Toyota's Latest NASCAR Racer Prepares for the Daytona 500
At 2 p.m. on February 26, the white-jacketed starter of the 59th running of the Daytona 500 will theatrically rip the green flag in a tight figure-eight pattern through the salty seashore air. The roar of 320 cylinders will cannon down the bending grandstands as a stampede of 40 stock cars swivel onto the banking and surge toward the checkerboard start/finish line.
Yelling the loudest will probably be Toyota Camry chief engineer Masato Katsumata—as well as Ian Cartabiano’s design team in Newport Beach, California, the test drivers and engineers at the Toyota Arizona Proving Ground, and umpteen employees at Toyota’s Lexington, Kentucky, factory, where the new Camry’s TNGA assembly process is getting set for production. Although the car will have made its debut 49 days before at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, this is really its big-time national how-do-you-do. Plus, it’s a big, fat risk.
Production of the sedan won’t begin until May. And with first impressions being everything, the memory of nabbing last year’s top three spots in the closest finish in Daytona 500 history makes it a lot easier to look bad than good.
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I’m familiar with Toyota Racing Development in Costa Mesa, California, where I’ve heard the shriek of its racing engines on dynamometers on Baker Street (a short walk from my first job, polishing cars at the defunct Briggs Cunningham Automotive Museum). But entering TRD’s Charlotte, North Carolina, facility is a puzzle. William Walker, Carlos Lago, and I hear what sounds like a racing engine behind doors labeled Do Not Enter. In the main office, people at workstations glance up at a lap time leaderboard on the wall as they call out across the room to colleagues, some with their heads in their hands, others crossing their outstretched arms in the international gesture of really bad oversteer.
Technical director Andy Graves says that they don’t exactly make anything in Charlotte. They periodically develop a new race car, such as the new Monster Energy Cup car we’re examining (code-named Project X) and ping-pong ideals and realities with the Calty design studio team in California, who initially imagines the appearance. They also conduct tests at the local wind tunnels, such as the 130-mph (209-km/h), 2,200-hp, AeroDyn facility, which is essentially a stock car–specific tunnel. (It’s walls are shaped just for these cars.) And they dance the countrified Kabuki with NASCAR officials to certify its all-important aerodynamic shape. Which—bizarre to my Formula 1–attuned eyes—requires staying within a performance box that limits how low drag can be and how high downforce can be. Graves says that the new Camry passed on its first try (with Chevy and Ford engineers watching). But after this, it’s up to Toyota’s teams—Joe Gibbs Racing, BK Racing and Furniture Row Racing—to build their own race hardware. TRD is an engineering support squadron—an in-the-field tech crew of vehicle dynamics engineers and tire and aerodynamics experts—there to give Toyota’s teams the sharpest edge.
We hear what sounds like a racing engine behind closed doors.
Graves walks us around the new 2018 Camry Monster Energy Cup car, and he points out details of its all-crucial aerodynamics, given that the chassis is a regulation design and there’s not much latitude with the 358-cubic-inch iron-block, aluminum-head, pushrod V-8 with fuel injection (of a primitive sort). “We’ve worked a lot with Calty before, so we’ve been able to keep much of this Camry’s styling,” Graves says. The SE-version’s “horns” have been relaxed, and its deep-set side intakes are less so. In fact, all the air openings are sealed (grille stickers create an illusion), but then we notice a small rectangular gap. “That’s the only cooling slot. It’s the location for the superspeedways, Talladega and Daytona.” Graves explains that NASCAR mandates it to be at bumper level, discouraging two-car drafts. “If they’re too close for too long, it’s blocked, and the second car overheats.”
He then points to the rules-defined front wheel opening lip, a critical aerodynamic tripping point. The air has to stay attached along the car’s sides while the wheel’s fore-aft positioning controls how much high-pressure air escapes ahead of it and how much crucial low pressure gets retained behind it. At the rear, we examine the car’s left and right flanks. I’m shocked—they’re not symmetrical. Starting at the rear wheel’s axle line, the driver’s side bends toward the car’s center while its counterpart is stepped away, toward the wall. I feel dumb for not noticing this earlier. In plan view, it creates a wing effect, constantly pulling the car to the left. Aware of this, AeroDyn’s wind tunnel can be adjusted to measure angles of attack, ranging from 3 degrees to the right and 5 degrees to the left. (The bodywork is unchanged for the two road courses—Watkins Glen and Sonoma Raceway—making the cars handle asymmetrically.) TRD also plays an important role by working with teams to tune the car’s “unregulated” underbody aerodynamics, which can be scrutinized if one car gets too fast.
Another asset is TRD’s giant driving simulator (based on a McLaren design), which was all the noise when we arrived. Team drivers regularly practice on it while their engineers test chassis and tire setups. (It’s a full physics model.)
It happens that this is the one week per year that all of TRD’s Charlotte employees are cycled through just for fun, and their times are awkwardly flashed on that board screen for everybody to point at. Graves leads us inside. A driver, in a moving half-cockpit, is careening around an oval. His physical “car” is angling and sliding side to side as the simulator operator resets everything every time he smacks a wall. The out-of-register, wrap-around 3-D projection is a bit disorienting without the goggles, but everybody chuckles at the big smacks anyway. It’s a whole different reality than the pressure-cooker start of the real deal, come February 26, when those walls won’t be digital and the racing world’s eyes will be on the Camrys these guys have created.