This wasn’t the first time Probst was involved in designing a car from the ground up. That came in college, when he helped start the Penn State Formula Racing team, a student organization affiliated with the Society of Automotive Engineers that still exists today.
Each year, Formula Racing Team members conceive, build, and race a formula-style race car. That first year, 1994, the competition was held in the parking lot of the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, then-home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Probst and the rest of the crew essentially pulled an all-nighter to finish. “We weren’t literally painting the vehicle in the back of the U-Haul on the way up there,” Probst says. “But it was close.”
They realized while driving west that a single part hadn’t been machined properly. They had to decide: Go home, or show up anyway? They kept going, and they did well in the competition—until judges discovered the flawed part and disqualified them. That was Probst’s first lesson in teamwork: One mistake by one team member can doom a project.
After graduating, Probst landed a job with Ford Motor Company’s racing division. He stayed with Ford for 11 years, then spent about a decade working with teams in Formula 1 and NASCAR before arriving at NASCAR headquarters in 2016. His task: spearhead Next Gen, which represented not just a new car, but an entirely new approach to how the sport operates.
Over the past 20 years, NASCAR’s major teams had become miniature
car companies, each with its own research-and-development department. That evolution created the sport’s version of an arms race: an unending cycle of development, rollout, obsolescence, development, rollout, obsolescence. Whichever team did that best won the most races, the most championships, and the most sponsorship deals. The others simply tried to keep up. The business model was increasingly unsustainable.
“You have to change the whole paradigm,” Probst says. “That’s what the Next Gen car was meant to do.”
There were two major issues. The first was the lack of parity among NASCAR teams. The second was about where the race-winning moves were made. They were not made by white- knuckled drivers barreling into a corner, the excitement that fans crave; they were made by engineers working in simulators and wind tunnels, which fans—who can’t watch this—loathe.
Because Next Gen is essentially a spec car, with all the parts and pieces designed and manufactured for the teams instead of by them, the most important decisions are no longer made away from the track.
Here was Probst’s charge: Create an entirely new car. Make it look wicked cool and simultaneously put the “stock” back in “stock car” by making it look like the real-world car it represents (a Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, or Toyota Camry). Make it affordable for new teams and/or manufacturers who might want to enter the sport. Make it sexy and durable and versatile. And make it race in such a way as to impress NASCAR’s notoriously fickle fans.
No pressure, right?
Probst has flipped back and forth between thinking this was the greatest opportunity of his career—I’m working with the best designers in the world to build a brand-new race car for the premier racing league in the country!—and thinking, oh s---, what did I get myself into? What indeed. Failure would disrupt a massive multibillion-dollar industry, and—not to put too fine a point on it—those millions of fans would hate him for ruining their sport.
The project required a master engineer and master politician. Outside of making the car great, the biggest challenge Probst faced was to persuade team owners, drivers, crew chiefs, team and fans to buy in—or at least throw their fits in private. Imagine trying to get every Big Ten football coach to agree on massive rules changes, only instead of 14 teams there are 40 teams, some of whom fear losing their hard-earned stature and competitive advantage. Throw in a pandemic and global supply-chain issues, and you have an idea of the complexity Probst dealt with.
Probst had to listen, say yes when he could and no when he couldn’t, and manage critiques from competitors with outsized egos and conflicting interests … all the while remembering that the sport’s ultimate stakeholder is the fan watching from the stands or on TV at home.
On the desk of his office at the NASCAR Research and Development facility in Charlotte, N.C., Probst keeps a framed letter from a fan upset that the Next Gen car has one lug nut per wheel instead of five, as the old car had. There are technical reasons for the change that aren’t worth boring you with; Probst keeps the letter to remind himself that just because a change is 100% correct from an engineering standpoint, that doesn’t mean it’ll be accepted unconditionally. “The fans are important,” he says.