Officially, the laboratory where concepts for the future of stock car racing are developed is the NASCAR Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina. But over the past several years, the most prominent special event on the NASCAR calendar has become as much of an exercise in live experiments as it has a million dollar dash.
Since 2017, NASCAR's annual All-Star Race between the top drivers in the Cup Series has been used as a testing and exhibition ground for potential changes to NASCAR's racing product or its presentation. In 2017, multiple tire compounds were offered to present variable strategies, while 2020 saw sponsors moved to the door and numbers slid back towards the rear tires in a change to paint scheme design. Wedged in-between have been major changes to the aerodynamics of Cup cars: A restricted engine and larger spoiler for the 2018 race served as a precursor to NASCAR's current aerodynamic rules on larger tracks, while several concepts to try and create better performance for cars in traffic -- including a radiator duct -- were tried in 2019.
The 2021 All-Star Race is no different, and NASCAR's willingness to be flexible with the race now extends to the very track it's held on: After holding the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway all but one time in its history, NASCAR has held the All-Star Race at three different tracks the past three years. While a move to Bristol Motor Speedway last year was influenced by COVID-19 issues, the 2021 schedule saw the race moved outright to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
Rotating the All-Star Race around certain venues had been a popular thought for years, and its being put into practice has been embraced by Brad Keselowski, who sat down with CBS Sports ahead of All-Star Weekend.
"I think it's a great lever for our sport to pull and be able to pull to attract new markets and new fans," Keselowski said. "It's such an interesting and compelling event that has the ability to attract new fans and retain them, which I think is good for everybody. So I really give kudos to NASCAR for being willing to do just that and to try some new things."
The short length of the All-Star Race makes it an ideal opportunity for NASCAR and its race teams to test new ideas: As Keselowski explained, the short distance on All-Star night allows teams to be more aggressive in how they prepare their cars, which includes skipping certain elements that involve endurance. This year, NASCAR has reduced the horsepower output of its speedway aerodynamic package from 550 to 510, with the intended goal of bunching the field tighter together and making drafting easier.
The reduction in horsepower has been met considerable grumbling, which ties into perhaps the most polarizing issue in NASCAR right now: In 2019, NASCAR began to feature a low horsepower/high downforce aerodynamic package, with the idea that such a package would lead to a better racing product on tracks 1.5 miles or more in length. After considerable outcry, and the package having an adverse effect on drivers' ability to pass at shorter tracks, NASCAR conceded by implementing another aerodynamic package with 750 horsepower and lower downforce.
Still, and particularly with NASCAR's Next Gen car on the horizon, less horsepower appears to be the way of the future: As noted in a story by Matt Weaver of Autoweek, the "550" aerodynamic package is regarded as a bridge towards a next-generation engine platform, particularly as the automotive industry at large moves away from gaudy horsepower numbers and raw speed -- the hallmarks of traditional American car culture -- and towards greater efficiency, eco-friendliness, and electric elements.
The very idea of moving forward with lower horsepower has been bitterly opposed by some. But as Keselowski explained, simply having the cars of the Cup Series produce as much horsepower as mechanically possible isn't that simple.
"A racecar that made 750 horsepower 20 years ago would run about 190-195 MPH. And a racecar today that makes 750 horsepower on the same track with the same tires would run about 210 MPH," Keselowski said. "And you say 'Alright, well where did that come from?' Well, the aero has gotten so much more efficient on the cars, meaning the amount of downforce they make –- which pushes them down on the ground and helps them go around the corners really fast – versus the amount of drag that slows them down on the straightaway has gotten so much better – that ratio is called a lift-over-drag, it's a really simple aero equation – and what that's effectively done to the sport is it's made the cars go too darn fast.
"So the same amount of power, the cars would go too fast. And you get to a certain threshold where the cars were taking over the limits of the tires, taking over the limits of the drivers to pass, and creating aero wakes and things of this nature that really evolved the racing into something that we didn't want it to be, both from a competitive standpoint and a safety standpoint. So when you add those two together, I think really the power reduction, that's where that came from is the cars had become so efficient and we don't have really a mechanism to unwind that – although we've tried."
To that end, Keselowski believes that different power models in NASCAR -- specifically hybrid models pushed by the sport's OEMs -- have merit. However, he doesn't anticipate a point ever being reached where the market penetration is such that any hybrid element, such as electrification, is over 50%.
"There's still a lot of people that need your traditional gas engine, your traditional internal combustion engine," Keselowski said. "And so ultimately what you get to is this hybrid model ... I would have to think that we're gonna see that in NASCAR over the next decade or two where we'll start to see hybrids. Where we'll have a 550 engine with some kind of power recovery unit or hybrid system to take advantage of its full capabilities at more limited times."
Whatever the future of power and engine technology in NASCAR, and whatever rules package is being utilized, Keselowski is seeking his first million dollar prize for winning the All-Star Race. Keselowski's best finish in the All-Star Race came in 2012, when he finished second.