NASCAR is going through a revolutionary change with the introduction of the Next Gen car, a vehicle that brings new technology into the sport and more closely resembles its street counterparts. With this shift, NASCAR is hoping to reinvigorate old fans while attracting new ones. Ford Performance’s lead engineer on the project is Richard Johns. He spent 3 years on the program and is now seeing the Ford Mustang Next-Gen car on track, in its first year of Next Gen era of competition.
Ford Performance NASCAR Program Engineer, Richard Johns, basically grew up in NASCAR. His father loved cars and racing. He took jobs at car businesses and dealerships, as he followed his dream to work inside of NASCAR. When Johns was young, his house was filled with the sounds of NASCAR races on the television. The discussion of NASCAR was always in the air. His father would whisk the family away to Atlanta Motor Speedway, which was only 1 hour away from their house, “We’d go there, we’d do short tracks and stuff like that,” said Johns. His father “got lucky enough—and [was] persistent enough to get a job in NASCAR.” Johns eventually followed his father’s path into the sport. At first, he was behind the wheel, racing go-karts for 11 years before racing late model cars. As his career progressed, he started working for racing teams as a mechanic. His first jobs were with Jaguar Performance and Bobby Hamilton Racing. Johns gave up his driver’s career entirely when he moved to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to earn an engineering degree.
While in school, he continued to work in the racing industry. He would leave UNC Charolette every day to go to work at Team Rensi Motorsports. When he graduated, he became the Lead Engineer at Rensi. “[I] worked my way up from basically sweeping the floors to being the lead engineer there,” he recalls. He spent his final two years at Team Rensi as the Lead Engineer.
In 2015, Johns joined Ford Performance. “I’ve kind of always been in the Ford family”, he exclaims, “When I moved to Charlotte to go to school, I did a short stint at Hendrick Motorsports as an intern there, and then I left and went to Team Rensi, and that’s really where I got to know a lot of the folks at Ford. I spent 7-1/2 years with Team Rensi and Ford, and it just so happened that a lot of the teams that I went to work for after, were Ford Teams.”
“Eventually a good friend of mine… said ‘Hey, they’re looking for someone to help with the Xfinity program,’ and I was able to get my resumé to Ford, and now I’m here and its history now”, explains Johns.
His main job at Ford Performance was to shepherd the manufacturer into the Next-Gen era. A change that is one of NASCAR’s biggest in decades.
The first generation of the National Association of Stock Cars (NASCAR) (1948-1966) were actually stock cars—hence the name. They had a stock body and a stock chassis. The second-generation (1967-1980) still had stock bodies but they had modified chassis. As speed increased, the cars began to diverge from their “stock car” origin with custom bodies atop custom frames. The third generation (1981-1991) standardized the cars’ wheelbase requiring all competitors to meet the 110 inches requirement. This change made the cars smaller and more relatable to the cars on dealers’ showroom floors; however, the following generation, the Fourth Generation (1992-2006), saw the sport give up the image of “stock cars” entirely as highly modified bodies that used fiberglass fascias that were not sourced from the OEM manufacturers became the norm. This started an arms race where each team focused on gaining an aerodynamic edge by spending hours inside the wind tunnel. Generation 5 (2007-2012) and Generation 6 (2013-2021) brought in new safety measures, asymmetric bodies that were offset to induce side force, and it saw the return of manufacturer produced body panels in Gen. 6—no matter their advancements, no one would confuse these cars with their road-driven namesakes as they showed little resemblance but for the vinyl stickers that adorned their bodies. NASCAR for all intensive purposes had lost its relationship to “stock cars”.
The loss of that iconic phrase in the sport worried some former drivers, fans, OEM manufacturers, and officials. In the Sixties, the phrase “Win on Sunday; Sell on Monday” described how racing directly affected vehicles sales. Because the race cars looked similar to the streetcars, people attributed the wins to the car manufacturer and not that of a bespoke one-off racing machine. With safety measures and accounting for the speeds that modern NASCAR cars are reaching, the sport could not go back to racing completely stock cars, but they needed to find a bridge that would make their cars more relatable to the broader public. NASCAR needed a dramatic change—they needed to both upgrade their cars in technology while also bringing back the connection to cars that are being sold to the general public. Enter the Next Gen of NASCAR.
How monumental is the Next Gen car? “This change is almost akin to what happened in the late ’70s into the ’80s when we went from the really big cars down to the smaller cars,” says Johns, “From a technology standpoint, you’re talking about a massive architecture change in the chassis, the steering, the driveline, and in the body—it’s going back to the good old days of NASCAR where what you see on the road, you also see on the racetrack, and that’s what we really tried to do with the design on the Mustang”.
The old cars, even the Sixth Generation car, were still based on old—very old technology, explains Johns, “It’s like a ’79 Malibu. It was based on an old GM metric chassis. The spindles were basically stock spindles. We’ve been running truck arms that nobody’s run in anything since the ‘60s, [and it had] a 9” rear end. All of that stuff was antiquated technology.” The cars used a Panhard bar and had a 4-speed transmission—these things were high tech back in the 1960s, but they are unheard of today outside of vintage racing.
“This is a huge step forward: rack and pinion steering, independent suspension in the rear, a transaxle—a 5-speed transaxle at that—the 18” wheels, the flat body floor with a diffuser, it’s just a huge step up in technology and the goal of all of this is to make it so that the driver comes out a little bit more” (Johns).
There are common elements that are shared between all Next Gen cars no matter the manufacturer. Those elements are the aerodynamics, wheels and tires, brakes, suspension, the 5-speed transaxle, and the independent rear suspension.
The 18-inch wheels are taller and wider than the old 15-inch wheels. Measuring 18×12 inches in both the front and the rear, they offer drivers a different feel than the previous large sidewall tires that they replace. Despite the larger contact patch, “It’s been a little bit of a learning curve so far,” for both teams and the tire manufacturer says Johns; “What we have found was that we’re able to go to different compounds—softer compounds it seems. The construction that Goodyear has been using for a number of years has had to change—the same methodology… has had to change as well. We’re still learning, but obviously, there is more grip with a wider and taller tire.”
The wheels also feature a one-lug instead of the five lugs that were standard in NASCAR. Common on most racing sports cars today, the single lug offers a measure of safety and cost savings as pit crews only have to tighten one lug versus five lugs in a pattern. This change means that pit stops will be a little different, but Johns assures that despite the change, “You’ll still see the high-speed ballet, with guys jumping over the wall, and there are new pit guns, but it’s still the same thing, you have to hit the lug and get it on and off as fast as you can, and stud the lug—it will be different, but still very similar”.
A 5-speed transaxle replaced the antique 4-speed gearbox. It is equipped with an inline sequential shifter, so drivers have to bump the shift lever to either upshift or downshift. Speaking on the unit, Johns commented that in developing “The transaxle, we did a lot of work with the supplier, and with NASCAR. We were able to use our supplier up in Dearborn and do a lot of durability testing and studies for ourselves to understand the product. It’s very similar to what’s run in Australian Supercar, but for NASCAR, it’s a complete change from a 4-speed transmission and a 9-inch rear end. And then the independent suspension that came with it was ancillary with it.”
Another learning curve describes Johns, “Everybody kind of knew where you could maximize the solid rear end, with a Panhard bar and truck arms. Now coming in with the independent suspension it’s re-learning what you already knew, it’s just a different setup that you have to figure out how to optimize, and that’s where the team engineers have to get in. There’s some adjustment back there that the team can do, but it’s really up to the race engineers and crew chiefs to really hone in exactly where they want camber settings and camber gain, and now you have independent bump and independent toe in the rear, and for a long time what you did to the left rear effected the right, we’ll now it’s independent. What we’ve seen previously is the left rear can help you or it can hurt you, so trying to understand where the balance is going to be on where you put roll centers and instant centers, and you can adjust your anti-dive and anti-squat, so there’s a lot more to think about with an independent rear.”
The aerodynamics changed dramatically for the Next Gen car, although as Johns clarifies that Ford’s involvement with the aerodynamic side of their NASCAR entrants is nothing new, “I’d say we’ve been into the aerodynamics [for] quite a bit. Ford designed the last Mustang and everything prior to that. I think that with this car, it changes a little bit of what we do because it is so common. When everything was sheet metal, [the teams] hung everything themselves, they had their own full fabrication departments and 5-6 surface plates running and building cars day in and day out… it’s a little bit different now, you still have those fab groups, but its more about the details now, instead of putting sheet metal on the sides—we would make the front fascia and the rear fascia, and the teams would get that and mount that up, but this car, everything is more tightly controlled.”
One big change in the body is the elimination of the asymmetric bodies and side force. The new body is completely symmetric, “and that’s a big key that is going to change the way that racing is—you’re not going to have as much side force as what we’ve had with the Sixth Gen car” says Johns.
Side force was the phenomenon that NASCAR teams utilized to keep their cars steadier in high-speed lefthand turns and ovals. The teams figured out that the flatter the right-side body panels of the car were, the more side force was generated. Cars were skewed or offset so the right side would be sticking out into the air, creating even more side force.
“If you look at a Gen. 6 car, you can easily see it in the tail—it was offset—[by] a lot, and that was part of the reason why you see that car on the racetrack and say ‘That’s not what a car looks like on the road’ because when you pull up behind a car on the road, you can see both taillights and its symmetric. This car, if you walk around it, it’s symmetric on both sides, and that was a key item from the entire industry really, NASCAR, Ford, and the other OEMs wanted to go in a direction where we were more symmetric.”
“There’s a lot lower downforce level with this car now, so from our standpoint, it changed a little bit of how we do things and how we work with our teams,” says Johns.
“From an aerodynamic standpoint, aero is king. It was king with Gen. 6, it’s still king now. There are some adjustments that you can make with the chassis and the suspension, but everything is common—everyone has the same chassis, the same control arms, and things like that, so it’s really going to come down to the detail and the engineers that are able to listen to their drivers and figuring out what they need to feel in the car”, explains Johns.
Although the aerodynamics is common for every car on the grid, the details are where the teams will differentiate themselves says Johns, “From an aerodynamic standpoint, there’s not a tremendous amount we can do within the rules. We still have to fit the templates, we still have to fit the Hawkeye scans, and match the gold surface that we submitted to NASCAR for submission, but there is a little bit a leeway that you can have there, with a little bit of push and a little bit of pull, and everyone is going to work in the areas where they know that they can find a little bit of performance, but it’s really down to the detail work and the people working on the car, taking the extra 5 minutes to loosen a monoball up a little bit more, or ‘that scan didn’t quite come in on the body right, so let’s go to work on it and make sure it’s actually right.’ That’s where the difference is really going to be made on these cars”.
What everyone will see is that the Next-Gen cars look like their road-going counterparts. Each OEM was able to design their entrants’ bodies, and Ford really went into the Next Gen redesign with one main design directive: It must look like a Mustang. “We work really tightly with our studio on the new Mustang, and they really emphasized the rear of the car as much as the front of the car,” says Johns, “When you drive down the road, and you see a Mustang, you know it’s a Mustang immediately, whether it’s from the front or the back and that’s what we wanted to convey in NASCAR as well. So when you look at the back of one of these Next-Gen cars, it looks like a Mustang—it’s got the taillights up at the top, it’s got the curvature, and its got the indent at the top as well—that was a key feature. There’s not a lot of performance in that area but you can certainly make it look good and hopefully, when people see the back of it, they see [a Mustang].”
The same design studio within Ford that worked on the street Mustangs worked on this NASCAR Next Gen Mustang, and the connections are clear. The taillights are sculpted in the tri-light configuration, the rear of the race car, clearly says, in its design, “Mustang”—if not more specifically, Ford Mustang Shelby GT500, of which it is sculpted to resemble. Curious, the other manufacturers, Toyota and GM, did not go to such extremes on the details of the back of their Next-Gen cars. The rears of those cars are mainly flat, with taillight stickers, the Fords really stand out versus their competition in its dimension and execution.
All of these changes—the wheels and tires, the transaxle, the independent suspension, the bodies—will all affect the driver in different ways because to drive this Next Gen car fast will require a much different driving style than the Sixth Generation vehicles. “It’s going to be different for them,” says Johns; “For Gen. 6, we had a lot of tail offset, a lot of rear side force, so we tried to induce a little bit of yaw in the corner, so right rear out on an oval. Not so much, [on the road course], but you were still offset to the right…, but on an oval, any time you can give the car more yaw, you were generating more rear side force, and you were generating more rear downforce. This car doesn’t do that, and with [the] symmetric tail and no offset, it’s going to be a lot freer in traffic, and especially with the smaller rear spoiler—we went from an 8” spoiler to a 4” spoiler— a lot less downforce, so the cars are going to move around more.”
How it will feel for the driver, Johns has a few thoughts, “Having driven cars back in the mid-2000s, those cars—that was right about the time that we were messing with the X measurement on the roof so we could move the tail over to the right, and that was a big change where you got a lot of rear side force. Before that, the cars were closer to symmetric and those cars didn’t have that rear side force. Not a lot of those drivers are left, I think maybe a couple of them like Kevin Harvick—somebody like that, they may have a little bit of an advantage, but the guys who can drive a car kind of hung out and on the edge like the Sprint Cup guys like Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick, Kevin Harvick— those guys are going to excel because these cars are going to be on the free side and not have that rear stability that they’re used to, so it’s going to take some learning for those guys.”
“Those guys who are good are going to find the ragged edge, and it’s going to be an adjustment for them,” says Johns.
For the driver’s perspective, we reached out to a member of Ford’s 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans winning team, Joey Hand. Hand along with Sébastein Bourdais, and Dirk Müller brought the #68 Ford GT across the finish line, taking the GTE Pro class win. He is now entering NASCAR as the road racing specialist for Rick Ware Racing. Coming from an open-wheel, Indy car, DTM, and GT racing background, transitioning to driving last year’s NASCAR Cup Car with its large sidewalls was a daunting task. Hand raced in last year’s Charolette Roval, a 2.32-mile road race at Charlotte Motor Speedway which includes a trip around a portion of that facility’s famous oval.
“In the old car, driving on Roval—on the oval part, the car wants to drive and yaw—you kind of have to let it slide and use that side force even though we’re doing right and lefts. We were driving a road course, but there was still side force built into those cars. The right side was a little flatter than the left side as far as the body panels, so you had to kind of use that in the oval… I watched a lot of guys around me and they would just let it hang out and that side force would keep you held in a lot better,” recalls Hand.
Hand’s entry into NASCAR was trial by fire as he had never driven a Cup Car prior to driving in the race.
“What I found right away, in the Cup Car, driving it like 100%—trying to get everything out of it, was not what it wanted. It wanted to be driven at kind of like 80%, that’s where your mindset had to be”, described Hand; “So, you’re driving around and you think you’re on a good lap, [and you think] ‘That was a good one, I’m going to really send it on this next one.’ As soon as you said that—as soon as you did that or attempted that, you slid the car too much or you locked a brake—you just overdid it.”
“The thing that stood out to me in the Cup Car was the difficulty of braking and turning, and the difficulty of accelerating and turning. Pretty much, you got a big heavy car, with a super big sidewall tire—like a balloon of a tire—and you can easily drive into the corner too deep, and it would slide and chatter—the tires would actually chatter—a sliding chatter. You could get that from the front when you had understeer and you could even get it from the rear when it was sliding. You really found that ‘Yes, you have to push, you have to brake deep, and you have to maximize getting onto the throttle, but really when you were cornering, the best mindset was to drive it at 80% or else you just blow through the tire”, said Hand.
The day after the race, Hand was back at the track testing the Next Gen car. The experience was vastly different from the car that he had raced the day prior. “Not even 24 hours later, I was in the Next-Gen car testing,” says Hand, “The biggest thing you feel is it goes back to more of how all the GT cars that I’ve driven would drive. If you put a nice smooth lap together and you could say, ‘I’m going to get off the brake a little sooner; I’m going to roll some speed in here; I’m going to ask some more of the tire here,’ and it would take it. You could feel that edge better. Before [in the Sixth Gen car] you were sliding—and sliding, and then [you went] off a cliff when you went too far.”
“The Next-Gen car, you could ride that edge a lot better. You could drive it in there, the tire is sliding a little bit, and [you think] ‘Okay, I got it, take a little speed out.’ You could really work that edge a lot better, and that’s more similar to the cars of today—a car with independent suspension—the GT cars that I’ve driven a lot of—you’re always working that ragged edge. It’s a little more sweater to drive because you’re fast twitching, you’re always correcting little corrections, and the nice thing with the car is that you can feel that. There’s a lot of reason for that, the tire is an 18 inch… it’s a slightly wider tire, I think the tire just works better. It’s being put into the ground with better techniques and the independent suspension [and] the new dampers—it’s just a whole different ball game.”
Driving the old car versus the new Next Gen car, “It’s quite a bit different especially when you jump in from one day to the next, its very recognizable” exclaims Hand.
Speaking on the advancement of the transmission Hand says, “It’s wild that [the Sixth Gen] was still an old school 4-speed transmission. You didn’t have to use a clutch on it… On the sequential in the Next-Gen car, it feels just like… [the] sequential lever that was in the Daytona prototype car [that I drove], when I was driving for Ganassi when we were racing at Daytona, [before] we moved to paddle shifts. The gearbox is the same gearbox—you can use a paddle shifter with it, but we’re using a lever. It’s quite an upgrade from the old NASCAR 4-speed gearbox, but NASCAR is still keeping it simple where we still have to do it all ourselves. Yes, it’s a sequential gearbox, but we’re still lifting to shift, you have to blip your downshifts—there’s no assists, all the new—new cars right now would be a paddle-shift that you flat shift. As soon as you pull the paddle, it cuts the motor for you, and when you brake and downshift, you just keep your foot off the throttle, and pull the lever and it blips it for you. It’s definitely an upgrade from the old 4-speed manual in the old car, but you’re still doing it yourself. It would be very similar to the Aussie supercar that I drove.”
Not having side force will force drivers to drive the car straight, says Hand, “When you jump into the NEXT-Gen car, that’s completely gone. You’re not talking about side force at all. The bodies are symmetrical on both sides, and the big thing is you have a diffuser—you have actual downforce happening on the bottom of the car, from the splitter all the way under—flat bottom—to the diffuser exiting. Now, in the case of a diffuser, the more yaw you put in the less the diffuser works because the air has to come straight under there. You have strakes under there— as you go more and more sideways, you get less downforce from your diffuser and things escalate more quickly. You definitely drive the car straighter… especially in medium and high-speed corners, the NEXT-Gen car is a lot less loose. You can’t drive it as free as you could in the other car.”
For a new driver in the NASCAR Cup Series, how does he think he will acclimate to the new car? “For me, I was trying to learn how to drive the old car—no practice, no qualifier, I just went out in the race, but when I jump into the NEXT-Gen car that feels normal to me. I’m used to driving with diffusers and splitters, and downforce from the bottom, and so it felt a lot more normal to me,” exclaims Hand.
Because of this switch in technology to more of a modern-day GT car, Johns thinks that this opens the doors for more drivers with road racing experience, “I think it definitely opens the door, certainly at the road courses. I think we’ve seen that already the NASCAR drivers who run week in and week out—they just have a better feel for the tire, for the car, but I think you’re going to see some guys like a Joey Hand or an Austin Cindric, who are going to be stepping into the car, those guys will find some success, and there will probably be some doors opening up for guys who have a sports car experience because these cars are much closer to a sports car than they were before when they were completely specific.”
As to what the NASCAR Next-Gen era says to the world, Johns says, “I would tell the world that if you really want to see the best drivers in the world, and I know that everyone can argue about Formula 1 and all that stuff too, but if you want to see the best drivers in the world compete, NASCAR is where it’s at because they’re going to compete in road courses, super-speedways, short tracks, and mile and a half tracks—and as much as people like to say that mile and a half tracks are all the same, they’re not, and the racing is going to be incredibly exciting with this new car.”
As to what the Next Gen Mustang says about Ford Performance, he says, “We’re doing what Ford has done for years and years. We’re putting our best foot forward, putting our best product on the racetrack, and we’re here to win.”
Johns’ road has taken him from a kid growing up in a NASCAR-focused household, to a driver, to a mechanic, to an engineering student, and to now leading Ford’s Next Gen initiative. He says that for any young kid who’s dreaming of being an engineer and forging their own story in the industry, “Put in the work. You want to go racing? Go to the racetrack. There are people out there who will put you to work, but they will also give you good advice—they’ll help you learn. Nothing beats hands-on. You need to understand how things bolt together and how they work, so when you try to build something in CAD (Computer-Aided Design), you understand how it works, you have that background. If you have the desire and the passion, pursue it and don’t take no for an answer, if there is an opportunity to learn, take it and go with it.”
The Mustang Nex-Gen won the Clash at the Los Angeles Coliseum on February 6, 2022, with Joey Logano outlasting Kyle Busch’s Toyota. Although it was a win, the Clash was more of an event. The first real race of the season happens on February 20, at Daytona Speedway.