NASCAR plus electric vehicles is an equation that is considered sacrilegious to a considerably portion of the fan base. After all, electric motors are virtually the antithesis to the loud, roaring V8 stock car engines and the smell of gasoline that permeates oval tracks around America.
But as times change and the world begins looking towards alternatives to internal combustion and fossil fuels, it only made sense for NASCAR to begin doing the same and beyond. The sanctioning body is entering a new era with the début of the Cup Series‘ Next Gen car in 2022 and increased schedule diversity with road courses and even a street circuit in Chicago due for 2023 competition. Such changes in the sport’s image, perhaps unfathomable as recently as the turn of the decade, seem to be continuing full steam ahead amid musings about a potential exhibition series using electric cars in 2023 or even a re-imagining of the Xfinity Series to use SUVs. Leaks of the former circulated on social media before Jerry Jordan of Kickin’ the Tires brought them forward in a report on Thursday. While NASCAR remained vague when inquired about its veracity, KTT suggested the official appearance and past rumours of electrification provide enough reason to not turn a blind eye.
The leak outlines plans to field twelve electric cars (three or four per manufacturer) in support of the Cup Series at six events beginning with a demonstration at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which is hosting the Busch Clash on 5 February 2023 and another chapter in NASCAR’s “new and radical” philosophy. The vehicle would use the Next Gen car’s platform, built atop its chassis with modifications to the front/rear clips to accommodate electric components like powertrain and battery, and intended to perform identically to their ICE counterparts. Although the Next Gen is envisioned as the base, the document notes the body could be modelled after SUVs or crossovers depending on the manufacturer. The Next Gen car already features hybrid capability as its transaxle unifies the transmission and rear gear to make such a switch viable.
Austrian rallycross operation STARD would supply the 1,000-hp electric powertrains for the cars. In 2020, STARD partnered with Ford Performance (a NASCAR manufacturer) to develop the Fiesta ERX2 as part of the FIA World Rallycross Championship’s ongoing transition to fully electric cars. Ford Performance director Mark Rushbrook had speculated in 2019 about NASCAR hybridising by introducing a KERS-like system to complement the ICE engines.
Each demonstration race would be only thirty minutes long, with pit stops taking place strictly to repair the car and provide tyres; battery swaps, much less drivers switching cars like in Formula E’s early years, are not in the picture.
Before everyone starts lamenting the ‘death of the Cup Series’ or tagging Elon Musk on Twitter to convince him to bring Tesla in (the latter of which is depicted in this article’s featured image, from a 2013 April Fool’s prank by Edmunds), the exhibition is not intended to replace any of the existing series, and success would likely result in a new championship instead. Such a strategy was adopted in 1994 when the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series hosted seven demonstration events before kicking off the inaugural season a year later.
On the topic of SUVs, the idea of them supplanting the current Xfinity cars was brought to light by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the 14 July episode of The Dale Jr. Download. While explaining the ongoing identity crisis of NASCAR’s second tier as it is sandwiched between the sedans of the Cup Series and pickups of the Truck Series, especially in relation to manufacturers, he commented he “heard NASCAR throw that idea around” for SUVs. The remark drew a surprised reaction from his co-hosts followed by jokes about SUV features like an “entertainment centre in the backseat for the kids” before Earnhardt quipped he “will not have a shop full of SUV race cars.”
“[T]he Xfinity Series, Truck Series, and Cup Series have to matter to the manufacturers,” said Earnhardt prior to the SUV discourse. “The Truck Series matter to the manufacturers because they’re trucks. Cup Series, that’s the top series and they sell sedans, so the Xfinity Series has kind of lost its purpose. What is its purpose to the manufacturers? The pony car thing was cool for a while, but the manufacturers obviously aren’t married to selling pony cars every year. They can sell them regardless—you know, the Camaro, the Mustang, or whatever—I don’t think that the Xfinity Series is having a huge impact on automotive sales in that market. There needs to be a bigger purpose for the manufacturers or a specific purpose for the manufacturers to want that Xfinity Series to be there.”
While a faction of fans views the Xfinity Series as a better racing product than their Cup parents, some express discontent with it otherwise being nearly redundant. The 2022 Xfinity schedule is identical to the Cup slate save for Portland while Chevrolet and Ford respectively field the Camaro and Mustang in both divisions. Although Xfinity serves as a developmental tier (hence its tagline “Names Are Made Here”), it is a far cry from the series’ early decades when standalone dates far away from the top level were abundant. As such, if Earnhardt’s rumour proves true (which is typically the case for a current NBC analyst and longtime face in the industry), it might not be a stretch to see NASCAR looking into SUVs especially as the vehicle has been growing in consumer interest; such an approach was taken when the Truck Series was born during the 1990s pickup truck boom.
Until then, of course, the Xfinity Series and ICE cars press on.