early 2000s, when stock-car racing was at its peak.
Toyota officials wanted to “Americanize” their brand, recalled David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. A partnership with NASCAR seemed a no-brainer.
The investment has paid off handsomely, Wilson said. Toyota has won the Cup Series championship in three of the past five seasons, swept the top three spots in the 2019 Daytona 500 and developed a strong following in a sport that until 2004 allowed only “American-made” cars to compete.
Meanwhile, Toyota, since introducing the first-generation Prius to smirks in 1997, has become the world leader in hybrid technology. So in recent years, the company joined Ford and Chevrolet in lobbying NASCAR to shift to hybrids.
“We’re all invested in these technologies from an environmental perspective, so we sat down with NASCAR and said, ‘Why not?’ ” Wilson said. “ ‘Why couldn’t we add a form of electrification to the cars that we race?’ ”
Toyota hopes that adding an electric-powered component helps attract new carmakers (think Honda and Nissan) to the sport and that those carmakers bring more competition, and more investment, with them. NASCAR could also help carmakers prove that today’s hybrids are far more than gas-misers — that they’re high-performance vehicles that can win on the track and draw attention on the street.
“Today, the messaging and the technology are such that you can have your cake and eat it, too,” Wilson said. “Yes, the hybrid is efficient. But your car drives better. It feels more responsive.”
It’s a push into potentially uncomfortable territory for NASCAR, which is hardly a pioneer in automotive innovation. Since its founding in 1948, it has actively resisted new technology, hoping to keep competitors’ costs low and maintain a connection with ordinary fans. It didn’t switch to unleaded gas until 2008, more than a decade after the federal government banned lead as a gas additive among the general public. It didn’t introduce electronic fuel injection until 2012, decades after passenger cars abandoned carburetors.
But NASCAR fans don’t buy tickets for the sport’s technological innovation. That’s the allure of Formula One and other circuits. What NASCAR sells are drivers’ personalities, close racing and memories of the muscle-car era, when men tuned their own engines and teenagers dragged Main Street on Saturday nights in their Mustangs, Chevelles and Chargers.
“My parents did it, my grandparents did it, and I did it,” said Ron Maisano, 45, who grew up on the south side of Detroit before moving to Florida and becoming a NASCAR fan. “Gratiot Avenue was where everybody took their hot rods on Friday or Saturday night. It was horsepower, big-block V-8s. You put Flowmaster exhaust systems on them to get that sound. I tell you what, the girls liked that sound! So we made them sound good! Fast-forward 30, 40 years, we still want to see that. We want to hear that rumble when we get pit passes at NASCAR races.”
Battery (and brake) power
When NASCAR has tried to adapt, it has occasionally backfired. In 2007, it rolled out the radically redesigned Car of Tomorrow, in response to the 2001 death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt. The car made the races safer. But is also made them dull, single-file parades and reduced the looks of all car makes to one indistinguishable blob.
To restore relevance, NASCAR is trying to rekindle fans’ passion for their favorite cars with a so-called “Next Gen” model, debuting in 2021. Each manufacturer’s body design and contours will closely mirror the street versions of the Mustang, Camaro and Camry, so fans can tell them apart at a glance. Under the hood, the Next Gen car will make room for a battery.
“We have to have the ability to race what we design and develop and build and then use motorsports to tell the story to our fans and customers how important what we learn on the racetrack is to make out products for the street better,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “If there were no connection, you’d be racing just to be racing.”
Whether it arrives in 2022 or 2023, NASCAR’s first hybrid iteration isn’t expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The V-8 engine will operate as before, with the battery capturing and storing energy generated by braking. Under one possible scenario, the driver could push a button to deploy this stored energy in the form of 100 horsepower bursts, to help pull off a pass.
The battery would be useless on 1.5-mile ovals or superspeedways such as 2.5-mile Daytona, where drivers hold the throttle wide open. But it could come into play on road courses and short tracks, where drivers use the brakes heavily.
As hybrid technology becomes more commonplace, the expectation is that NASCAR will follow with a completely redesigned, hybrid racing engine.
“You have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run,” said Doug Yates, head of Roush Yates Engines, the primary builder of Ford engines in NASCAR. “This is a first step in future powertrains. It’s the right next step, but it is a first step.”
‘No yuppie millennials’
Bonta’s motor home occupies prime real estate in Daytona’s infield: trackside between Turns 1 and 2, where the roar of engines at the start is an aural assault, in a $3,000 parking spot his family has claimed for 25 years.
Atop the roof, Bonta’s friend Lonnie Brevik, 51, of Loxahatchee, Fla., surveyed the array of fans’ vehicles in the infield. “You don’t see Toyota Priuses; you see diesels and trucks,” he said. “No yuppie millennials that are worried about the battery pack and gas mileage. The people who want to come and watch racing — probably 90 percent are just regular people.”
Bonta isn’t anti-technology; he just thinks hybrids are better suited to other forms of racing: “I think you’re going to lose your core NASCAR fans. I truly believe that.”
Down in the garages, though, many of the drivers Bonta and his fellow fans cheer for take a more nuanced view.
Ryan Newman sees the push for his sport to innovate from multiple perspectives: as a Daytona 500 winner, a Purdue engineering-school graduate, an avid outdoorsman and an environmentalist. But he keeps coming back to the idea of “balance” and to the hope that however NASCAR proceeds, it considers the best interests of carmakers, fans and racers and not just one faction.
Newman loves the efficiency of the golf cart-style electric buggy he drives around his farm. But that doesn’t mean he wants to race an electric car. “Give me a gas-powered vehicle every time,” he said.
And while he supports NASCAR’s green initiatives, he’s not convinced that reworking the engine for negligible environmental benefit is worth it.
“There is a point where you have to say: ‘Listen, I know this is not perfect for our environment. But do we sacrifice the quality of our racing to use technology and spend millions and millions of dollars to do the same thing with .001 less [carbon dioxide] in the air?’ ” he said. “Does that make sense? Because you’re still going to throw away a million plastic bottles this weekend that go into the ocean and end up on a Pacific island the size of Texas.”
But Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, said he understands the need for NASCAR to mirror carmakers’ priorities, regardless of whether old-school fans balk.
“Sometimes you have a small group of people that make a lot of noise,” said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 Mustang. “But that small group of people needs to understand that the way the world turns today is very much in the direction that we’re headed with the cars on the racetrack being more relevant to what they drive on the street, which is what made this sport great.”
“ ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday!’ ” he added. “That’s the model that built NASCAR, and that’s the model that we’re headed to.”